The scope of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ambition — for himself and for his country — was on full display at the Communist Party Congress that recently concluded in Beijing.
Xi is intent on putting China on par with the United States. But along the way, he has accumulated so much personal power that it’s unclear whether anyone has the status to tell him when one of his grand plans is a really bad idea.
It’s hard to imagine things going better than they are now for the man who is both Chinese president and Communist Party leader. The congress not only confirmed him for a second five-year term as party leader, it also unanimously enshrined “Xi Jinping thought” in the party constitution. It has done that for only one other leader while he was still alive. That would be Mao.
The party has been meticulous in recent decades about limiting the leader to two terms and identifying his successor years ahead of time. And while Xi has a group of highly competent officials around him, there is no clear successor, leading to speculation he does not intend to step down when this new term is over.
Xi is winning respect around the world by promising to be a force for stability (in contrast to his U.S. counterpart), and China appears much more serious about attacking climate change and pollution. It is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in the so-called “Road and Belt” plan to build transport and other infrastructure around the world.
Even his biggest potential challenger is acting like a paper tiger. President Trump, who visits Beijing next week, is striking a far more conciliatory tone than candidate Trump. Though the president is not exactly going hat in hand, he does need things from Xi: help on North Korea and investment in the U.S. economy.
This fascinating piece in Foreign Policy suggests that Xi also has found the perfect go-between with Trump: Casino boss Steve Wynn, who has major business dealings in China (and presumably could be pressured by China because of them). Wynn also holds a major fund-raising position in the Republican Party.
So what could possibly go wrong?
To oppose Xi is to oppose the party
Xi appears to have shut down opposing voices to such an extent that there is no one who can tell him “no.” He started in his first term by cracking down on dissent. In addition, his anti-corruption campaign, while aimed at a real threat to the party’s authority, sidelined potential foes. The recent elevation of his political philosophy means that to oppose Xi is to oppose the party — not something a Chinese Communist with ambition is likely to do.
There is a fine line, though, between ambition and hubris. Xi could never go as far as Mao, whose Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution caused untold chaos and death. But then, China is a different place now. Even so, because it’s not a democracy and lacks the built-in safeguards of representative government, the country needs Xi to recognize his limitations.
He faces a major challenge in reforming the economy. As Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist for Morgan Stanley, has explained, China’s model of rapid growth created a potential debt trap. Debt is 235 percent of GDP, on its way to 280 percent in the next three years (the U.S. figure is about 100 percent). A decade ago it took a dollar of debt to create a dollar of growth. Now that ratio is 4:1.
Xi could stop priming the economy, leading to a slowdown. But that risks breaking the implicit agreement Chinese authorities have made with the population: Stay quiet and let the Communist Party run things, and in return, you’ll prosper.
Finally, what happens if the rest of the world doesn’t cooperate? As Americans know, spreading money around to enhance your influence is no guarantee of popularity.
The North Korea situation could get out of hand, entangling China in a conflict along its border. China’s foreign investments often suffer from self-dealing and corruption, angering elites in the countries where it does business, and workers who wonder why China imports its own labor rather than providing jobs for locals. Then, there is the issue of using ethnic Chinese communities in other countries to further its agenda. Some of those communities (in Indonesia in 1998, for example) have been used as scapegoats. Would Xi rush to protect them? If so, he risks getting mired in someone else’s internal dispute. If not, how does he explain it back home?
The United States is still the No. 1 world power. Many analysts have pointed out the danger of conflict between an established power and a new, rising power. In this case, the established power is the wild card. Even so, it would be far better if China’s current helmsman had someone to tell him when he was heading off course.