Xi Jinping, the strongest, most enduring Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, opens possibly the pivotal act of his rule with his uncontested election to a third five-year term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, which controls just about everything in China. No, the government does not operate independently of the party. Top government officials are party members. Almost all young people hired for government jobs also belong to the party.
The party’s arrogance is evident at the party congress, which has been going on this week in Beijing. Forget about open speeches or lively debates, or give-and-take on critical issues. Behind closed doors, Xi and those closest to him have been telling everyone what to say and do. How they wield such tight control is somewhat mysterious. Obviously, they’ve been planning well in advance to be sure of the results.
Outside China, confirmation of Xi’s grip on power gives rise to urgent questions. At the top of the list is what he’ll do to increase China’s influence worldwide ― from Africa to the rest of Asia to the Americas. We can only hope that he will be reasonably rational regarding South Korea and Taiwan, not to mention the South China Sea and everywhere else.
Take South Korea, for instance. It’s risky to make predictions about Korea considering the shocks that have befallen the Korean Peninsula since Kim Il-sung invaded the South in 1950. He did so after persuading Mao, less than a year after the victory of his Red Army on the Chinese mainland in 1949, and Josef Stalin, the Russian dictator whose army, allied with the United States and Britain, had defeated Nazi Germany, that he could score a quick victory and unify the peninsula.
It’s unlikely that Xi will support Kim Jong-un’s fantasy of challenging South Korea with tactical nukes and artillery barrages across the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas. While keeping the North on life support with oil, food and much else, China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner and has a tremendously favorable trade balance with the United States. Xi would prefer to maintain those relationships.
This brings us to Taiwan, the U.S.-supported, independent Chinese province. Xi has to go on saying that China will take over Taiwan by force if necessary, but what is he going to do aside from staging war games? Why risk war with the Americans and maybe the Japanese, who ruled Taiwan after their victory in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 until their surrender at the end of World War II? Again, China has too much to lose in a war that it might not win and would deprive it of the wealth it’s making off the United States and others.
None of this means that Xi will forego expansionism overseas while battling economic problems at home. He is not going to compromise on claims to the South China Sea, and he will want to build on the inroads China has made in relations with all those tiny island nations in the South Pacific to which the Americans haven’t been paying much attention since fighting the Japanese for them in World War II.
Across the southern rim of Asia, the Chinese have formed close relations with Pakistan, once an American ally, building a road across the Himalayas and anchoring the China-Pakistan economic corridor by developing a port at Gwadar. China’s expansionist ambitions extend to projects from Africa to South America, and they also penetrate America, ripping off the expertise that’s made the United States the leader in the high-tech revolution.
In the process, under Xi Jinping, China has become increasingly dictatorial. Among the more ominous signs would appear to be the rapport between Xi and the equally authoritarian Russian president, Vladimir Putin. It’s not clear how much support Xi is giving Putin in the invasion of Ukraine, but certainly, he is on Putin’s side. That’s by way of revenge for President Biden’s shows of support for Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
The repression of democratic rights in Hong Kong and the highly organized subjugation of the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region show the lengths Xi is willing to go to show off China’s power. Like Mao, he can’t last forever.
Already we have seen cracks in the armor. Xi should have the sense, however, not to envision war anywhere, especially in the northeast Asian flashpoints of Korea and Taiwan, as the way to solidify his rule.