Xi Starts His Third Term With Failure Upon Failure

China’s autocrat has had a surprisingly bad year.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A collage of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the CCP Party Congress, and academia and industry.
A collage of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the CCP Party Congress, and academia and industry.
A collage of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the CCP Party Congress, and academia and industry. Mark Harris Illustration for Foreign Policy

2022

This year, at a once-every-five-years event, China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, was confirmed for a third term as general secretary of the Communist Party, president of the country, and leader of the military. If Xi had followed the pattern of his two predecessors, he would have anointed a successor back in 2017. Instead, he purged any potential rising star who might challenge his power, changed the constitution in 2018 to allow himself indefinite rule, and cemented his control by surrounding himself with yes men and the politically weak.

Xi rose to such power in part because he was boring. More flamboyant figures, such as his rival Bo Xilai, who fell in a dramatic scandal in 2012, were seen as dangerous by the party elders, semi-retired leaders who still played a strong role in selecting each generation of leadership. Xi was a solid, uncharismatic, competent fixer; that allowed him to escape the pressures that forced most “princelings” like him—the children of the founding generation of Chinese leaders—out of politics and into the private sector out of fear that they might accumulate too much power. He was a safe pair of hands, or so it seemed.

But throughout his time in office, Xi has proved anything but. He’s doubled down on party control in every aspect of Chinese life, from the tech sector to sexuality to the cinema. Rolling purges have decimated state institutions, while the economy has groaned under the weight of constant government interference—at a time when three decades of high growth were already coming to an end. The aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy endorsed by Xi has left China hugely unpopular worldwide, and the relationship with the United States has collapsed. A close alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been strained by the disasters of Ukraine. China is looking less like a potential colossus and more like a stumbling, if still dangerous, giant.

This year, at a once-every-five-years event, China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, was confirmed for a third term as general secretary of the Communist Party, president of the country, and leader of the military. If Xi had followed the pattern of his two predecessors, he would have anointed a successor back in 2017. Instead, he purged any potential rising star who might challenge his power, changed the constitution in 2018 to allow himself indefinite rule, and cemented his control by surrounding himself with yes men and the politically weak.

Xi rose to such power in part because he was boring. More flamboyant figures, such as his rival Bo Xilai, who fell in a dramatic scandal in 2012, were seen as dangerous by the party elders, semi-retired leaders who still played a strong role in selecting each generation of leadership. Xi was a solid, uncharismatic, competent fixer; that allowed him to escape the pressures that forced most “princelings” like him—the children of the founding generation of Chinese leaders—out of politics and into the private sector out of fear that they might accumulate too much power. He was a safe pair of hands, or so it seemed.

But throughout his time in office, Xi has proved anything but. He’s doubled down on party control in every aspect of Chinese life, from the tech sector to sexuality to the cinema. Rolling purges have decimated state institutions, while the economy has groaned under the weight of constant government interference—at a time when three decades of high growth were already coming to an end. The aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy endorsed by Xi has left China hugely unpopular worldwide, and the relationship with the United States has collapsed. A close alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been strained by the disasters of Ukraine. China is looking less like a potential colossus and more like a stumbling, if still dangerous, giant.

And yet, Xi’s power still seemed almost unassailable at home, amid blanket surveillance by both big data and secret police, a security force under his thumb, and a burst of nationalism in 2021 thanks to the country’s then-successful suppression of COVID-19. As the year draws to a close, even his domestic control seems in question. A wave of protests has led to the end of his widely unpopular zero-COVID policy—leaving China facing a potentially devastating wave of outbreaks among a still incompletely vaccinated population.

Xi’s own political power may be far weaker than anticipated—but there are plenty of ways he could still quell any opposition, with little sign of any concerted faction against him emerging within the Communist Party. Nor is there any clear sign of who would come next if he did fall. For the moment, the future of China is still in Xi’s hands.

Here are five of Foreign Policy’s best pieces on Xi’s grip on power this year.


1. Who Are Xi’s Enemies?

By Deng Yuwen, Oct. 15

Long-term Chinese journalist Deng Yuwen, fired in 2013 from a prestigious editorial job for challenging the country’s relationship with North Korea, is now in exile in the United Kingdom. His forensic dissection of Xi’s power base laid out the way Xi had broken the power of the party’s traditional elites—and potentially created enemies from across the ideological spectrum in the process. “While the conservatives may support Xi politically, there is considerable dissatisfaction among them for being passed over by Xi, and they have little personal affection for him,” Deng noted, marking Xi’s other foes from public intellectuals to fallen officials.

