He’s been called China’s most all-controlling leader since Chairman Mao, and he is arguably the world’s most powerful current head of state. Yet as Xi Jinping prepares to travel to the United States for a highly choreographed visit, his vulnerabilities – and those of the country he leads – are coming to the fore.
In just the last three months, China’s stock market has tanked, and concerns over the slowing Chinese economy have rocked global markets. Industrial accidents have killed scores of Chinese citizens, including 165 who died in last month’s explosion in Tianjin. Both the stock market crash and the Tianjin tragedy have shaken the faith of Chinese people in their government.
“Xi Jinping is feared more than loved,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a Hong Kong-based history professor and author of the 2015 book “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping.”
Every time Xi is seen hobnobbing with the most important leader in the world, his status is elevated.
Willy Wo-Lap Lam, author
The Chinese leader, he said, has “struck the pose of a tough guy” in foreign affairs; sidelined his rivals and peppered his speeches with rhetoric about fulfilling “the Chinese Dream.”
“But in terms of real policies to improve the economy, to reduce the gap between rich and poor, he hasn’t done much,” said Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Xi – pronounced “shee” – is slated to make his first U.S. state visit as Chinese president next week, meeting with President Barack Obama on Sept. 25 and then addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 28. Before traveling to Washington, Xi will meet Sept. 23 with tech and aviation leaders in Seattle and Washington state, which exports more goods to China, in terms of dollar value, than any other.
When Xi last visited the United States, in June 2013, he held informal talks with Obama at the Annenberg retreat in California. Back then, Xi was a largely unknown quantity. Some analysts hoped he might turn out to be a political reformer; others dismissed him as a featherweight. Neither has proved to be true.
In less than three years, Xi has consolidated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao. He’s installed himself on the party’s most important commissions, and his corruption crackdown has proven to be a “two-fer” in further solidifying his position. It has boosted his popularity with the Chinese public while also eliminating potential rivals, such as Zhou Yongkang, China’s former domestic security chief, who lorded over the nation’s oil industry and other state-owned businesses.
7 Times Xi has visited the U.S.
At the same time, Xi has attempted to transition China’s economy to a new model – away from reliance on heavy industry and exports to more high-tech manufacturing and service industries. It’s been a fitful transition and could be contributing to China’s unexpected slowdown. But many economists say China needs to eventually make this shift, and they applaud Xi for attempting it.
Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who has met Xi several times, is one who has been impressed by Xi’s ambitions.
“I don’t think there has ever been a case in history when you’ve had a leader try to make so much change in such a massive scale, all at once,” Paulson said at an April event held by the Asia Society in New York. The magnitude of changes is “just extraordinary,” he added.
Defenders of civil liberties are less enthralled. According to Human Rights Watch, since Xi came to power, “the government has unleashed an extraordinary assault on activists and human rights defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years.” Starting in July, Chinese police detained and arrested more than 200 lawyers and rights advocates. That came after the imprisonment of other moderate dissidents, including lawyer Xu Zhiyong and Uighur scholar Ilham Tothi.
Experts say there’s a reason the Chinese leader has twin priorities of fighting graft and quashing dissent: Both, in Xi’s view, represent threats to the survival of the Communist Party. It also may explain why Xi has engaged in regional provocations such as building artificial islands and military facilities in the South China Sea. Such moves – and the international blow-back against them – help stir up nationalistic instincts and boost the party’s popularity.
Even so, Xi’s muscular foreign policy and his crackdowns on free expression have come at a cost. Beijing’s South China Sea activities have alienated and unified neighbors such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. In Lam’s view, the party’s tight control of the Internet and speech are antithetical to creating an “entrepreneurial economy,” one the government’s stated goals.
Despite tensions, Xi considers himself a friend of the United States.
In the United States, public opinion has soured against China. In 2011, before Xi took the helm of the Chinese Communist Party, 51 percent of those surveyed in the United States had favorable attitudes toward China. By this year, those numbers had dropped to 38 percent, according a survey released this month by the Pew Research Center.
Despite such findings – or possibly because of them – Xi likes to present himself as a friend of the American people. When he was vice president in 2012, he visited the Iowa family who had hosted him in 1985 during a cultural exchange. Over the last week, China’s state-run Xinhua news service has been highlighting “Xi’s friends in the U.S.,” with videos flashing back to Xi’s seven visits to the United States.
During their upcoming summit, Xi and Obama are expected discuss several hot-button topics, ranging from Chinese concerns over U.S. military assistance to Taiwan and U.S. concerns over cyberspying. While no breakthroughs are anticipated, the two leaders have defied expectations before. In November, when Xi and Obama met last in Beijing, they surprised the world with a bilateral agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Even if the summit fails to produce much, the fact that it is scheduled is significant in itself. In the United States, some human rights groups and GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker have urged Obama to cancel the summit. Here in Beijing, there have been rumors that Xi might drop out if the United States imposed sanctions on China over alleged cyber-espionage.
As of Thursday, White House officials had announced no such sanctions, and it is unlikely they will before Xi’s visit with Obama. Chinese presidents don’t like being humiliated before meeting with their counterparts; at the same time they like the spotlight that comes with such confabs. “Every time Xi is seen hobnobbing with the most important leader in the world, his status is elevated,” said Lam.
Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister and China expert who heads the Asia Society Policy Institute, said Xi’s political outlook is shaped partly by the teachings of his father, Xi Zhongxun, a Communist Party veteran. The elder Xi was a supporter of opening up China’s economy, but he also was a party loyalist who believed China needed to shake off the “century of humiliation” it suffered under Japanese occupation and the British opium wars.
“This has burned deep into Xi Jinping’s world view,” Rudd said during a recent Asia Society podcast. Xi, he added, often talks about the need for “fuxing” – the Chinese word for “rejuvenation.”
Xi also is consumed by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which he blames on Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to capitulate to the West. “Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist,” Xi was quoted as saying in late 2012, shortly after he became Communist Party secretary.
Xi’s reading of the Soviet fall may have been a factor in his decision to quickly consolidate power after taking office, some analysts say. In so doing, he tacitly rejected Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that the party be led by collective leadership, an attempt to prevent any one figure from creating a “cult of personality,” as Mao did during the Cultural Revolution.
Some argue Xi had little choice but to engage in a power play if he hoped to embark on far-reaching economic reforms. Lam disagrees. He said Xi’s commitment to freeing up China’s economy and breaking up lumbering state-owned industries has been halfhearted. Xi appears to be accumulating power for power’s sake, said Lam. He’s making enemies, but, for now, they pose little threat to Xi’s rule.
“Now that he is in the ascendancy, things are going his way,” Lam said. “At this stage, they dare not challenge Xi Jinping directly.”
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth