The world according to Xi: How China’s unlikely communist leader wants to reshape the global order

Xi’s monumental efforts have tilted the global balance of power, locking China in a contest with the U.S. that some observers believe could last for generations

Article content

Since taking power in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has aggressively sought to elevate his country as a global superpower.

Advertisement

Article content

His efforts have been monumental in their breadth, cutting across military, economic, diplomatic, social and technological lines. Together they have tilted the global balance of power, locking China in a contest with the United States that some observers believe could last for generations. Often they have overturned long agreed-upon international norms, involving coercive diplomacy, militarization, harsh crackdowns on public dissenters and violations of human rights.

Xi ignored worldwide protests in refusing to release Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from Chinese prisons until Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was freed.

As for China’s ambitions, all roads lead back to Xi, the unlikely leader of the Chinese Communist Party. His plans are effectively a grand restoration project, returning his country to what many Chinese consider their natural position atop the global pecking order.

Advertisement

Article content

Forming the foundation of his beliefs is “Xi Jinping Thought,” a modernized mix of Marxist and Maoist ideology now being drilled into the minds of young people.

In China, Xi’s ascendency has taken on an almost mythical attitude: every day hundreds of tourists flock to the small village of Liangjiahe, in northern China, where a teenaged Xi was forced into manual labour and lived in flea-infested cave dormitories as part of a re-education effort under Mao Zedong. Years later the experience would help propel Xi’s political ambitions, lending the General Secretary an origin story of humbleness and hardship that would help him tighten his grip on power.

Many Westerners view China’s rise as almost inevitable. However, the country’s efforts to restore its former greatness are far from certain, plagued by swelling debt levels, a rapidly aging population, and repeated failures at economic reforms that would have limited the reach of its bloated public service. Attempts to upend and manipulate international institutions have rankled many Western leaders, while its sprawling Belt and Road initiative has been hobbled in recent years by what some have called coercive lending practices.

Advertisement

Article content

At the same time, Western perspectives that sometimes paint China as uniquely hostile and fixated on total domination isn’t entirely accurate, either. Chinese leadership in recent years has instead sought to establish a common understanding of China and the U.S. as equal powers in the global sphere — a designation that U.S. administrations have rejected.

China’s push for higher prestige comes after a period of economic liberalization, beginning in the late 1970s, which wrested millions of Chinese out of poverty and catapulted the country into an economic powerhouse in subsequent decades. That growth came alongside a tidal wave of foreign direct investment flows from China that single-handedly altered local economies in Africa and elsewhere, becoming a new and plentiful source of capital for many developing nations.

Advertisement

Article content

The cave dwelling where Chinese President Xi Jinping lived during his youth when he was sent to learn peasant virtues at Liangjiahe village in Shaanxi province, China.Ng
The cave dwelling where Chinese President Xi Jinping lived during his youth when he was sent to learn peasant virtues at Liangjiahe village in Shaanxi province, China.Ng Photo by Han Guan/AP, File

In a 2014 speech in Paris, Xi called China “a sleeping lion” — a reference often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte more than two centuries earlier. “In fact, the lion of China has awoken,” he said, “but what the world sees now is a peaceful, amiable, and civilized lion.”

Still, Xi’s efforts to comfort the West have often run counter to his actions. And they come at a time of perceived American decline. Xi has repeatedly talked about the “window of opportunity” for Chinese expansionism, reinforced by America’s retreat from international affairs in recent years.

“The world is in a turbulent time that is unprecedented in the last century,” Xi said at a meeting in Beijing with top officials earlier this year, according to the People’s Daily, a party mouthpiece. “But time and momentum are on our side.”

Advertisement

Article content

Under Xi, China has pursued a foreign policy of military expansionism that has agitated successive U.S. administrations, including the assertion of sovereignty over Taiwan and an expanded military presence in the South China Sea.

That has included the construction of military installations on the artificial islands China has built in the region, after Xi pledged to Barack Obama in 2015 that he would not do so. In 2017, China established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, in what Chinese officials have called the beginning of a vastly expanded Chinese military presence beyond Asian waters.

Those slights, as America views them, have caused deepening rifts with the U.S., first under Obama and then in an escalated fashion under Donald Trump. President Joe Biden has carried forward much of Trump’s hard-nose policies toward China, including trade tariffs and expressing support for an independent Taiwan.

Advertisement

Article content

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks after reviewing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Xi called on China’s military to better prepare for combat, amid tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks after reviewing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Xi called on China’s military to better prepare for combat, amid tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea. Photo by Li Gang/Xinhua via AP, File

In his book The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, Rush Doshi argues that the country’s efforts have been spread across three distinct phases dating back 30 years.

The first was a soft foreign policy approach between 1989 and 2008 after the Tiananmen Square massacre; the second, from 2008 to 2016, involved a more aggressive push to “build the foundation for regional hegemony in Asia” following the Great Recession, he writes. The third and current phase has gone international in scope, including efforts to influence multilateral institutions that dictate the terms of everything from trade to telecoms to health regulations.

“The ‘struggle for mastery,’ once confined to Asia, is now over the global order and its future,” Doshi writes. “If there are two paths to hegemony — a regional one and a global one — China is now pursuing both.”

Advertisement

Article content

And despite its ‘civilized lion’ claims, he says, “China’s order-building would be distinctly illiberal relative to U.S. order-building.”

If there is opposition to Xi’s global ambitions, those voices have been muted in China, largely due to his tight grip on all of the major arms of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the military.

