China in the Era of Xi Jinping

Robert S. Ross, Professor of Political Science at Boston University and Fairbank Center Associate, examines the political, economic and foreign policy challenges facing contemporary China and the leadership’s policy responses.

Xi Jinping is the most powerful and decisive leader of the Chinese Communist Party since Deng Xiaoping. He has carried out institutional reforms that aim to increase his personal control of policy making and centralize decision making for implementing reforms and for foreign policy making. His anti-corruption campaign has strengthened his personal power and contributed to greater party legitimacy with the Chinese people. Xi thus has the authority and confidence to carry our far-reaching reforms to establish a solid foundation for China’s continued economic development and China’s rise well into the twenty-first century.

Nonetheless, since Xi Jinping’s appointment as party secretary in 2012, the economy has faltered, economic reforms have stalled, social instability has increased, and the party’s legitimacy has declined. In international affairs, regional opposition to the rise of China has increased. Despite Xi’s power and determination, in many important respects China’s political, economic, and diplomatic circumstances have deteriorated.

In economic affairs, even as economic growth has faltered and the financial system has failed to promote productive investments, the Xi Jinping leadership has stressed the importance of ideological conformity and tightened central control over the economy, rather than promote market reforms. Powerful interest groups have blocked restructuring of China’s highly inefficient state-owned industries. And China relies more than ever on investment-driven growth, contributing to an increasing and unsustainable debt-to-GDP ratio. The Chinese leadership’s evident inability to carry out long-promised reforms has contributed to a crisis of conference in China regarding the prospects for China’s economic future.

Xi Jinping at the National People’s Congress, image credit:

In state-society relations, as the economy has faltered and crime has increased, local governments have extracted significant wealth from farmers and increased party control to maintain stability. The party has thus experienced diminished legitimacy and social instability has increased. It has responded with increased repression of dissidents and social reformers and reduced tolerance of independent political activities. It has also used the propaganda system to promote patriotism and it has substituted nationalism for economic performance to maintain legitimacy. Although the government has initiated service-orientated policies to promote mass support for the party, local governments have frequently used central funding for social welfare programs to promote economic development, exacerbating social instability.

In foreign policy, China faces equally daunting challenges. China’s pressing and multiple domestic and international challenges have undermined the leadership’s ability to develop and implement a grand strategy. Moreover, the complexity of Chinese diplomacy and the growth of the Chinese bureaucracy have contributed to a fragmentation of policy making, with multiple institutions possessing considerable autonomy. In this context, Xi Jinping has tried to advance Chinese security in East Asia while maintaining cooperation with Chinese neighbors and the United States. Although Xi has in many ways improved Chinese security, he has also aroused region-wide suspicion of Chinese intentions, contributing to greater resistance to the rise of China.

As Xi Jinping nears the end of his first five-year term as party secretary, China is in a worse condition than it was five years earlier. It remains to be seen whether the Xi Jinping leadership can respond to China’s deteriorating circumstances with policy innovations that can put China back on the road to prosperity and international rise.

Robert S. Ross is the co-editor with Jo Inge Bekkevold of China in the Era of Xi Jinping (Georgetown University Press, 2016), featuring contributions from Bo Zhiue, Chen Gang, Joseph Fewsmith, Helge Hveem, Linda Jakobson, Mingjiang Li, Andrew J. Nathan, Barry Naughton, T. J. Pempel, Stig Stenslie, Wng Cuifen, and Zheng Yongnian.