Commentary |
4 March 2021

What Europe needs to know about Xi Jinping

The Chinese president has no rivals or likely successors and fervently believes in China’s unstoppable rise. Originally published in Politico.

Richard McGregor
Richard McGregor

Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute and author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers” (Penguin, 2010).

Only a year ago, some Western commentators were describing the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan as “China’s Chernobyl” moment, as Xi Jinping struggled to contain the rapidly spreading virus.

Failure to control the situation could have fatally damaged the Chinese president’s standing. And yet, as Xi nears the end of his second five-year term, today he is more powerful than ever — securely in control of his party, and in command of all levers of diplomatic and military policies to act abroad.

The resurgent confidence of China’s ruling party and its leader is neatly encapsulated by a new catch-phrase that has made its way from Politburo speeches into popular commentary: the notion that “the East is rising and the West is falling.”

The ideological fervor underpinning this idea — that the United States is in permanent decline while the Chinese party-state is unstoppably on the up and up — is what will fuel Xi’s economic policies for the next five years, with its focus on high-quality growth, green energy and tech spending to make the country independent of foreign supply chains.

Xi has good reasons to be feeling bullish.

Unlike any Chinese leader since the communist party took power in 1949, Xi has no identifiable rivals and no likely successors.

He may have infuriated the political elite in 2018 when, with minimal consultation, he abolished the two-term limit on the presidency, effectively making himself leader in perpetuity. But in the short term at least, China’s success in suppressing the coronavirus domestically has allowed him to sidestep criticism from within the party.  

Attacks launched against Beijing by former U.S. President Donald Trump helped Xi internally as well, as they galvanized loyalty and support for his leadership.

In the longer term, Xi may be setting China up for a full-blown succession crisis should he continue to refuse to set a timetable to step down. (He has so far given no indication he will leave at the end of 2022, when the party convenes its once-every-five-years congress.) The lack of a clear successor also increases the chances of a nightmare scenario — a split at the top of the party — if he becomes incapacitated or dies in office.

In the meantime, Xi’s domestic detractors have nowhere to go. They have either fallen silent, or come on board with his program.

Abroad, Xi is looking just as confident.

Given their tight control of domestic challenges, when the president and his top aides talk about the “protracted battle” ahead, they are talking about foreign policy — and more specifically, a showdown with the United States.

Xi’s strategy for securing China’s rise over the falling West involves punishing countries that he sees as taking Washington’s side in the new geopolitical divide, and reaching out to other players — in Europe, Southeast Asia and South America, for example — that have potential to act as swing states.

Many foreign governments and commentators see Xi’s assertive foreign policy, backed by China’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomats, as highly likely to backfire. Already, China is at odds with a number of countries, including the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Sweden and India — to name a few.

But the view from Beijing is different. Xi and others point to recent trade deals with Europe and Asian countries, record foreign investment and capital inflows, the fact that China was the only major economy to grow last year, and the country’s ability to jail Hong Kong democracy activists and Uighurs in Xinjiang without paying any significant political cost.

Add in the chaos and violence that accompanied the recent transition of power in the U.S. — which saw pro-Trump rioters vandalize the Capitol — and they ask: Who’s really winning and who’s losing?

Xi and the party, of course, may have miscalculated. Multiple different countries are now talking to one another about ways to develop counter leverage against Beijing.

But for the moment, the president’s confidence is palpable, as is his ambition. Xi sits on top of the communist party, the party sits on top of China, and if Xi has his way, China may soon sit atop the world.