Bonus podcast • James Griffiths on Xi Jinping’s economic vision
In July, 2002, the governor of China’s Fujian province was asked if he saw himself as a potential future national leader. Xi Jinping, then 49, “came close to choking.”
“His eyes went wide, he flushed, he nearly spilled his drink,” according to a contemporary account. Regaining his composure, Mr. Xi said it was not the time to discuss such matters, months out from a key Communist Party Congress.
Twenty years later, President Xi is preparing for another such meeting, at which he is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as leader. The man once less famous than his opera singer spouse – “Who is Xi Jinping?” a joke went, “He’s Peng Liyuan’s husband” – is now poised to shape the future of the world more than any other individual of his generation.
Mr. Xi has already transformed the Party, reasserting its control over China as the country reaches true superpower status and may be on track to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. He has placed himself at the centre, as so-called “chairman of everything,” without any challengers in sight and with the tools to surveil and quash any who might arise.
But the headwinds facing Mr. Xi as he begins his second decade in power are fierce nonetheless. Economically, China is already suffering owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, and demographic changes could set a ceiling on future growth. Abroad, a backlash to Mr. Xi’s aggressive diplomatic style is growing, along with efforts to contain China militarily and head off Beijing’s territorial claims to self-ruled Taiwan, a war over which would have ramifications far beyond East Asia.
“The way ahead is very, very difficult, and I don’t think the Party is in any way capable of providing the answer,” said David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China. “Xi Jinping is increasingly painting himself into a corner.”
After becoming leader in 2012, one of Mr. Xi’s first actions was to promote the “China Dream” and a desire for “national rejuvenation” that would see the country take its place as a global superpower, which he called the “greatest aspiration of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation.”
To a country and Party sick of corruption and weak leadership from Beijing, Mr. Xi provided a sense of purpose and supercharged an already growing nationalism.
But if this was the carrot, the stick came in the form of a massive expansion of the national security apparatus, with previously permitted dissent outlawed, foreign NGOs forced out of the country, and the internet and Chinese media brought to heel.
In Hong Kong and Xinjiang, Mr. Xi launched devastating crackdowns on what he viewed as growing threats of separatism. A draconian response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while effective at preventing excess deaths, has resulted in tens of millions being locked in their homes for weeks at a time, cut China off from the rest of the world, and severely hampered economic growth.
“Xi Jinping came in with a new vision, not just for China, but also the threats and risks that China faces,” said Drew Thompson, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
“China’s sense of enhanced threat from foreign ideology, colour revolutions, from hostile Western forces, was really heightened, partly as a means to bring the Party together but also to galvanize the bureaucracy.”
Internationally, Mr. Xi’s forceful foreign policy has sparked conflicts with India and countries on the South China Sea, seen bouts of dangerous sabre-rattling over Taiwan, and driven a wedge between China and much of the democratic world.
Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were locked up for more than 1,000 days because of a dispute over detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and relations between Ottawa and Beijing remain in the doldrums.
Attempts at a reset in the China-U.S. relationship following the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump have gone nowhere, owing in large part to Mr. Xi’s apparent support for Russian leader Vladimir Putin following his war in Ukraine. That conflict has also driven a wedge between China and Europe, ending Beijing’s hopes of counterbalancing U.S. influence through a stronger relationship with the EU.
A recent poll of more than 60 countries by Pew Research found that “since Xi took office in 2013, opinion of China in the U.S. and other advanced economies has turned precipitously more negative.”
Mr. Xi largely rode the failures of his predecessors to get to where he is today. A commitment to stamping out corruption and restoring China’s position on the world stage, combined with his personal history of suffering and perseverance, gave him a convincing story to sell to the Chinese people to justify his tight grip on power.
“His backstory was quite compelling,” said Mr. Mulroney, adding Mr. Xi was “someone that was uniquely equipped to fly under the radar,” with most observers unaware of who he truly was before he took power.
Back in 2002, when he fobbed off ideas of potential future glory, Xi Jinping was just one of a number of provincial officials tipped for higher office. Like many rising stars, he was a “princeling,” the son of a former revolutionary leader, who had been able to lean on family connections for a head start within the Party.
His heritage had not always been such a boon. In the 1960s, Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was purged by Mao Zedong, and during the decade-long Cultural Revolution the family was attacked repeatedly, along with much of the elite. As a teenager, Mr. Xi was beaten, locked up, and forced to endure repeated “struggle sessions.” His half-sister, Xi Heping, could not bear the abuse, and took her own life.
