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The biggest risk to China's Xi Jinping? itself

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Hong Kong
CNN

The Chinese economy is collapsing. Unemployment is skyrocketing. Endless Covid lockdowns are wreaking havoc on businesses and people’s lives. The real estate industry is in crisis. Ties between Beijing and major global powers are strained.

The list of problems facing the world’s second-largest economy goes on and on, and many of these long-term challenges have only gotten worse under Xi Jinping’s decade of rule. Still, the Chinese leader’s stance on power remains unshakable.

Over the past decade, Xi has consolidated control to a degree not seen since the time of Communist China’s strongman founder, Mao Zedong. He is the head of the Chinese Communist Party, the state, the armed forces, and so many committees that he is referred to as the “head of everything”. And now it is preparing to step into a third era of norm-breaking power that has the potential to reign for life.

But absolute power can often mean absolute responsibility, and as problems escalate, analysts warn Xi will have less room to avoid blame.

“I think the biggest enemy of Xi Jinping’s longevity in ruling China is Xi Jinping himself,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London. “This is when Xi Jinping made a major policy mistake that wreaked havoc in China that could potentially start the process of unraveling his hold on power.”

Mao’s rule from 1949 to 1976 was marked by hasty policy decisions that caused tens of millions of deaths and destroyed the economy. After these decades of turmoil, the Communist Party developed a system of collective leadership designed to prevent the rise of another dictator who could make arbitrary and dangerous decisions.

China’s next leader, Deng Xiaoping, has set an unwritten rule and precedent that the General Secretary of the Communist Party – the role the Chinese leader takes real power – will resign after two terms.

From Mao to Xi: the history of China’s leadership

When Xi came to power in 2012, China’s economy was booming as it integrated more closely with the rest of the world. Just four years ago, China stunned the world with the extravagant Beijing Summer Olympics. But according to Xi, the party was in a state of crisis: overrun by corruption, internal conflicts and inefficiencies.

Xi’s solution was to return to dictatorial and personal rule. With an extensive anti-corruption campaign, he purged political enemies, silenced domestic opposition, removed presidential term limits, and incorporated the “Xi Jinping Thought” into the party’s charter.

According to analysts, when the lack of critical advice reaches the leader, many dictatorships fall into a pattern of abuse of power and poor decision-making. They point to Vladimir Putin’s increasingly costly war against Ukraine as a concern that Xi’s similarly unquestionable power over the Russian President could one day have equally disastrous consequences.

“Putin and Xi have the same problem of strongman syndrome as they have turned their policy advice circles into echo chambers, so people can no longer speak their minds freely,” Tsang said.

No country in recent history has modernized as fast as China. The Communist Party claims that its leadership has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and transformed stagnant villages into stunning megacities. But this miracle of growth has slowed down. And many long-standing challenges in the Chinese economy have only been exacerbated by Xi’s policies.

Xi made it his mission to strengthen the party and its control over business and society. It put pressure on the once vibrant private sector that led to mass layoffs. Beijing claims stricter regulations curtail overpowering companies and protect consumers, but the measures have stifled private businesses, chilled the economy and fueled fears about future innovation.

Screengrab bankruptcy victims

China’s once vibrant private sector is suffocating under pressure from Xi

Beijing began restricting easy credit for real estate firms in 2020, leading to cash shortages and defaults for many developers, including giant conglomerate Evergrande. Housing projects have stalled and desperate home buyers across the country are refusing to pay mortgages on unfinished homes. Disruptions in the real estate sector are having a huge impact on China’s wider economy, as it accounts for 30% of the country’s GDP.

But nothing during Xi’s leadership has shaken the Chinese economy and society more than zero Covid. In the third year of the epidemic, China has clung to a harsh policy of mass testing, extensive quarantines and lockdowns to eradicate infections at all costs, even as the rest of the world is learning to live with the virus.

The country continues to lock down entire cities for a handful of infections, while sending all positive cases and close contacts to government quarantine facilities. It has been normalized to queue for Covid tests and to scan a tracking health code to enter any public space. Beijing argues that the policy is preventing China from turning into a health disaster like the rest of the world, but zero Covid is being used at enormous and rising costs.

china corona nyc

Artist wears 27 hazmat suits to protest China’s policies

Continuous quarantines have significantly slowed the growth rate of the Chinese economy. Record youth unemployment reached nearly 20%. Pocketbooks are getting smaller. Local governments, which are heavily indebted, are forced to spend on mass Covid tests. Resources would be better spent increasing vaccination rates, experts say, rather than building costly test sites and quarantine facilities. China has yet to approve any foreign mRNA vaccine that has proven to be more effective than the inactivated vaccines used in China against the highly contagious Omicron variant.

At the start of the outbreak, Beijing censored and in some cases punished doctors, experts, and citizen journalists who tried to warn about a deadly virus in Wuhan.

Nearly three years later, Beijing has doubled down as most international experts advise China to find a way to live with the virus. Earlier this year, Shanghai, a metropolis with more than three times the population of New York City, was on lockdown for two months. People struggled to get enough food and basic necessities. Desperate residents emerged from house arrest and clashed with enforcement officials in rare street protests. Many patients were not provided with life-saving health care.

When the World Health Organization criticized the zero Covid policy as “unsustainable”, China censored the statement on social media.

Susan Shirk, director of the 21st Century China Center and author of “Overreach,” a book on Xi’s leadership, says Chinese leaders are “competing with each other to prove how loyal they are to him because Xi encourages loyalists, not the most competent.” . “This puts subordinates at the top in executing policies to try to please Xi,” she said.

Shirk said that since Xi’s leadership is directly tied to the strategy, this has resulted in zero Covid, so local officials are vigorously following to show loyalty to the leader and protect their careers.

“Many of the pains in the Chinese economy were self-inflicted by China’s leader,” Shirk said.

“So the suggestive, and rather disturbing, idea is that the Chinese Communist Party no longer branded itself as a developmental party and has set economic development as its primary goal. But instead, Xi Jinping holds the power.”

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