The near-certainty that Chinese leader Xi Jinping will be appointed to a third term at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress coming up this fall will provide him with opportunities to continue to advance an expansionist foreign policy and an authoritarian agenda at home, while doing little to address the complex economic, social and demographic challenges facing the country in the 2020s and beyond.
That’s according to Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University, and Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who shared their insights at an April 7 virtual event hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.
“Xi Jinping will get what he wants, an unprecedented third term as the number one at the so-called core of the Party. There’s a very high likelihood that he could get a fourth term,” said Lam, noting that Xi at 68 is still considerably younger than President Joe Biden, who turned 79 in November.
In Lam’s view, the extension of Xi’s rule and the consolidation of his power are wholly of a piece with general tendencies of his autocratic reign and particularly his reversal of reforms put in place by earlier heads of state, such as Deng Xiaoping, who in the 1980s began to introduce fixed terms and retirement ages for Chinese leaders.
Lam described Xi as a leader who has maneuvered himself into a position where consolidation of his rule will face little opposition. Even as he has undone the reforms of the recent past, Xi has kindled passions around the restoration of China to a perceived lost glory.
“He has been very successful at stoking the flames of nationalism,” Lam said, identifying the so-called liberation and Taiwan and the challenging of America’s prominent position in Indo-Pacific and world affairs as twin drivers of Xi’s foreign policy.
Lam described the Chinese leader as motivated by a grandiose dream that involves reclaiming “middle-kingdom status,” at least in the Indo-Pacific, by the mid-to-late 2030s. In Lam’s analysis, Xi also seeks to pull ahead of the United States and other western powers in such increasingly important spheres as artificial intelligence, robotics, and bioengineering.
Concurring with Lam about Xi’s territorial ambitions, Fewsmith said he did not believe that people who drew optimistic lessons from the massive, far-reaching sanctions imposed on Russia and its banking system in the wake of the Ukraine invasion were being realistic. Many hoped that a chastened Xi would finally understand that invasion of another sovereign territory is a losing game with ruinous economic consequences. But Xi is unlikely to reach that conclusion, Fewsmith said. Instead, Xi may simply decide that it is best to avoid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic and tactical mistakes when launching an invasion.
“I think the lesson for China, unfortunately, is that if you want to invade Taiwan, do it quickly, do it efficiently, and wrap it up quickly,” Fewsmith said.
“The United States does not want to directly fight another nuclear power. This will increase China’s leverage in a Taiwan scenario,” he added.
Getting a third term as CCP general secretary will also further embolden Xi Jinping to ramp up a domestic policy of vigorous political repression and control of the economy, the experts said.
Xi does not want to liberalize China’s economy, but may be willing to make concessions to gain political capital, Lam said. Allowing Chinese firms that want to list on the New York Stock Exchange to meet certain disclosure requirements imposed in the wake of growing concern in the United States over CCP influence on firms with a stateside presence may merely be a ploy, he contended.
“Xi Jinping has allowed companies to disclose auditing and other details to the stock exchange authorities in the United States. But you may ask whether these compromises are just to gain support at the Party Congress,” Lam said.
In Lam’s view, the real measure of Xi’s stance on economic matters comes across in Xi’s crackdown on powerful Chinese firms such as Evergrande and Alibaba, which had been drivers of the economy but enjoyed the support of people the Chinese ruler considers to be political foes.
Fewsmith agreed with this analysis, noting that hopes inspired by the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee in 1978, where then-leader Deng Xiaoping advanced liberalizing measures, have proven vain.
“The Third Plenum had a statement that market forces should be decisive in the economy. Everybody seemed to get their hopes up that China was on the cusp of market-oriented reforms. The reforms that we thought were going to be implemented, simply were not,” Fewsmith said.
Fewsmith cited the crackdown on Alibaba as evidence of a renewed drive toward a centralized economy with top CCP officials, not entrepreneurs, calling the shots.
Xi’s economic stance does not serve the interests of a society in which productivity has been falling markedly for years and the existing social infrastructure is ill-equipped to care for a rapidly aging population, Fewsmith argued. A successful economic policy would involve ceding the floor to younger, more market-oriented people even more open to reform than Deng Xiaoping, he said.
“These things all cut against what Xi Jinping has been doing for the last ten years, and Xi is going to be there for at least another 10 years,” Fewsmith said.