“I suffered hunger and experienced being a beggar,” Mr. Xi told an interviewer in 1997. “As a 15-year-old I had to endure the stigma of being ‘black material’ and had to join a production brigade in northern Shaanxi. In a flash it was seven years there.”
The experience working in the fields hardened him, but he endured and even thrived in the tough conditions. Mr. Xi said he was transformed from “a ‘bastard,’ and a ‘reactionary student’ into a Communist Youth League member, a party member, and then a secretary of the village branch.”
In 1979, likely through family connections, Mr. Xi landed a job with Geng Biao, secretary-general of the Central Military Commission. This position helped him build important links with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and even after he moved to a civilian role, he continued to cultivate a military persona, wearing his green uniform trousers and promoting policies to help veterans and soldiers.
Mr. Xi’s big break came in the 1990s, when he was moved to Fujian province, a wealthy region in eastern China. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming governor in January, 2000.
In a Party that was growing increasingly corrupt, Mr. Xi was seen as remarkably clean, telling an interviewer “you should not go into politics if you wish to become wealthy.”
This was not just rhetoric. In 1999, a major corruption scandal erupted in Fujian, with a number of key officials being arrested, but Mr. Xi emerged unscathed, and was even promoted to clean up the mess. In one of his final moves before joining the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007, he was helicoptered into the role of Shanghai Party Secretary after a corruption scandal in China’s richest city brought down his predecessor.
An associate of the Xi family said that during this period, Mr. Xi was careful to avoid even the suggestion of corruption, even lecturing his siblings on the need to stay clean. The Globe is not identifying this person so they can speak freely about sensitive matters.
Mr. Xi was no scold however, and built strong ties with local Party leaders and both foreign and Chinese businesspeople. In a country where politics dominates everything but true politicians are relatively scarce, Mr. Xi possessed a rare skill for networking, and was able to make anyone he met feel like they were the most important person in the room, the Xi family associate said.
Despite Mr. Xi’s talent and pedigree, his elevation in 2007, putting him on track to succeed president Hu Jintao within just five years, took many by surprise.
Two things appear to have helped Mr. Xi stand out: his antipathy for corruption, and his fierce belief in the Party itself. While not a doctrinaire Marxist by any means, Mr. Xi “equated the survival of Party rule with the broader survival of the Chinese nation, assuming that the CCP is the only organization capable of holding the country together,” Canadian political scientist Alfred Chan writes in his biography of the Chinese leader.
After he took power in 2012, both factors would come to the forefront. Mr. Xi launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that would see tens of thousands of officials purged, including members of the Politburo and senior figures in the PLA. He also moved to reform and modernize the structure of the Party for the first time in almost three decades, and brought ideology back to the forefront of Chinese life.
The anti-corruption campaign was not just a power play however. Curtailing graft has brought tangible benefits to millions of people, while reforms making China’s legal system more independent of local officials have also made doing business far more straightforward and reliable in a country that once depended on bribes. Mr. Xi has also continued efforts to end absolute poverty, reduce the rural-urban divide and has taken some action on the environment.
But as he enters his second decade as leader, Mr. Xi’s challenges are mounting, and his centralization of power means that both the Party and government are increasingly focused on guessing which policies will meet with his approval, rather than those best suited for the situation.
Nowhere has this been more visible than in China’s handling of COVID-19. Even as the central government urged local authorities not to impose snap lockdowns in recent months, many provincial cadres have read the political winds and chosen to err on the side of extra controls, after Mr. Xi repeatedly endorsed a tough “zero COVID” approach, punishing those overseeing areas with outbreaks, however small.
The economic effects of such measures has meant China grew slower than the rest of Asia for the first time since 1990, while long-overdue efforts to reform the housing market – such as preventing developers from becoming hugely over-leveraged – nearly resulted in that bubble popping, rather than carefully deflating. The panic this led to prompted widespread protests from middle-class homeowners, a key constituency.
The unrest caused Beijing to retreat on some efforts to reform the sector, while poor growth figures have seen a resurgence in infrastructure-led investment, a reliable way of putting a thumb on the scale but one that has less-and-less long-term payoff.
Meanwhile, billions have been knocked off the value of some of China’s biggest companies, as Beijing intervened heavily in the technology and education sectors, banning certain practices and forcing out top executives.
