Opinion | Xi’s coronation portends a hard era for China and the world

On Sunday, 2,296 of the Chinese Communist Party’s 96.7 million members will gather in Beijing for a week-long party congress, the outcome of which is all but certain: a third five-year term for Xi Jinping as ruler of 1.4 billion Chinese. By ratifying an extension of Mr Xi’s tenure as a political figure who controls more people with fewer restrictions than any other party in the world, the Chinese party would confirm that national enlargement and dictatorship, not global cooperation and human rights, are its guiding stars .

The first thing to note about this seeming inevitability is that, strictly speaking, it should never have been possible. We don’t mean the party congress itself: that is a planned date every five years. Rather, the potential extension of Mr. Xi’s power by five years—and theoretically more—undoes an important measure taken by the party leaders who succeeded Mao Zedong after his death in 1976 to prevent a repeat of his disastrous personality cult. They wrote a two-term limit into the constitution in 1982; Mr. Xi, who received a first term in 2012, was planning his ouster at the start of his second term in 2018. By then, Mr. Xi had already defied optimistic expectations, Chinese and American, by acting on his deep-seated belief that this was political and economic openness had destroyed the Soviet Union and would also destroy Chinese Communism if the party did not double down on what Lenin called “democratic centralism”.

Mr. Xi has suppressed dissent, reinstated Marxist-Leninist indoctrination, subjected the population to systematic surveillance, purged the party itself of potential adversaries, and subdued Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the latter through a campaign of genocide involving forced labor and mass incarceration of the Muslim Uyghur population. He has menacingly expanded and upgraded China’s military capabilities while reaffirming Beijing’s claim on Taiwan, most recently through massive military drills to show displeasure with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August.

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Half a century after President Richard M. Nixon’s opening up to China, two decades after President Bill Clinton pushed China’s most-favoured-nation status through Congress with bipartisan support, it is evident that the United States has failed to see China’s rise in line with US strategy, let alone in accordance with the rules-based international order, as many architects of past Western engagement efforts – governmental, corporate, scientific and intellectual – had hoped.

So for today’s administrators of US foreign policy, the coronation of Mr. Xi is a moment to reflect on the wishful thinking and miscalculation of the past – and how similar mistakes can be avoided without falling into the crude, episodic hostility of President Biden’s predecessor , President, to forfeit Donald Trump. Certainly, Republicans’ shift to a more China-skeptical stance means Mr. Biden has the benefit of a two-party consensus in favor of competition with Beijing that’s as broad as the consensus that formerly favored engagement. He has vigorously advocated Taiwan’s right to exist as a democracy free from Chinese threats, while strengthening US alliances with Australia, Japan and South Korea and asking for India’s help to contain China as part of the “quad”. The President recently took a step to limit China’s quest for technological dominance by cutting off China’s access to advanced semiconductors that incorporate US technology.

Mr. Biden’s national security strategy, released Wednesday, appropriately describes China as “the only one [U.S.] competitor that both intends to reshape the international order and increasingly has the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do so.” Still, the document holds out the prospect of China and the United States working together on issues like climate or pandemics “work together for the good of our people and the good of the world”. We hope that’s true, but we fear it’s not. Mr Xi has blocked global investigations into the origins of the coronavirus and has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin more often than any other world leader. He described the author of the war of aggression in Ukraine as his “best friend and colleague”, with whom he was “similar in character”. China has yielded to the Russian invasion since it began in February and has done nothing significant to contain it since.

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It will be difficult for Mr. Biden to compete with China broadly while working with it selectively. Yet Mr. Xi faces what is arguably an even more difficult task: sustaining China’s rise while stifling the private sector and curbing the free flow of ideas on which material progress ultimately depends. A leader who trains his people to follow the thoughts of Xi Jinping—and forbids them to question them—is likely to steer developments as erratically as Mao did in his day. China’s economic growth, the source of its power, is slowing.

This is due in part to structural factors such as slowing labor force growth, which in turn is the result of a historic communist mistake: the one-child policy of the past. However, Mr. Xi’s recent policy decisions are also hurting the economy. One is his attack on successful e-commerce and other businesses in the name of socialist equality. The other is its “zero Covid” policy, which is looking more and more like a pet project that Mr. Xi adamantly refuses to revisit, rather than a public health measure. If China really wanted to find a way to reduce risk while resuming normal life, it would have imported western-made vaccines rather than insisting on its own less effective product, which was not fully given to vulnerable elderly populations anyway. The net effect is a country that has paid an enormous price for its reported low infection and death rate but remains inadequately protected from outbreaks.

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Given these problems and the Party’s control of the media, Mr. Xi’s true popularity is impossible to gauge. But he is probably testing the patience of his people. On Thursday, a courageous protester in Beijing unfurled banners, one calling for Mr Xi’s ouster and another reading in part: “We want freedom, no lockdowns. … We want votes, not leaders.” When their economies stagnate and discontent rises, autocrats sometimes try to distract their people with adventures abroad. This is cause for concern that Mr. Xi may turn his ambition to conquer Taiwan into reality sooner rather than later. So far, it is Mr. Xi’s success that has created risk for the United States and its allies. You must prepare for the possibility that his mistakes will create even more.

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Editorials represent the views of the Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the editorial board based on range of opinion and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Associate Editor of Editorial Site Karen Tumulty; Associate Editor of Editorial Page Ruth Marcus; Associate Editor of Editorial Page Jo-Ann Armao (Education, DC Affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (Global Public Health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (Economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (Elections, White House, Congress, Legal Affairs, Energy, Environment, Healthcare).


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