Written by: Pranav Krishnan
As General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping has consolidated near-absolute political power over the People’s Republic of China, making it one of the world’s clearest examples of an authoritarian state. This concentration of power makes China’s foreign policy uniquely responsive to the aspirations and will of a single man. With the Biden Administration’s 2022 National Security Strategy declaring the United States in an era of strategic competition with China, it is paramount to understand Xi’s temperament and perspective regarding China’s role in the world.
Given the outsized influence of China’s paramount leaders, Xi’s role is best understood in the context of his predecessors. Following Mao Zedong’s tyrannical reign over China for twenty-seven years which saw over 45 million killed through brutal and unremitting repression of political dissidents in conjunction with ruinous attempts at agricultural collectivization, Den Xiajong dramatically pivoted Chinese politics when he assumed power in 1978. While he is most often remembered for embracing widespread market reforms that propelled China to the second most powerful economy on Earth, measured by nominal GDP, his political reforms were equally transformative. Despite adhering to the CCPs abject intolerance of dissidence, as evidenced by his military crackdown during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, he rejected orthodox Marxist-Lennisinm, imposed term limits on political leaders, proscribed cults of personalities, and emphasized collective–though not democratic–leadership. His immediate successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, persisted in his philosophy by engaging with Western economies in an effort to modernize China during their terms.
Xi Jinping’s assumption of supreme power in 2012, however, marked the end of ulterior ambitions and an emphasis on pragmatism. Xi is patently more nationalist and ideological than his predecessors. Shortly after assuming the office of General Secretary, he suggested to the party leadership that it was ideological decay that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union and that therefore ideological corruption posed a great threat to the Chinese state. In diametric opposition to Deng’s guiding doctrine for Chinese foreign policy of “Hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead”, Xi has prominently advocated for a “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese State” and has proclaimed that China must compete against American hegemony and the liberal-world order. Central to this rejuvenation is avenging the century of humiliation China faced due to Western intervention by reunifying Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China. In 2018, at Xi’s direction, China’s National People’s Congress shattered precedent by removing the two-term limit Deng imposed in 1982, paving the way for Xi to hold a lifetime appointment over China, the first since Mao. He has carefully cultivated a cult of personality that has eclipsed any of his predecessors and with the 20th Party Congress ushering in Xi’s unprecedented third term, he is free of immediate constraints on his power. Xi Jinping has staked his political legitimacy and legacy on reunification, and American policymakers can not afford to dismiss his rhetoric as mere posturing. As made evident by the Russo-Ukrainian war, strongmen uninhibited by meaningful political challengers are willing to go to war even when it is seemingly irrational. With China’s stark decline in foreign investment and productivity growth and unsustainable demographics, Xi has only limited time to carry out his vision for China. Therefore, as the United States considers its foreign policy in the South China Sea, it must strive to bolster Taiwan’s sovereignty.