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Chinese President Xi Jinping waves during a press event to introduce the new members of the Chinese Politburo in the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, Oct. 25, 2017 (AP photo by Ng Han Guan).

What Xi Jinping Means for China—and the U.S.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

With no term limits, and no named successor, Xi Jinping could be the president of China for life. But whispers of dissent might be emerging. Find out what that means for China, and for the U.S., with your subscription to World Politics Review (WPR).

Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, made waves among Chinese academics and China-watchers in July with a published essay denouncing President Xi Jinping’s hard-line policies. The essay has been cited in numerous Western media outlets as a “rare rebuke” of Xi.

The incident and other rumors of internal party dissent led Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, to wonder whether Xi has “passed his peak.” The pushback among elites, which McGregor characterizes so far as “whisperings,” have mainly been concerned with the Mao-like cult of personality surrounding Xi, who has amassed power unseen in China since Mao Zedong.

The president of China may be finding, as Tom Mitchell wrote in the Financial Times, that “with absolute power has come absolute responsibility.”

Are hard-line policies and unchecked power turning China’s elite against President Xi Jinping? Learn more, in Are ‘Whisperings’ in China the Beginning of a Backlash Against the Cult of Xi? with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Xi’s Increasingly Personalized Grip on Power

The recent whispers come close on the heels of President Xi Jinping’s cementing of power in Beijing. At the National People’s Congress, which concluded on March 20, China’s top brass abolished presidential term limits, a stunning reversal of two decades of incremental institutionalization aimed at stabilizing government turnover. Commentators uniformly denounced the move, with many characterizing it as a Xi “power grab.” Others warned that China may be returning to the Mao era of strongman rule. Fears of increased repression are well founded, but this does not mean that stronger Communist Party rule will fail in its main purpose, which is the realization of difficult but needed changes to China’s governance and economy.

Despite echoes of Chairman Mao’s repressive rule, President Xi Jinping may be leading China toward a national revitalization. To learn more, read China’s Strengthening of Communist Party Rule Is Not Just a Power Grab with your subscription to World Politics Review.


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The Party Leads Everything, and Xi Leads the Party

Despite slowing economic growth and a bruising trade war with the United States, Xi seems intent to push forward with his efforts to strengthen the party’s hegemony, particularly over China’s economy. At a speech in December marking the 40th anniversary of a watershed moment in what would become China’s program of economic liberalization, officially known as “reform and opening up,” he showed no inclination toward deepening China’s market-oriented reforms. Before the speech, some observers had wondered if Xi would signal a shift in Beijing’s handling of state-owned enterprises, in particular. But despite plenty of vague proclamations like “opening brings progress while closure leads to backwardness,” he did not propose any specific new measures in his nearly 90-minute speech. Instead, Xi struck a defiant tone. “It was precisely because we’ve adhered to the centralized and united leadership of the party that we were able to achieve this great historic transition,” Xi declared. “The party leads everything.” And for the foreseeable future, Xi will lead the party.

Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have put any further meaningful economic reforms on the backburner. Read more, in Xi Stays the Course in Speech Commemorating China’s Pathbreaking Reforms with your subscription to World Politics Review.

How Xi’s Rule Is Causing the U.S. to Rethink Its China Strategy

Xi’s presidency has catalyzed a rapid change in the U.S. foreign policy consensus on China over the past few years, which reflects the degree to which the assumptions that long guided Washington’s approach to China were both overly pessimistic and overly optimistic in ways that now seem obvious. Overly pessimistic, because China’s restrictions on speech and dissent have neither stifled innovation nor constrained the aspirations of an expanded middle class. Overly optimistic, because instead of China’s integration with the global economy leading to liberalization at home and moderation abroad, China under Xi has grown more repressive and assertive. This slow awakening to the breaking bad version of China’s rise has now matured into a full-blown movement in Washington fixated on the “China threat.” The idea that China represents an existential threat to the U.S. and the international order has become increasingly mainstream. Talk of a second Cold War is now commonplace in foreign policy coverage, as are calls for a containment approach to China. But is this the right way for the U.S. to address the challenge posed by Xi’s China?

Calls for a new Cold War pitting the U.S. against China are off the mark. Read more, in The U.S. Should Base Its China Strategy on Competitive Cooperation, Not Containment with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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China’s President Xi Jinping is using tools from the past to shape the future, as a revitalized Chinese Communist Party is stoking renewed fears of repression and censorship. Learn more about Xi Jinping and the cult of Xi in the searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):

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Editor's Note: This article was first published in October 2018 and is regularly updated.