When Xi Jinping walked onto a red-carpet stage on Sunday to start his third term as China’s top leader, he was at the top of his game.
Xi, who is 69 years old, has more power than ever after the ruling Communist Party’s five-yearly congress. He filled his party’s top tiers with longtime followers and loyal allies.
This close group of supporters has not only helped Xi keep his power, but also given him more control over China’s future. In a way that hasn’t been seen in decades, the country’s future is set by the vision and goals of one man, and there isn’t much room for disagreement or readjusting at the top of the party.
Xi thinks that China is closer than ever to realizing its dream of “national rejuvenation” and getting back to where it belongs in the world. But the road ahead is full of “high winds, choppy waters, or even dangerous storms,” as Xi said at the beginning and end of the week-long congress.
According to Xi’s work report to congress, the problems are getting worse because of “a grim and complex international situation” and “external attempts to suppress and contain China,” which could get worse at any time.
Xi Jinping serves THREE TERMS as China’s chief executive. “Dictatorship!”
Franklin Roosevelt serves FOUR TERMS as America’s chief executive. “Democracy!” pic.twitter.com/81G1TCUnu6
— Bevin Chu 朱炳文 (@Bevin83994661) October 23, 2022
Observers say that Xi’s response to this darkening outlook is to defend China’s national interests and security even more fiercely against all threats.
“Xi is likely to have a tight grip on and be involved in all big decisions about foreign policy. Bonny Lin, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) China Power Project, said, “By filling the top Chinese leadership with loyalists, he will be able to control and exert more power.”
What he chooses to do and how he does it will have a big effect on the whole world.
The West and China
When Xi Jinping starts his third term as president, the world is very different from how it was during his first two terms. The relationship between China and the West has changed a lot.
Relations between the US and China have gotten worse because of a trade and tech war, tensions over Taiwan, Covid-19, Beijing’s human rights record, and its refusal to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Xi’s work report, which was a five-year action plan given at the congress, talked about “dramatic changes” on the international scene, such as “external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure” on China. These are words that Chinese diplomats often use to criticize what the US does.
Andrew Small, who wrote “No Limits: The Inside Story of China’s War with the West,” said that it is clear that Xi thinks China has entered a period of struggle rather than opportunity on the world stage.
A belief that things will keep getting worse “is leading to a China that is much more openly in a systemic rivalry with the West,” he said. This includes more assertiveness, more openly ideologically hostile positions, more efforts to build its own coalitions, and a stronger push to strengthen China’s position in the developing world.
🇨🇳 Under Xi Jinping’s Zero-Covid policy, young Chinese people lost their jobs and becoming homeless. pic.twitter.com/1FcPlM7rmq
— 𝚁𝙰𝙶𝙴 𝙰𝙶𝙰𝙸𝙽𝚂𝚃 𝚃𝙷𝙴 𝚅𝙰𝙲𝙲𝙸𝙽𝙴 (@72powpow) October 24, 2022
These pressures are also likely to hurt the close ties between Beijing and Moscow. China has tried to look neutral in the Ukraine war, but it has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion and instead blamed the West for the conflict. This may not change in the near future.
“(Xi) already seems to have written off many of the costs that result from (that relationship) for China’s relations with the West, and Europe in particular,” Small said.
Possible Danger to Taiwan
At the opening of the congress on October 16, Xi got the loudest and longest ovation from the nearly 2,300 handpicked delegates in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People when he promised to “reunify” the mainland with Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that Beijing claims as its own even though it has never controlled it.
Xi said that China would “strive for peaceful reunification,” but he also warned that Beijing would “never promise to stop using force.”
“The wheels of history are rolling on towards China’s reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Complete reunification of our country must be realised,” Xi told the congress to thundering applause.
Beijing has put more military pressure on Taiwan since Xi took power. They have sent warplanes and done military drills near the island. Since China gave Russia covert support for its invasion of Ukraine, worries about Beijing’s plans for Taiwan have only grown.
Lin at CSIS said that Xi’s work report doesn’t show any major changes in Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan. However, the reshuffle of leadership in the Chinese military could show that he wants to “make more ‘progress’ on unification with the island,” Lin said.
He Weidong, who used to be in charge of the People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater Command, which is in charge of the Taiwan Strait, was suddenly made vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, even though he had never been a part of that body before.
“This suggests Xi is taking very seriously the possibility of a military crisis or conflict and wants to ensure that the PLA is ready,” Lin said. “I do not believe Xi is set on using significant force against Taiwan, but he is taking steps to prepare to do so.”
In Xi’s work report, he also said that China wanted to get better at deploying its military forces regularly and in different ways so that it could “win local wars.”
“Xi evidently wants the PLA to be capable of winning a war to seize control of Taiwan if he chooses to do that, whether or not his calculations are that this is actually a risk worth taking. That is always the top priority,” said Small, who is also a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund think tank.
Small pointed to a number of possible points of escalation in the Taiwan Strait over the next few years, such as the next presidential election on the island in 2024.
“The fact remains, though, that the PLA has not been seriously battle tested in decades, and one of the issues in the period ahead will be whether they can effectively prepare themselves for this,” he said.
In a televised speech on Sunday, after announcing his new leadership team, the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, Xi promised that China’s door to the world would “only get wider” and that the country’s development would “create more opportunities for the world.”
“China cannot develop in isolation from the world, and the world also needs China for its development,” he said.
But China is physically shut off more now than it has been in decades. Xi continues to support a very expensive policy called “zero-Covid” that keeps China’s borders very closed and often locks down its cities, which slows China’s economic growth.
— MAKS 22🇺🇦 (@Maks_NAFO_FELLA) October 22, 2022
Xi’s promise also doesn’t seem to have done much to make investors feel better. Many of China’s biggest companies are listed on the Hong Kong stock market, which had its worst day since the global financial crisis in 2008 on Monday. Alibaba and Tencent, two of China’s biggest tech companies, both fell more than 11%, erasing $54 billion from their market values.
The world’s second-largest economy has a lot riding on how it deals with these problems, especially at a time when a global recession is possible.
Victor Shih, an expert on elite Chinese politics at the University of California San Diego, says that Xi’s interest in combining domestic and international security could lead to policies like sanctions against foreign companies and more red tape when foreign companies invest in Chinese tech companies.
And while Xi has said that one of his main goals for the next five years is to improve China’s “international standing and influence,” including by supporting global development, Beijing may not be able to rely on the same level of economic engagement to do so in a more divided world.
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