Faced with a weakening economy, a trade war with US and a united West, Xi’s task cut out
Xi Jinping, heralded in the West as the most powerful Chinese leader since Chairman Mao Zedong, is heading towards failure. That’s the conclusion one could draw from Xi’s December 18 speech, commemorating the 40th anniversary of China’s far-reaching economic reforms.
Faced with a weakening economy, a trade war with the United States and an emerging united front against China in the West, Xi could have been expected to offer a bold new commitment to economic reform. Instead, he doubled down on his neo-Stalinist view that the Communist Party must exert control “over all tasks”. What’s worse, he failed to show any recognition of the hard choices China faces — supporting state-owned firms vs the private sector, clamping down or opening up. In his 90-minute address, Xi promised all things to all people, in effect promising nothing to no one.
What a difference a year or two makes.
In January 2017, Xi took to the podium at the World Economic Forum at Davos to position China as ready to accept from an inward-looking US the mantle of defender of the global trading order. Later that year, during the Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress, Xi purged the top ranks of the party of all competitors. Then in March 2018, he rammed through changes to China’s Constitution, guaranteeing himself the opportunity of serving as China’s president until he dies. Xi had been called the Chairman of Everything. Now he was being called the Chairman of Everything for Life.
Propagandists began touting China’s mixture of merciless authoritarianism and mercantilist economic polices as a road map — called the China Solution — for the developing world. Xi’s signature foreign policy programme — the Belt and Road Initiative — looked set to wrap the globe with Chinese-built railroads, ports and airports.
Xi held two seemingly successful summits with US President Donald Trump, in Florida and in Beijing. Chinese diplomats were confident that they could play the White House, sidestepping the National Security Council as they curried favour with American officials who appeared to be China’s friends.