Economic headwinds will only become more fierce in the coming decade. Currently the second-largest economy in the world by total GDP, China has long been expected to overtake the U.S. within a decade, if not sooner. But in recent years, analysts have pushed back predictions for when this might happen – with some suggesting it might never take place owing to a growing demographic crisis.
China’s working age population is rapidly shrinking, in part owing to the disastrous one-child policy, which Mr. Xi finally did away with in 2015. While many countries in East Asia and beyond are also aging, the effects of this will be more strongly felt in China, once the “factory of the world.” Beijing’s efforts to encourage people to have more children do not seem to be working and are likely too late, while raising the retirement age may create some buffer, but not for long.
As well as shrinking the work force, demographic decline will reduce demand for housing, a key driver of growth and one that China’s leaders have so far not been able to kick. It will also cause a drag on productivity, with economic activity shifting toward domestic services where growth is slower, according to researchers Roland Rajah and Alyssa Leng.
In his book The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the U.S. and Xi Jinping’s China, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd writes of Mr. Xi that “popular resentment about a failing economy has generally been seen by his detractors as the one factor that could bring him down.”
Mr. Xi’s relentless centralizing of power in himself – including publicly sidelining Premier Li Keqiang, who has nominal responsibility for the economy – means it will be difficult for him to elide responsibility for any collapse, even if the ultimate cause of such a crisis is outside of his control.
What could happen in such an instance is unclear, and some fear that if Mr. Xi faces widespread popular unrest or a genuine challenge from within the Party he could pull the nationalist ripcord and launch an invasion of Taiwan, which Mr. Xi has promised to take by force if necessary.
Some analysts believe such an invasion is inevitable in any case, given the current trajectory of Chinese politics.
“When China’s leaders say they will achieve national rejuvenation by 2049, it is inconceivable in their own world view that this can be achieved in the absence of Taiwan,” Mr. Rudd told The Globe.
He identified the “most dangerous” period as being in the late 2020s to early 2030s, when Mr. Xi will be reaching the end of his life, and may feel pressure or ambition to finally achieve the goal of “reunification” with Taiwan.
On the island itself – which, contrary to Beijing’s claims, spent most of its history outside of Chinese control and has a population that overwhelmingly rejects the idea of unification – there are efforts under way to try and deter a future invasion. In this, Taiwan has been inspired by Ukraine’s effective defence against Russia, and Taipei has also benefited from increased support from many democratic countries keen to try and prevent another devastating imperial war.
And war over Taiwan would truly be devastating. Even a focused conflict or a Chinese blockade of the island would have major ramifications for global trade, not least microchips, Taiwan’s most important export. Broader war could pull in the U.S., Japan, and other allied countries, setting the stage for a conflict that would dwarf that in Ukraine.
While the balance of power is definitely in China’s favour militarily, and Mr. Xi has faced calls from some within the Party and PLA to launch an invasion sooner than later, Beijing’s ability to hold Taiwan is unclear. As in Ukraine, the invaders would likely face fierce resistance, and the cost of pacifying the island could be great.
Mr. Xi will also have taken note of Russia’s struggles, not just in Ukraine itself, but also at home, where the invasion is increasingly unpopular despite a propaganda barrage. While the PLA has no need for conscripts, popular support for a war over Taiwan is not as certain as attitudes about reunification may suggest. As in Russia, many Chinese may be repulsed at the idea of killing people they have long been taught are their kin.
Failure to take or pacify Taiwan could be devastating for the Party’s popular support, with some critics of Mr. Xi identifying it as the one thing that could truly shake his grip on power.
But in many ways, Mr. Xi pulled up the ladder behind him once he reached the top. He has installed allies across the security ministries and the PLA, with a focus on preventing any suggestion of a coup, and the surveillance that ordinary Chinese have been subjected to also applies to any members of the Party who might plot against him.
“The mountains are high but the emperor is never far away,” said Mr. Thompson.
In a recent article in the Party’s official journal, Mr. Xi said the CCP was now the standard bearer of global socialism and must learn to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union. This includes being ever ready for self-reflection and self-correction, Mr. Xi said. Short of that, “even the most powerful regime” would crumble and collapse.
“Our destiny lies in the path we select,” he wrote. “If we take the wrong path, we will not achieve our goals and may even break the great rejuvenation of Chinese civilisation.”
As Mr. Xi becomes ever more powerful, taking the wrong path may break more than just that.