As Xi Jinping is re-elected as the supreme leader of the Communist Party of China for the third time, the ideology he promotes and the domestic and foreign policies he advocates will be further strengthened and endorsed more widely. As a result, China, the Asia-Pacific region and the world will face a series of challenges with negative impact. This will bring greater challenges and difficulties to maintain a peaceful and stable relationship between China and the West. At the same time, it will make it more difficult for the West and Indo-Pacific countries to find a suitable way to engage, compete or even confront Beijing.
On October 22, the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China closed in Beijing, and Xi Jinping won the positions he had sought: General Secretary of the Third Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Not only that, almost the entire "Xi Faction" was elected to the new Central Committee, Politburo, and Standing Committee of the Politburo. Former Standing Committee members Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, who belonged to the Youtuanth League faction, were unexpectedly dropped out, and Standing Committee members Han Zheng and Li Zhanshu were also eliminated. Only Xi Jinping, Wang Huning, and Zhao Leji remained on the former Standing Committee. Xi's cronies Ding Xuexiang, Li Xi, Li Qiang, Huang Kunming, Chen Min'er, Cai Qi, and Li Hongzhong all passed through and entered the Politburo and Standing Committee. It is also surprising that Hu Jintao, the former general secretary of the Communist Party of China, was abruptly taken out of the meeting against his will. The elimination of Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Han Zheng, and other non-Xi faction officials undoubtedly marks that Xi Jinping will monopolize power and his power status will reach an unprecedented peak. From then on, the so-called cliques no longer exist within the high-level CCP, and the Xi Clan has since become the dominant faction.
China under Xi Jinping
By achieving his extended re-election, Xi Jinping has broken many of the CCP’s practices and rules since Deng Xiaoping, such as the system that the leader’s term of office should not exceed two and a successor should be designated one term in advance. In 2018, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping held his ground to amend the Constitution and abolished the two-term limit for the president, opening the way for long-term re-election. For Xi Jinping, breaking the term system doesn't just mean he's only re-elected for one or two terms, but he may be following in the footsteps of Mao Zedong to restore leadership for life.
Since Xi Jinping has been the top leader of the CCP for ten years, he has excluded almost all dissidents and opponents from the top decision-making level of the CCP through selective anti-corruption. Moreover, by changing the organizational principles and rules of the CCP, the government, and the military, he concentrated the power of all key departments in his own hands to the greatest extent, so that there was no room for real countervailing forces within the party. This also makes him the most authoritative leader of the CCP after Mao Zedong. His power even exceeds that of political strongman Deng Xiaoping, the former political strongman of the CCP.
Xi Jinping has absolute power that is unchallenged, unchecked, and uncensored, making him the embodiment of the party and the "incarnation of truth." This will encourage him, as the supreme leader, to misjudge the situation and make wrong decisions, so that the ruling party will lose the ability to correct its own mistakes and make directional and strategic mistakes. In order to stabilize and enhance his power and hegemony, Xi Jinping is bound to rise his control and suppression of Chinese society, continue his aggressive diplomacy in the international arena, thus it will add more uncertainties to the region and the world.
In terms of the Chinese economy, Xi Jinping will largely continue his egalitarian policy line of “state advancement and private retirement” and "common prosperity", and put so-called "national security" above economic development. This includes: further support for a state-led, centrally controlled economy, redistribution of wealth, control of the private sector, and suppression of private companies (such as major Internet and technology companies) through fragmentation, joint ventures, and even annexation, suppression of financial innovation in the private sector, and restriction of real estate, etc. In terms of the prevention and control of the coronavirus pandemic, Xi Jinping will largely not relax his Zero-COVID approach easily. His economic line and zero-COVID policy have exacerbated the long-term slowdown of China's economy: Sabotage, regulation, and suppression of private companies have caused mass unemployment. The zero-tolerance strategy of continuous testing and quarantine has imposed heavy costs on local governments, and has curbed real estate speculation, causing a large number of developers to default on their debts that has led to a downturn in China's real estate market. These wrong decisions have dragged down the entire Chinese economy and undermined the long-term healthy growth of the economy. Recently, under the pressure of the nationwide "White Paper Revolution" against the government's containment measures, Xi Jinping's central government unexpectedly announced the end of the long-standing "zero-tolerance strategy", but this move came too late and too suddenly. It does not do much for China's economic recovery and for social life to get back on track. People are not used to facing the sudden unblocking of life and the government will face a wave of rapidly spreading virus infections.
