BEIJING — Chinese President Xi Jinping is probably the only national leader in the world who has managed to consolidate power despite facing the threat of the novel coronavirus.
Helped by the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian one-party rule, he will continue to wield power as the country’s supreme leader over the next five years.
Xi’s extended reign and his ambitions could prove problematic for the incoming U.S. president, Joe Biden.
Xi has been laying out his plans and vision of a China-centric world since earlier this year. The contents of a speech delivered by Xi, also the CCP general-secretary, at an early April meeting was suddenly published in the edition of party journal Qiushi that went on sale on Nov. 1.
At that meeting, he stressed the need to enhance international supply chains’ dependence on China and “develop powerful retaliation and deterrence capabilities against supply cut-offs by foreign parties.”
He made the remarks at a time when the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump was stepping up criticism of China over its response to the coronavirus outbreak. There is no doubt that by “foreign parties,” he means the U.S., which wants to decouple its economy from China’s.
At the same time that Xi wants China to control world supply chains, he also wants the local economy to learn to provide for itself. This, he called the “dual circulation” strategy at the fifth plenary session of the Communist Party’s 19th Central Committee in late October, his blueprint for the Chinese economy over the next 15 years.
The strategy calls for making domestic consumption the main pillar of the economy and reducing reliance on external demand. It envisages a future in which China no longer needs to rely on the world but the world cannot continue to spin without China.
As the U.S. is still reeling over its Nov. 3 presidential election that Biden won and Trump is still contesting, Xi is moving steadily toward realization of “dual circulation.”
Seizing the power vacuum, several days after China signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact, also known as the RCEP, Xi also expressed China’s willingness to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP11. Trump’s first commitment when he took office in January 2017 was to leave the TPP, a key policy of the previous administration under President Barack Obama in his pivot to Asia.
Xi is also busy preparing for his extended reign beyond the Communist Party’s next quinquennial national congress in 2022.
In October, the Communist Party’s Central Committee released new party regulations that named Xi as its “core,” reconfirming his position as unrivaled leader. The release of the new regulations has sparked speculation that it is part of efforts to prepare for the revival of the “party chairman” post, which Communist China’s founding father Mao Zedong held on to until his death.
China’s all-powerful CCP has the advantage of being able to make decisions on bold policies quickly without coming under public scrutiny. Beijing wielded that power in its response to the coronavirus outbreak. Now, it seems Xi will continue to use that power to signal his strongman stance to the rest of the world.
When Biden takes over as U.S. president in next month, he and the leaders of other democracies will continue to struggle with the difficult question of how to deal with China’s authoritarian regime.