It looks like Xi Jinping's governance mistakes will continue

Ronit Kawale
Ronit Kawale - Senior Editor
15 Min Read

Chairman Xi Jinping ascended the highest throne of the Chinese political hierarchy about 14 years ago. His leadership was initially almost flawless from China's perspective, as the nation prospered economically, diplomatically, and militarily. However, Xi's style of governance has aroused enormous concerns at home and abroad, and his aura of untouchability has been tarnished by a confluence of factors.

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In previous years, Xi had assessed that China was enjoying a “period of strategic opportunity”, allowing him to focus on domestic development. However, Xi told the 20th Party Congress in 2022 that the country has entered a period in which “strategic opportunities coexist with risks and challenges, and uncertain and unpredictable factors are increasing”.

Professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at SOAS University of London, told ANI about some of the challenges Xi currently faces.

“The biggest challenge facing China in terms of governance is the concentration of power in Xi's hands, as the end of the zero-COVID policy came almost immediately after the 20th Party Congress, in which Xi amassed even more power in his hands, In which no one was involved. “A new leadership lineup that can speak clearly and advise to avoid predictable mistakes.”

“Issues such as the weak economy, the bursting of the property bubble, local government debt and worsening relations with the West are challenging, but not necessarily insurmountable, if the government can act as one,” Professor Tsang said. “Collective leadership has been replaced by strong-arm rule, now it is all up to Xi to understand them and make the right policies, and he is not doing it right.”

Xi is only interested in top-down control, but this approach conflicts with private sector, demand-driven economic growth. One of Xi's solutions is similar to the adjective to prepare people for “struggle”. China's leader has refused to compromise his vision for the nation, and so he has begun shutting down the world and limiting things at home.

Professor Tsang, co-author of the book 'The Political Thought of Xi Jinping' published earlier this year, said: “Most of the major challenges are structural and would have plagued China no matter who the leader was, such as the imbalanced economy and the demographic deficit resulting from the demographic bonus. Changes, etc. But Xi's policies have made most of them worse.

The Hong Kong-born academic gave the following example. “He burst the property bubble. Their anti-welfare approach makes it politically impossible to encourage domestic consumption. His long stature in the private tech sector has diminished its vitality.

Economic data from China has been slowly disappearing for several years as the government has tightened controls and as Xi has put ideology ahead of economic growth. Be it exports, youth unemployment rate or cement production, such diverse figures have all disappeared. The property market makes up 30 percent of China's GDP, but the government also stopped releasing data such as land sales or consumer confidence.

Furthermore, the figures are questionable. As an example, the official export data from the China Customs Bureau is differing markedly from import data in other countries. In other words, China is overstating how much it is exporting.

Indeed, some are describing the official data as “bordering on useless” and Xi thinks keeping everyone in the dark will help maintain power and social stability in an increasingly closed society. Last month's annual government work report to the National People's Congress (NPC) still promised 5 percent GDP growth, but again such figures are becoming unreliable.

China's property market, debt-ridden local governments and banking system are among the sectors struggling the most as COVID-19 triggers a recession. A large portion of China's 400 million middle class has purchased unfinished apartments that are unlikely to ever be completed. For example, property developer Evergrande has RMB2.5 trillion of debt outstanding. Despite Xi's 2020 declaration that poverty had been eliminated in China, in reality 43 percent of the population – about 600 million people – live on less than USD150 per month. Even though the government recently increased the monthly benefit for the elderly by 19 percent, it is still only RMB123.

Dr Willy Vo-lap Lam, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation think-tank in the United States, said: “The NPC's annual plenary session should have seen the articulation of a clear direction to deal with the dire economic situation. Instead, the focus was on The focus has shifted to how supreme leader Xi Jinping is exercising his power. Evidence continues to emerge that the 71-year-old General Secretary and Commander-in-Chief of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is being forced to seek solutions. The country is more interested in consolidating its power and fanning the flames of nationalism than resuming market-oriented policies.”

Xi is constantly changing rules and traditions to consolidate power. For example, Xi canceled the NPC closing press conference, an event that had been held for nearly 30 years. This is the only time senior CCP cadres have to face the media, and Xi has now refused to extend this arrangement.

Dr Lam commented: “This reduces the prime minister's ability to develop a personal identity independent of Xi, as well as limits government transparency and accountability – to the extent that it exists.”

In fact, this is another example of Xi sidelining the government's decision-making power. In 1987, Deng Xiaoping separated the party and government to avoid the excesses of another Mao Zedong. Yet the political hierarchy has meekly accepted Xi's reversal of that policy. In fact, the NPC even supported Xi's amendment of the State Council Organic Law so that the main function of the State Council is only to implement the policies and laws conceived by Xi as Party leader.

In other words, the NPC has become even more of a rubber-stamp parliament than before.