Diplomatically, in order to restore China's historical status as a leading power and to be able to compete with the United States on an equal footing in the world, Xi Jinping has abandoned Deng Xiaoping's “hide your strength and bide your time strategy” in the past ten years, no longer exercising self-restraint externally and frequently adopting aggressive tactics. For example, militarization of disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea, frequent military threats against Taiwan, continuous conflicts with India in border disputes, sanctions against major South Korean companies because of Seoul’s deployment of THAAD anti-missile systems, and bans on exports of Australia’s Coal and iron ore and many commodities as Canberra calls for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Under Xi Jinping, Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" and freedoms have also been completely destroyed. Despite the brutal invasion of Ukraine ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi's administration has refused to condemn Russia's aggression. Before the Russo-Ukrainian war, Xi Jinping and Putin established an "unlimited" strategic partnership, although this partnership has since been greatly shrunk and lost its core due to Russia's defeat on the Ukrainian battlefield.
Prospects for Xi's China
Xi Jinping's external expansion and aggressive behavior have deepened the estrangement and separation between China and Western countries and damaged China's status and influence in the world at the same time. This has brought Western countries that once had strategic partnerships with Beijing to join the ranks against China. To counter Beijing's aggressive advances in the Indo-Pacific region, the United States, Japan, India and Australia have formed the "Quadrilateral Security Dialogue ". Because of Xi Jinping's promotion of Chinese protectionism and ignorance of its human rights abuses, many foreign companies and investors are no longer willing to do business with China and have withdrawn their funds and enterprises from China.
Without constraints, supervision, dissenting opinions, and surrounded by a group of "loyalists" who only speak flattering words, Xi Jinping will undoubtedly be more arbitrary, stubborn, and irrational in making internal and external decisions, which will lead him to make wrong decisions and judgments that backfired.
However, whether China's economy can continue to maintain a certain degree of stable growth after Xi Jinping's third term, and whether China's national strength will continue to decline as mentioned above, or even collapse, is still unclear. What will be the degree of China's market opening in the future? Whether the state-led economy and the strategy of “pool resources to address major problems” that Xi Jinping vigorously promotes can continue to maintain or even enhance the competitiveness of Chinese companies in the international market and keep the continued strength of national power to a certain extent? None of these is currently predictable. If China's economy could maintain its status as the world's second largest economy despite the prevalence of strict control policies, so that China's future influence (and deterrence) in the region and the world, especially in the Taiwan Strait and the Western Pacific region, would continue to be maintained and lifted. This will also have a decisive impact on the reconstruction of the global geopolitical structure and the transformation of the balance of power between the East and the West.
If China's national power is "constantly increasing" or "maintaining basic strength", and because of Xi Jinping's excessive self-confidence and lack of real information, he makes a policy or even a strategic misjudgment of China's own capabilities and the reality it faces, the future confrontation and conflict between China and the United States, Japan and other Western countries, especially the military tension with Taiwan, may continue to escalate and become more acute. It is not difficult to imagine what the world and regional security will look like in the future.
The Western Alliance's Coping Strategies
In this regard, how should the Western world respond to this change and development of China's political situation? What options are available or likely to be implemented?
Theoretically speaking, in seeking solutions and methods to deal with China, Western democracies and their allies are faced with two major choices: 1. Is the fundamental goal of the West to contain China's rise at all costs? 2. Or does the West take ensuring world and regional security and sustainable development as its main starting point?