But, Deng warned, don’t underestimate Xi, who “has allies and supporters at every level, from the bureaucracy to the grassroots to the middle class to intellectuals and the military.” Even his purges created friends as well as enemies—after all, somebody has to fill the newly vacant posts and collect the tribute from below that comes with it.


2. Xi’s Third Term Is a Gift in Disguise

By Craig Singleton, Oct. 21

It’s true that Xi is likely to be dictator for life, argued former U.S. diplomat Craig Singleton, but in some ways that’s a good thing for the West. For one, it means not having to deal with the usual scramble to work out who new leaders are and where they might be coming from ideologically. That benefited Beijing by obscuring the consistency of China’s determination to topple the global order in its favor, Singleton argues, whereas in contrast Xi is a known factor—albeit a predictably anti-foreign one.

Xi isn’t good news for the Chinese public, Singleton specified. “Instead, like most autocrats, Xi intends to double down, with China’s economy and people set to suffer the most from his self-destructive policies.” But he could inadvertently help Western policymakers clean up all the talk about how to deal with China and instead “get on with the much harder work of confronting it.”


3. What the Hell Just Happened to Hu Jintao?

By James Palmer, Oct. 22

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) looks on as former President Hu Jintao is escorted from the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 22.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) looks on as former President Hu Jintao is escorted from the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 22.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) looks on as former President Hu Jintao is escorted from the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 22. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is usually a matter of stately ritual; on its final day, however, it turned into melodrama, as a protesting Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, was forcefully led out of the Great Hall of the People. Two months on, the outside world still knows little more about what happened than they did a few hours after the event, when I proposed that the most likely scenario was a deliberate humiliation of Hu as a signal to party elders that their power was broken.

“And it would also have been a move of deep cruelty, done with a relish for the kind of bureaucratic theater that marks Leninist systems like China’s,” I wrote.

The scant evidence gathered afterward has not added much. A Japanese lip reader claimed that he was expressing shock at seeing his own previous faction entirely purged from the party lists, and Hu also reappeared briefly in public at the funeral of his own predecessor, Jiang Zemin.


4. Zero-COVID Is the Least of Xi’s Economic Problems

By Zongyuan Zoe Liu, Nov. 1

In the aftermath of the Party Congress, China’s papers and politics were full of obeisance to Xi. But there was one key element he couldn’t control: foreign markets, where Chinese stocks melted upon the evidence that Xi’s power was increasingly unbridled. Much of that was connected to the unpopular and economically corrosive zero-COVID policy, but, analyst Zongyuan Zoe Liu argued, that’s just one of an array of economic woes accumulated under Xi’s rule, from a crashing property market to a declining workforce.

Some of that stems from the inevitable hiccups of a massive middle-income country ravaged by a pandemic, but other parts are much more closely linked to Xi’s policies. “China’s debt problems are more than just local government funding and the mortgage market. A growing source of concern is China’s enormous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) lending program,” Liu observed—an initiative that was Xi’s signature project, which has largely flopped. With China on the ropes economically, even the recent lifting of zero-COVID policies may not be enough to juice it back to real growth.


5. Xi’s Obsession With Control Produced China’s Protests

By Howard W. French, Nov. 28

Xi’s seeming total dominance fell apart almost as soon as it was secured. A series of unprecedented protests following a deadly fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, caused an almost immediate reversal on the zero-COVID policies closely associated with Xi. It’s not clear just how wounded the Chinese leader is politically, but the thought of protesters in the heart of Shanghai chanting “Xi Jinping, step down!” seemed impossible until it happened. But, argued FP columnist Howard French, the protests were an inevitable result of Xi’s own determination to tighten the party’s grip.

It wasn’t just zero-COVID that caused the protests, but the sense of frustration among the Chinese urban middle class at the continual creep of repression since 2013. “Under Xi,” French writes, “at each hint of crisis, whether economic—as with the pandemic-induced slowdown or a real estate bubble—or now political, instead of the liberalizing reforms his country and its broad middle classes need and hope for, Xi has reflexively become even more sternly top-down and authoritarian in his response.”

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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