Chinese leader Xi Jinping will mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic on Tuesday with a massive parade through Beijing, showing off the country’s military might and underlining progress toward his “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation.
China’s paramount leader has cemented his grip on the Communist Party, winning status as its “core.” He has eliminated term limits — and rivals, via a crackdown on graft — while enshrining “Xi Jinping Thought” in China’s constitution and fostering a personality cult that has variously referred to him as the “People’s Leader,” the “Strategist Behind China’s Reform,” the “Top Commander Reshaping the Military” and the “Architect of Modernization for the New Era,” among other monikers.
U.S. President Donald Trump has even gone so far as to jokingly, perhaps, refer to him as a “king.”
“Xi is obviously more confident and more willing to project China’s growing power,” says Zhiqun Zhu, a political science professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. “Though China is unlikely to replace the United States as the dominant power any time soon, its policies will challenge the Western-led international order.”
While former leader Deng Xiaoping delivered the famous dictum, “Hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile and never claim leadership,” Xi has brushed this advice aside.
“Xi has abandoned the previous policy of ‘keeping a low profile’ because he believes China’s time has arrived,” says Yun Sun, a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
However, Xi is also facing mounting obstacles to fulfilling his pledges of achieving the “Two 100s”: the material goal of China becoming a “moderately well-off society” by about 2020, the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party, and the modernization goal of China becoming a fully developed nation by about 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic.
Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, maritime assertiveness in the South and East China seas and its internment of up to a million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps in the far west Xinjiang region have all contributed to growing international pushback against Xi and the Chinese leadership.
“The challenge to the current international order is tremendous, from democratic values to the free-market economy, from free trade to international institutions,” Sun says. “The U.S. is already pushing back significantly over the past several years. More is expected.”
So what might the future hold for communist China and its most powerful leader since founder Mao Zedong — who was also addressed with a litany of superlatives?
“China watchers are split on this point,” says Stephen Nagy, senior associate politics and international studies professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.
“Some see as Xi weak and unable to build consensus among stakeholders to push through major economic reforms and come to a compromise with the U.S. in a trade deal,” Nagy says. “Others see him in a position of absolute control still being able to imprison political enemies at will under the guise of the anti-corruption campaign.”
But Nagy claims that, in reality, there is no alternative to the party.
“If it collapses, it would bifurcate into two or three versions of itself that are likely similarly minded on external security but different on the correct path forward for political and economic reform as well as social control,” he says.
Whatever the case, Xi has a long struggle ahead — something even he has admitted likely lies in wait.
In a Sept. 3 speech at the Central Party School, Xi spoke of the immense challenges facing the country and the party, calling on officials, particularly younger ones, “to maintain a fighting spirit and strengthen their ability to struggle, to strive for achieving the two centenary goals.”
Notably, he chose to use the word “struggle” — rather than “challenge,” “test” or “obstacle” — “a staggering 56 times,” according to an analysis by The China Media Project, an independent research program partnered with the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism & Media Studies Center.
“On one level, Xi’s struggles certainly refer to the objective challenges facing China, which would include the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, weak if not faltering economic growth, deeper international resistance to the country’s global ambitions, and persisting tensions over issues of sovereignty, whether in Hong Kong, the South China Sea or Xinjiang,” project co-director David Bandurski wrote in the analysis this month.
“On another level, Xi’s constant ‘struggling’ in the September 3 speech means we should entertain more seriously the possibility that Xi is facing his own real struggles within the Party as he grapples with this substantial list of challenges.”
Bandurski wrote that the choice of language “might be intended to send a tough message” to those within the party who resist his leadership, or attempt to work against his objectives.
“So this talk of ‘struggle’ could point to fierce internal struggles and squabbles within the Chinese Communist Party.”
Experts say Xi’s crackdown on graft is likely the No. 1 cause of any internal struggle he is facing. While it has rooted out deep-seated corruption in government and the military, it has also allowed Xi to topple a number of “tigers,” a reference to senior officials and would-be rivals. But in doing so, he has also set in motion the ousting of “flies,” or low-ranking officials, many with ties to his higher-level rivals.
And while Xi currently enjoys a firm grip on power, the crackdown has exposed a vulnerability that he and his allies will have to face for the foreseeable future.
“Factions within the Chinese Communist Party that have suffered under the anti-corruption campaign would be happy to extract retribution on Xi for his policy choices,” says Nagy. But the chances of such a scenario currently are “slim as Xi has installed loyal acolytes in the military, Standing Committee and important posts throughout the state.
Ultimately, in the pursuit of greater power and control, Xi and the party appear to have inadvertently set themselves along a perilous path for the moment.
China’s thirst for regional and perhaps global hegemony, despite its repeated vows not to seek this, is setting the stage for a crisis, observers say, since reining in its lofty goals could strip them of legitimacy, spelling doom for both Xi and the party.
“The party is always concerned about stability at home and fears losing control,” says Zhu. “As the economy slows down while the middle class grows and political reforms continue to be shelved, the party is likely to face challenges ahead regarding its legitimacy.
“Short of political reforms, tighter control seems the only option.”