Dr Lam added: “Xi has repeatedly violated party practices over the past few months. The CCP leadership's indefinite postponement of the 3rd Plenary Meeting of the 20th Central Committee, which was expected to be held in late 2023, is a notable example. The party's charter also states that changes to the structure of the Central Military Commission can only be implemented at a plenum. Yet disgraced former defense minister Li Shangfu was removed from party documentation last month. And contrary to conventional procedures, not a single word was given to acknowledge or explain the disappearance of more than a dozen generals who were members of the NPC and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Is Xi grooming successors, or is there any indication that Xi may be handed over the reins?

For example, some have highlighted the meteoric rise of Hu Haifeng, the son of former Chinese leader Hu Jintao. Earlier this year he was promoted to the sub-ministerial post of Deputy Civil Affairs Minister. This comes as his elderly father is almost invisible after being removed from the NPC meeting in October 2022.

However, Professor Tsang commented, “There is no successor in line or in sight. Xi Jinping Thought is committed to promoting a leader, and Xi has shown no interest in appointing a successor. He does not see the need for a long-term successor.

Notably, Xi is carefully controlling the power of his subordinates and promoting his favourites. Premier Li Qiang and Acting Vice-Premier Ding Xuexiang – the top two people on the State Council – have not received key portfolios. Furthermore, Vice-Premier He Lifeng, who directs the Office of the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission, draws his influence through his acquaintance with Xi in his Fujian years in the 1980–1990s, rather than through any inherent technical expertise. Seemed to be gaining status.

Asked if there were any signs of opposition to Xi's leadership style in the CCP, Professor Tsang said, “There is a lot of unhappiness about his approach and the direction of travel he has set for China, but somehow There is no organized opposition. Xi's first priority has always been to eliminate internal opposition, so his grip on power is strong and he has been successful so far.

As Xi's troubles mount on the domestic front, some analysts worry that Beijing will launch external attacks to distract public attention. US President Joe Biden last August described China's economic problems as a “ticking time bomb” and suggested its leaders could do “bad things”. And analysts such as Richard Haas, former chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, have argued that China may demonstrate “even more aggressive nationalism” to strengthen its legitimacy and accelerate unification with Taiwan.

“Distraction wars” are designed to boost the position of leaders wishing to remain in power, as their people rally around the flag. However, with the possible exception of the battle with Soviet forces for the disputed island of Zhenbao/Damaski in 1969, there is no real track record of modern China initiating conflict to distract the population and drum up support.

Perhaps more likely in the case of China is that the country is attacking others to show its strength and to prevent others from taking advantage of any perceived weaknesses. When it attacked India on the disputed border in 1962, it did the same to show its resolve and to avoid future challenges.

Similarly, when the Japanese government purchased the three Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in 2012, China responded with a show of force.

Even in 1989, during a time of tensions that peaked with the Tiananmen Square massacre, the CCP preferred to use violence against its own citizens and relatively benign behavior afterward to help stabilize things abroad. Did.

Of course, a China under Xi is a very different prospect. However, M. Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that a war of distraction is a hypothetical possibility for Beijing.

“China's lack of distraction behavior also highlights a flaw in the logic of waging a distraction war,” he said. According to such logic, leaders seeking to increase their popular support should initiate conflict with a strong opponent – ​​because conquering a worthy opponent highlights a leader's skill – or over a nationalist issue. About which the public cares a lot. Yet both are dangerous tactics, because if leaders initiate a distraction crisis or war that fails to produce the desired results, they risk the quick collapse of their government.

Fravel continued: “In other words, it is difficult for a leader to find a target that poses minimal risk but can also increase popular support. China could easily initiate and win a conflict with the Philippines over the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, where Manila beached a naval ship in the late 1990s to underline Philippine sovereignty over the reef. But it was delivered. Yet the Chinese public probably would not be impressed – they would expect China to defeat a much weaker state. And although the Chinese public views Taiwan as a more prominent issue, conflict over the island would be costly and the outcome uncertain. “The worst outcome for any Chinese leader would be for him to try to take over the island but fail, which calls for caution.”

Fravel concludes: “If China's economic crisis worsens, its leaders will likely become more sensitive to perceived external challenges, especially on issues such as Taiwan. Increased pressure on China could easily backfire and prompt Beijing to be more aggressive in demonstrating its resolve to other states despite its internal difficulties. “In times of domestic unrest, China may flare up, but this reflects the logic of deterrence, not distraction.”

However, one thing is certain, and that is that Xi faces unprecedented challenges both domestically and abroad. Having amassed so much power and centralized political power, it is difficult to see him relinquishing it or allowing others to take him down a different path.

As Dr Lamm of the Jamestown Foundation concluded, “Regardless of the diagnosis, as long as Xi continues to retain all power and responsibilities, the long-term outlook on the political, economic and diplomatic fronts will not improve.”

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