If the West chooses the first assumption, that is, to contain China's rise comprehensively and as soon as possible, there are different options. One option is to force or entice China to take risks and make strategic mistakes that go against common sense, such as rashly launching regional wars and promulgating serious misconduct policy. In this way, China will fall into the quagmire of war or suffer from long-term economic recession and cannot extricate themselves, which will greatly weaken Chinas national strength. Then Xi Jinping will no longer be able to talk about the so-called "rise of China" and "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation". However, in terms of regional and world security, the implementation of this "whatever it takes" strategy to contain China will bring extremely painful consequences and disasters to the West, and its feasibility is also doubtful, and its feasibility is also doubtful. The war between Russia and Ukraine is an example.
Another option is to limit China's economic operations to a large extent to the internal market (the so-called "internal circulation") through sanctions, containment, isolation, and decoupling, thereby weakening its national strength and its regional and global influence, so as to achieve the purpose of containing China's continued rise. This plan may (at least to a certain extent) achieve its goal of reducing China's power and influence, but at the same time, it will cause considerable damage to the free world and the global economy. Compared with the first option, the negative effects of the second option are relatively small.
If the West chooses the second presupposition, which aims to maintain and guarantee regional and world security and stable development, it will face opposition and constraints within its own countries. The strategy aims to compete with China without giving up cooperation with China in the fields of economy, environment, epidemic prevention, and peacekeeping. That is, while limiting China's influence on the region and the world, it will not stop continuing to integrate it into Western dominance international order efforts. The purpose of this program is mainly to alleviate inter-state and regional conflicts through contact, communication and cooperation while competing and even eliminating unpredictable and uncontrollable confrontations. However, the implementation of this plan is constrained by Western ideology, values, and human rights thinking. China's deteriorating human rights situation and aggressive actions at home and abroad force Western countries to restrict their economic, trade, and political exchanges with China, and even take severe sanctions and blockades against China. It is precisely because of this that societies and opposition parties in western democracies demand that the government grant conditions such as human rights and fair trade in dealings with China, and some even call for the government to completely decouple from Beijing, as long as its human rights situation does not improve according to Western standards. Under strong pressure from the media and opposition parties, it is difficult for Western governments to successfully implement this "change through trade (or communication)" response plan because it is considered outdated, unrealistic, and counterproductive.
In terms of how to effectively and beneficially deal with China, regardless of the conceivable options adopted by Western countries, they are now facing some kind of dilemma. That is, if the West wants to fully and effectively contain China's rise, it will have to bear the damage and risks brought about by this behavior. Moreover, if the West does not do so, they would worry that an autocratic and powerful China will replace them to formulate and lead World order and rules and even threaten the security and survival of democratic countries. There is no such thing as a perfect solution that meets the ideological demands of the West and brings economic benefits and security guarantees to countries in the West and the Indo-Pacific region. It is at least difficult to propose and put into practice.
After Xi Jinping won his third re-election, Chinese politics will become more authoritarian and its development model will become more conservative, which will bring greater challenges and difficulties to maintain a peaceful and stable relationship between China and the West. This condition would also make it more difficult for Western and Indo-Pacific countries to find a suitable way to engage, compete, or even confront Beijing. That is to say, if the West suppresses China severely, it will seriously hurt itself, but if it does not effectively contain China, it will lose its dominance over the world order.
Therefore, for the West, the question that must be considered and discussed clearly now is: how to find or formulate a response plan that can contain and regulate China to a certain extent, which would not hurt the West itself too much and endanger the Safe and steady development of the region and the world? If the West fails to do this, the relationship between the West (especially the United States) and China will largely fall back into a dangerous state of cold war or even hot war, and the consequences will be difficult to foresee. Under the precondition of Xi Jinping's long-term governance, it is difficult or almost impossible for the West to return to the stable relationship with China that was characterized by contact and cooperation ten years ago.
Tao Peng, Dr. phil., is a political scientist as an independent political analyst, editor-in-chief of the Magazine Euro-Asia Strategic Analysis. He taught political science and sociology at the University of Applied Sciences for Public Administration and management of North Rhine-Westphalia (FHöV NRW) in Germany, worked as editorial writer and columnist for die daily newspaper World Journal in New York, and served as a visiting scholar of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies at the National Chengchi University (NCCU) in Taiwan. His journalistic and political science works especially focus on themes of Chinese politics, international relations and geopolitics.