Xi quickly consolidated power after becoming General Secretary in 2012, purging any potential dissenters from the party in a sweeping anti-corruption campaign. Unlike other contemporary Chinese leaders, he has heavily restricted the use of social media on Western-based sites and established government bodies to wash away public criticism of Xi or of the Communist Party.

His formidable position at the head of the party (many see Xi as the most singularly dominant leader since Mao) is a major leap from his earlier days, when some viewed him as an unremarkable government administrator at the provincial level, according to some accounts. He would later rise to the very peak of China’s 95 million-member Communist Party, a sprawling bureaucracy twice the size of Canada’s population.

Advertisement

Article content

Xi, born in Beijing in 1953, is the son of Xi Zhongxun, a communist revolutionary who served under Mao following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

A family photo from 1958 shows Xi Jinping, left, 5, with his brother Yuanping and father, Xi Zhongxun.
A family photo from 1958 shows Xi Jinping, left, 5, with his brother Yuanping and father, Xi Zhongxun. Photo by CCTV

In 1962, Zhongxun was purged from his position as chief of the Communist Party’s propaganda department for supporting a book written by Liu Zhidan, a former military commander. Years later, he would be accused of a long list of seemingly trumped-up charges and sentenced to many years in military prison — a fate that would isolate his family and complicate his son’s rise through party ranks.

Around the same time, a young Xi Jinping was forced to move to Liangjiahe as part of an education program under Mao that was aimed at familiarizing the urban elite with lower-class workers.

Advertisement

Article content

Xi laboured for years on the farm, according to his personal account, hauling grain and digging water wells, among other things. The experience would form the basis of his mantra of “hard work and plain living,” which he still repeats in an effort to establish commonality with China’s poorer classes.

Xi over the years would establish his own political theories, most notably his own take on the notion of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that forms the central ideology of the Communist Party. The idea effectively involves maintaining China’s communist structure while adopting certain elements of market economics as way to advance its core interests. Xi would meld this with his international nation-building ambitions for China.

Advertisement

Article content

But if China’s interests are increasingly cast abroad, its biggest challenges might still lie within its own borders. In particular, China’s economic growth, while still growing faster than other major economies, has slowed in recent years, weighed down by ballooning debt levels. At the same, as with many countries, its aging population has slowed economic productivity and put more strain on government spending requirements.

China’s debt-to-GDP ratio, according to the National Institution for Finance and Development, now stands around 270 per cent, compared to about 108 per cent in the United States.

Advertisement

Article content

Its struggles to contain debt became especially acute when China Evergrande Group, a debt-saddled real estate giant, became a default risk as a series of bond payments come due. Unlike in the past, where the party has repeatedly bailed out struggling firms, Chinese leadership has seemingly opted to instead step aside and brace for a potentially massive fallout from bankruptcy, which has already spilled over into other parts of the economy and rattled markets.

The episode underscores deeper fault lines within the Chinese economy that could hamper its wider aspirations.

“I think what keeps Chinese leaders up at night is the domestic issues and problems,” said David Dollar, a former emissary to China for the U.S. Treasury and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Advertisement

Article content

An aging populace will only add to China’s leverage problems, putting constraints on the labour market. In 2020 the population of mainland China increased 5.3 per cent to 1.41 billion, the slowest rate of growth since modern census-taking was introduced in 1953. China has in turn sought to provide more incentives to young families, and recently eased its one-child policy first introduced in the 1970s (families are now permitted two children).

Making adjustments to China’s economy, heavily dependent on government oversight and supports, has proven immensely difficult.

After promising meaningful reforms to the economy, Xi has backed away from many of his boldest proposals. The party has reversed attempts to reform the banking sector and loosen up lending restrictions after it surprised financial markets and vaporized demand for short-term debts. Separate efforts to limit borrowing by local governments, open up its retail sector and ease real estate debt levels have all been retracted or otherwise not implemented.

Advertisement

Article content

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.

Those struggles might constrain China’s wider expansion plans more than many in the West might realize, says Ian Johnson, an author and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“In the West, people have been conditioned over the past few decades to think that China is on this ever-upward trajectory, and that they’re going to eat our lunch — that they have better schools, that they have a more disciplined workforce, that they work for low wages, and that they will continue to grow,” he said. “The reality is that there are a lot of problems in China, and that most of these things were only true for a golden period of maybe 20 to 30 years.”

Even as party members attempt to reform the economy, a recent crackdown by Xi on Chinese tech giants, including an affiliate of Alibaba Group, reinforces the Chinese president’s strict adherence to more Maoist ideals. Following a period of more capitalist-oriented policy in China, Xi is now looking to re-emphasize the government’s role in guiding capital flows while capping private sector profits, which had grown beyond the comfort of many party officials, according to media reports.

Advertisement

Article content

In a speech earlier this year, Xi categorized the shift as a reversion to older, more classical economic modes. It was seemingly yet another rebranding of his grand plan.

“China has entered a new stage of development,” he said.

What remains unclear is whether Xi will be the man leading the country through that development. According to party precedent, Xi should be stepping down as head of the Chinese Communist Party and as president at the Party Congress next year.

But after abruptly removing de facto term limits in 2018, he is almost unanimously expected to stay at the helm well into the future. So far he has refused to nominate a successor, potentially exposing the party to mayhem should something go wrong.

In a recent report by Australia’s Lowy Institute, Richard McGregor speculates that Xi is intent on governing for the next decade — that is, unless the 67-year-old, overweight, cigarette-smoking general secretary succumbs to health problems.

By 2035, Xi will be 82, McGregor writes, “about the same age as Joe Biden at the end of his first term in the White House.”

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter:

Advertisement

Comments

Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *