Opinion - Politics

Xi's historic power grab has cost China a great deal of stability

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia June 7, 2019.
Maxim Shemetov | Reuters

This isn't the outcome President Trump anticipated, now 15 months into his trade war with China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping this Tuesday will stage the mother of all military parades through central Beijing, celebrating not only the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic — but also underscoring his quest for "national rejuvenation" and global leadership.

Meanwhile, Trump – famously admiring of such spectacles – is hunkered down in Washington, fending off impeachment efforts and domestic political assault. Reports on Friday that White House officials are considering new financial sanctions on China, including a plan that would stop Chinese companies from listing in the United States, shook markets and underscored the declining odds for any meaningful trade agreement.

On Oct. 1, Xi will inspect 15,000 troops, more than 160 aircraft and 580 active weapon systems from 59 military units. Watch in particular the anticipated, high impact final scene: a phalanx of strategic nuclear missile systems, finishing with Beijing's most potent projectile, the DF-41 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.

The underlying message: It is China's moment.

With apologies to Trump, Xi will be demonstrating to the world that he is busy making China great again. With every day, China's leadership is more openly demonstrating its desire and capability to shape the global future in the face of a distracted America that, in the view of Chinese officials, has provided Beijing a global opening through overstretching its resources and underappreciating its allies.

Writing in the People's Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said this past week that China's global standing had achieved a historic high, boosted by its diplomatic activism. As quoted in the South China Morning Post ahead of this past week's U.N. General Assembly, Wang said China would seek a lead role in reshaping the international order (the product of U.S. leadership). It would expand and defend its national interests, he said, and it would resist foreign interference in its affairs.

For good measure, he said strategic cooperation with Russia was at a historic high due to relations between Xi and President Vladimir Putin. What went unsaid is that those who have argued that the United States' rich alliances were a decisive asset in its competition with China would need to reexamine their facts.

Yang Jiechi, China's highest-ranking diplomat and a Politburo member, recently laid out the sense of external siege behind this global ambition.

"Our determination and resolve," he said, "are as firm as iron when it comes to defending our national interests and dignity on issues about Taiwan, maritime affairs, Xinjian, Tibet, Hong Kong as well as trade rifts. No one should expect China to swallow the bitter fruit that would damage our own interests."

Xi's accomplishments are historic in nature.

In March 2018, he eliminated the two-term limit on the presidency, ensuring that he could continue to hold three of the country's most significant jobs – Communist Party leader, president and chairman of the Central Military commission – through at least 2027. His anti-corruption campaign has punished 1.5 million officials, and no university or institute worth its name (and caring about its future) in China isn't studying Xi Jinping "thought," which includes the inviolability of party leaders and "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

Government choreographers have designed the 70th anniversary celebration this coming week both as a show of national strength and a means to underscore Xi's personal, unrivaled, decisive leadership. Streets are awash with bright, red banners urging the people to rally behind him.

At the same time, Chinese leadership is taking no chances.

"Even by the standards of an authoritarian government, the rules are strict," writes the New York Times Javier C. Hernandez, who himself was forced to relocate from his apartment near the celebration. "The city has imposed bans on flying kites, drones, balloons and captive pigeons, a popular pastime, in many areas. Some Chinese cities are barring officials from consuming alcohol in the run-up to the parade."

More important, however, are the challenges facing Xi's leadership after the parade: demographic aging, a slowing economy, continued Hong Kong protests, increased support for Taiwanese sovereignty ahead of January 2020 presidential elections and the inefficiencies that are inevitable with excessive party control.

Given China's increasingly centralized and personalized leadership, Xi may be at the same time the world's most influential leader and one of its most vulnerable, as any unanticipated problems facing China will land at his door.

Yet there's also a brittleness that lurks not far beneath the surface.

"For all its successes so far, however, the Xi model, fully realized, may simply be too much of a good thing," writes Elizabeth Economy of the Council of Foreign Relations in Foreign Affairs. "Too much party control – perhaps too consolidated into Xi's hands – has contributed to economic stagnation.

"Xi's predilection for state control in the economy has also starved the more efficient private sector of capital," she says. "Xi's consolidation of power has not only cost China's economy but raises suspicions around its enterprises abroad. The deepening penetration of the party into Chinese business has caused all Chinese companies to be viewed as extended arms" of the Communist Party.

While Washington in coming days will be absorbed by the unfolding Trump drama set off by the Ukraine-related whistleblower, my gaze instead will be more on Beijing and the generational impact of Xi and leadership gambles that are already making him one of the most consequential leaders in China's recent history.

Yet Xi's pursuit of party control and nationalistic rhetoric has made his legitimacy and that of his Communist Party more susceptible to political and economic shocks than is generally recognized.

Just because Washington's politics for the moment appear to the world to be polarized and chaotic, that doesn't necessarily mean the U.S. democratic system and its institutions are less stable and enduring than those China.

And that's what should worry Xi this week as he watches his military pass.

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