What does Xi Jinping’s growing power mean for China and the world?

The Signal

What does Xi Jinping’s growing power mean for China and the world? Scott Kennedy on the historic expansion and potential limits of the Chinese president’s authority.
Zhang Kaiyv
Zhang Kaiyv
Making Xi Jinping now even more powerful, the Chinese Communist Party Congress re-elected him last week to a third term as its general secretary. That makes Xi the first leader to serve three terms since Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The Party Congress also assures Xi’s re-election as China’s president next year to an unprecedented third, five-year term. His allies have been given all the spots in the party’s Standing Committee, the highest-ranking party organ, and nearly all analysis of the congress concludes that Xi has dramatically concentrated and centralized power in himself and the CCP leadership. But China is an enormous country, of some 1.4 billion people, with the world’s second-largest economy and thousands of companies trading around the world—along with a rapidly growing military that’s continually increasing its operations throughout the Asia-Pacific. So what will Xi’s consolidating power in Beijing mean?
Scott Kennedy is a senior adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and the author or editor of several books on China. In Kennedy’s view, Xi’s increasing dominance will lead to critical changes and a measure of resistance. More power will shift to the party, at expense of all the country’s other institutions—even the government. For the outside world, Xi’s entrenched control will mean even more of his more aggressive and confrontational approach in the Asia-Pacific region and to Western countries—an approach that breaks with the policies of his predecessors. But it remains an open question, Kennedy says, how well Xi’s concentration of power will succeed. Institutions in the enormous state bureaucracy—and outside of the government—have accumulated their own power over decades now, and they will continue to pursue their own goals. And it’s not clear that the party has the capability to manage or perform all the tasks and functions other institutions have been carrying out. The most pressing questions, to Kennedy, are when and how—and how well—the party will be able to move the country’s sprawling public-health system out of its zero-Covid policy, which has shut down even China’s largest cities over a few coronavirus cases and caused massive economic losses.
Michael Bluhm: What do you expect to be the biggest changes coming out of the Party Congress?
Scott Kennedy: Xi Jinping solidified his hold on power for a very long time. And he signaled that the policy trajectory that he has moved China along since he took power is going to continue—even if that rubs certain groups in China, the U.S., and the West the wrong way. He’s set on a path to maintain the Communist Party’s hold on power—which is job number one—and to continue moving toward what he sees as China’s inevitable economic success and the recovery of its international influence.
Xi knows that a lot of people disagree with what he’s doing—and he’s decided that they’re all wrong. The speech he gave at the beginning of the party congress included not a single change in substance or tone. The new leadership lineup announced on Sunday is full of his political allies. There is no balancing faction or ideology in the Politburo or the Standing Committee—the party’s most powerful organs.
We should expect China to try to move in the direction Xi says he wants to move in, whatever the consequences for the rest of the world. But there’s often a gap between what leaders want and what actually occurs. And that doesn’t mean that the U.S. and the rest of the world are powerless and just need to sit and watch or prepare for war or decoupling the United States from China. A lot of commercial and political diplomacy can still be done.
Bluhm: How important do these changes at the Party Congress seem to you?
Kennedy: The most interesting change in this Party Congress is that it’s the third one where Xi Jinping was elected general secretary of the party. That breaks a precedent since Mao Zedong in the 1970s; no other leader had served more than two terms. In many ways, Xi Jinping has broken the norms that were established since then.
Now there’s no term limit for the top leader. The previous expectation was that members of the Politburo who were 68 and older would retire; that’s been thrown out the window. The idea that the incoming premier would have previously been a vice-premier in charge of some national policy area is likely going to be overturned; the most likely new premier, Li Qiang, has only held positions in the provinces. He’s currently Shanghai party secretary, but he’s never been a vice-premier. The political applecart has been overturned in many ways, to try to achieve this larger continuity in Xi’s hold on power and the direction he wants to take the country in.
Chinese politics is now much more top-down and centralized in one man’s hands than in half a century. If you think Xi is taking the country in the right direction, then you’d be happy with the outcome of this Party Congress. But if you think no one person should have so much power in a complex world—because concentrating power so heavily in a single office and person makes it less likely that people in that system will raise concerns and doubts or challenge policies—then you’re going to be worried; you’re going to expect a variety of mistakes—and difficulties changing course when those mistakes are realized.
More from Scott Kennedy at The Signal:
Under Xi Jinping, there’s been a shift away from the approach China took in its first 30 years of reform and opening, which was to strengthen institutions of government as well as to enable the rise of non-government sources of authority and accountability. That means civil-society institutions, nongovernmental organizations, lawyers, journalists, credit-rating companies—institutions that are supposed to check unrestrained government power and to provide public goods. Xi is turning away from that and saying, All authority begins and ends in the Communist Party. He’s reduced the independent power of government institutions and non-state sources of authority and public goods. Does the party have the ability to provide that type of complex governance, in a country of China’s size, with all kinds of industries, connected to the rest of the world? Xi’s bet is that it can. One of the biggest bets they’re making is that the party can do it all alone, with almost no support from these alternative institutions.”
Can Beijing find a pathway out of the pandemic? The current strategy, which is summed up in the term zero-Covid, is about eliminating transmission of the virus—and everything else be damned. You can die of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and so on in China; but you can’t die of Covid. Most of the world has already moved on to a different strategy: ameliorating the negative health effects of contracting the virus through vaccinations and therapeutics. China is going to need to make this transition. Can the party engineer that? They’ve taken a lot of credit for keeping the number of fatalities from Covid very low. But they’ve also incurred lots of other costs, economic and otherwise. We don’t know when they’re going to make this transition or how effective they’ll be at it. To me, that overlays every other policy issue—economic policy, climate, relations with the United States, Taiwan. Everything is secondary to what they’re going to do about zero-Covid.”
Xi is much more powerful than his predecessors; the party is much more powerful than the government has been; and that means a lot for the direction that China’s likely to go in. You can’t underestimate Xi Jinping’s ability to make decisions and have them carried out. We’re in a new day in China as a result of this concentration of power. On the other hand, China is a very big place. It has millions of bureaucrats at the national and local levels. And the further from Beijing you get, the more local circumstances matter. There’s a famous phrase in Chinese: The sky is high and the emperor far away. Now, the sky may not be quite as high and the emperor not quite as far away as before; but China is still a damn big place, and a lot happens beyond Xi’s gaze—and the gaze of cameras connected to his leadership.”

Categories: Geopolitics

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