As he prepares this week to be rewarded with a third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping now casts an ever-longer shadow over his people, U.S.-China relations and the world than the party that gave him his start in politics, experts say.
“He has the power to change the direction of the country in any way he likes,” Adrian Geiges, co-author of “Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World,” told Yahoo News.
The CCP’s 20th National Congress, which kicks off on Sunday, will break with recent informal precedent that had limited the general secretary of the CCP from serving more than two five-year terms. That further tightening of Xi’s grip on the nation has proven surprising for some. Prior to taking office in 2012, Xi was a relatively unremarkable character in Chinese politics, respected for his commitment to the party but hardly considered vocal or outspoken. “He was underestimated by everybody,” Geiges noted. “Nobody thought he would be extraordinary.”
Xi was considered a safe choice for leadership, a pair of safe hands to steady a ship that continued to suffer the turbulent stresses of modernization. “He was brought in to do a job,” said Ian Johnson of the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Xi’s anticorruption drives that epitomized his first years as China’s top official.
Instead, Xi has indelibly changed the party and the country, including escalating tensions with democratic countries and building a Mao-like cult of personality that had been carefully discouraged among his predecessors. As Johnson put it, “It’s like if you bring in someone to fix a problem, and before you know it they are running the whole show and have kicked you out.”
"I don't know if they bargained for all of this. He came in and, under the guise of anti-corruption, he arrested all of his enemies, he busted the factions, and he broke the system that was put in place before him," Johnson added.
Many people will look to personal characteristics to help explain Xi's success and ability to amass power. But as Kerry Brown warned in the New York Times this week, "The remarkable muscularity of Mr. Xi's style is not all about him or his personal aims, ambitions or ego."
Instead, Xi’s motivations can often be best understood by his abiding relationship with the Communist Party.
Xi’s father was a top party official under Mao Zedong, the CCP’s founder and head for nearly three decades. But this position of privilege did not mean Xi’s family was spared Mao’s wrath. During the Cultural Revolution, Xi’s father, like many other party officials, was swept up in purges as Mao sought to forestall any challenges to his power.
Rather than driving him away from the party, Xi saw it as indispensable to his own success. “He decided he did not want to have the same fate as his father. He did not want to become a victim of the power; he wanted to become the power himself,” said Geiges.
But outwardly Xi maintained a reputation as a reserved and diligent politician. He was not outspoken, which partially made him an ideal candidate for leadership in the eyes of officials inside the CCP. “He was clever in hiding his own positions.” Geiges added. “Now we know he is a hardliner, but in 2012, when he became the leader of the party, most people did not know that.”
Much of the world only began to pay attention to Xi in 2012, when he took charge of the world’s second-largest economy. All of the sudden, this official that people outside of China as well as within knew very little about became a crucial player on the world stage.
Xi may not be solely responsible for today’s tensions between the U.S. and China — from trade and free speech disputes to issues over sovereignty in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan — but he can be seen as a significant driver of them.
“This competition would have grown anyway, but it’s also very much because of Xi Jinping,” Geiges said.
Many of the factors underlying the adversarial competition between the two nations were in place before Xi’s rise to power. Issues like China’s island building in the South China Sea and military modernization efforts were already points of conflict prior to 2012.
“He supercharged these trends,” Johnson said. “He is a more forceful leader who is able to draw on other channels of power than his predecessors.”
Recent months have offered rare glimpses of cracks in support for Xi and the direction of the country, particularly related to the country's zero-COVID policy and the lockdowns that have affected millions of Chinese. On Oct. 13, banners were unfurled in Beijing with messages that read, "We want reform, not a Cultural Revolution. We want a vote, not a leader. We want to be citizens, not slaves."
Xi and the party’s desire for absolute control has become a double-edged sword. Immense administrative resources and draconian measures have largely spared China from successive pandemic waves, but now China remains under risk of lockdown as the rest of the world opens up.
“He made this zero-COVID policy part of his ideology. And now it is very difficult for him to step back,” Geiges said. Doing so would require acknowledging a policy misstep, and mass exposure to the coronavirus among China’s massive population could have unforeseen consequences.
These and other challenges, including heightening tensions with the U.S. over a range of issues, assure that Xi’s third term will be no less turbulent than his second. On Taiwanese independence, Xi has seemed to have backed himself into a corner, making the reunification of Taiwan with China a central tenet of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” thereby risking losing face should anything short of that come to pass.
Last week, the Biden administration announced measures targeting semiconductors that endanger China's entire technological capacity. Increasingly, one man is seen as responsible for China's success, but he may find it difficult to distance himself from its failures.
"It would seem that Xi underestimated the challenges China faced in overcoming its reliance on foreign, mostly U.S. firms, in key 'core' or 'hard' technologies such as semiconductors," Paul Triolo, a technology analyst at advisory firm Albright Stonebridge Group, told CNBC. "He also did not account for growing U.S. concern over semiconductors as foundational to key technologies."
Yet, as Sunday’s vote attests, Xi is far from any immediate danger of losing power. While the Chinese coverage of Xi’s appointment to a new term will be designed to make him seem larger than life, it will underscore the union of the party and its strongman leader. And if a third term illustrates that he still has the backing of the Chinese Communist Party, it may also demonstrate that the party has come to rely just as much on Xi.