China’s economy is collapsing. Unemployment is skyrocketing. The endless covid lockdown is destroying businesses and people’s lives. The property sector is in crisis. Relations between Beijing and major global powers are strained.
The list of problems for the world’s second-largest economy goes on — and many of those long-term challenges have worsened under Xi Jinping’s decade-long rule. Yet the Chinese leader’s grip on power remains unbroken.
Over the past decade, Xi Jinping has consolidated control to an extent unseen since the era of Communist China’s powerful founder, Mao Zedong. He heads the Chinese Communist Party, the state, the armed forces and so many committees that he is called the “Chairman of Everything”. And now, he is set to embark on an unprecedented third term in power, with the prospect of ruling for life.
But absolute power can often mean absolute responsibility, and as problems mount, analysts warn Xi will have less room to dodge blame.
“I think the worst enemy of Xi Jinping’s longevity to rule China is Xi Jinping himself,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London. “That’s when he makes a huge policy mistake that creates havoc in China that could potentially start the process of unraveling Xi Jinping’s tenure.”
Mao’s rule from 1949 to 1976 was characterized by hasty policy decisions that resulted in the deaths of millions and the destruction of the economy. After these decades of turmoil, the Communist Party developed a system of collective leadership to prevent the rise of another dictator designed who might make arbitrary and dangerous decisions.
China’s next leader, Deng Xiaoping, set an unwritten rule and precedent that the general secretary of the Communist Party — the role from which China’s leader derives real power — would step down after two terms.
From Mao to Xi: A History of China’s Leadership
When Xi took power in 2012, China’s economy grew as it became more closely integrated with the rest of the world. Just four years ago, China stunned the world with the spectacular Beijing Summer Olympics. But to Xi, the party was in crisis: plagued by corruption, infighting and inefficiency.
Xi’s solution was to return to autocratic and individualistic rule. He purged political enemies in a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, silenced internal dissent, abolished presidential term limits and enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought” in the party constitution.
According to analysts, many dictators fall into a pattern of abuse of power and poor decision-making when a lack of critical advice reaches the leader. They point to Vladimir Putin’s increasingly expensive war against Ukraine as a concern that Xi’s similarly unquestioned power over the Russian president could one day lead to equally disastrous consequences.
Putin and Xi “suffer from the same strongman-syndrome problem, which is that they have turned their policy advisory circles into echo chambers, so people are no longer able to speak their minds,” Tsang said. “We’re seeing big mistakes because that internal policy debate is reduced in terms of scope or actually eliminated.”
In recent history, no country has modernized as fast as China. The Communist Party claims its leadership has helped lift millions of people out of poverty, turning backwater villages into stunning megacities. But that growth miracle has slowed. And many of the long-standing challenges in China’s economy have only been exacerbated by Xi’s policies.
Xi has made it his mission to strengthen the party and its control over business and society. He unleashed a crackdown on the once-vibrant private sector that led to massive layoffs. Beijing claims tough regulations curb overpowering corporations and protect consumers, but the measures have stifled private businesses, sent a chill through the economy and stoked fears about future innovation.
China’s once vibrant private sector is suffocating in Xi’s crackdown
Beijing began cutting off easy credit for property firms in 2020, leading to cash crunches and defaults for many developers, including giant conglomerate Evergrande. Housing projects have stalled and frustrated home buyers across the country are refusing to pay mortgages on unfinished homes. Disruptions to the property sector have a major impact on China’s wider economy, as it accounts for as much as 30% of the country’s GDP.
But nothing has shaken China’s economy and society under Xi like Zero-Covid. Three years into the pandemic, China clung to strict policies, relying on mass testing, mass quarantines and snap lockdowns to prevent infection at all costs, even as the rest of the world learned 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. Lining up for a Covid test and scanning a tracking health code to enter any public space has become normal. Beijing argues that the policy has prevented China from heading into a health care disaster similar to the rest of the world, but zero-covid is managed at huge and growing costs.
Artist wears 27 hazmat suits to protest China’s policies
Continued lockdowns have dramatically shrunk China’s economic growth. Record youth unemployment has reached nearly 20%. Pocketbook shrinking. Heavily indebted local governments are forced to spend on mass Covid testing. Experts say resources would be better spent on increasing vaccination rates rather than building expensive testing sites and quarantine facilities. China has yet to approve any foreign mRNA vaccine that has proven more effective against the highly infectious Omicron variant than the inactivated vaccine used in China.
At the start of the pandemic, Beijing censored — and in some cases punished — doctors, experts and citizen journalists who tried to warn of a deadly virus in Wuhan.
Nearly three years later, as most international experts advised China to find ways to survive the virus, Beijing doubled down. Earlier this year, Shanghai – a metropolis with a population more than three times that of New York City – was locked down for two months. People struggled to get enough food and basic necessities. Frustrated residents broke out of house arrest and clashed with enforcement officers in rare street protests. Many patients are denied life-saving healthcare.
When the World Health Organization criticized the zero-covid policy as “unsustainable”, China censored the statement on social media.
Susan Shirk, director of the Center for 21st Century China and author of “Overreach,” a book on Xi’s leadership, said China’s leaders “compete with each other to prove how loyal they are to him because Xi promotes loyalists, not the most qualified. ” Subordinates go over the top in implementing policies to try to please Xi, he said.
Shirk said it played out with zero-covid, since Xi directly tied his leadership to strategy, so local officials diligently followed suit to show loyalty to the leader and protect their careers.
“A lot of the pain in China’s economy is self-inflicted by China’s leaders,” Shirk said.
“So what this suggests, and it’s a pretty disturbing idea, is that the Chinese Communist Party no longer identifies itself as a developmental party, with economic development as its primary goal. But instead, it’s Xi Jinping’s power grab.”