In Other News – Chinese President Xi Jinping: New Mao Zedong or New Emperor? – 10/14/2022

October 14, 2022

On the cusp of the Chinese National Congress, analysis from a global contributor offers readers insight on how Xi might be weighing his next steps

President Xi’s next term is almost certain, but his legacy is on the line with Taiwan. At the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on October 16, President Xi is likely to secure a third presidential term after abolishing the two-term limit back in 2018. Indeed, over the previous decade, Xi has steadily dissolved the collective leadership principles that were in place to protect the country against the whims of a single leader. Instead, he’s centralized the reins of power, holding the positions of President, General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Committee at the same time. But while centralizing power might serve to make the government more effective, it also makes the leader more vulnerable, and this paradox will impact Xi’s actions vis-à-vis Taiwan.

Like his predecessors, Xi holds the dual ambitions of Chinese territorial expansion and economic prosperity, and in the case of Taiwan they’re intimately related. Major technical questions abound on the likelihood of a successful Chinese military invasion, and it remains uncertain if Xi’s soldiers are battle-ready and up to the task. It is also unclear if it would even be possible for Beijing to conquer the island without destroying it, and how much external support Taiwan would receive. Further, invading Taiwan could send Xi down Putin’s path, forcing Beijing into economic isolation at a time when China’s success heavily depends on its economic interaction with the West.

Trade between China and the United States and China and the EU is enormous. In both relations, total trade with China is above $650 billion. Accumulated Foreign Direct Investment in and from China for the US and EU respectively is upwards of $100 billion. These numbers indicate how interwoven the three economies are and how the prosperity of China is linked with functioning political and economic relations with Washington and Brussels.

Xi is likely weighing expansion against internal stability, and he’s acutely aware of how these goals have played out in Chinese history. While Mao Zedong was able to unify the mainland of China, his tenure ended in disgrace replete with political upheaval and an attempt to cover up a horrific earthquake. Deng Xiaoping, who took the lead not long after Mao’s death, achieved agreements on the transfer of Hong Kong and Macao, but he will also be remembered by the violent suppression of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Further, from an economic perspective, Mao’s period was a disaster while Deng’s rule led to a period of positive and transformative change.

Traditionally in China, the emperor was seen as the connection between the earth and heaven, and nation-wide prosperity or disasters under his reign were attributed to whether the leader was in fact operating under a mandate from heaven. Under Xi, the Chinese economy has done well, but continued economic growth is being challenged by Beijing’s draconian Covid restrictions and an impending internal financial crisis. Xi knows that employing military means in Taiwan any time soon could endanger China’s stability and thereby threaten his legitimacy and legacy. Indeed, regardless of how much Xi wants to expand, he will act to maintain safeguard his own power and that of his Party first.