|Delegates applauded Chinese President Xi Jinping as he arrived for opening|
session of China's National People's Congress, March 2021 | Andy Wong/AP
Xi Jinping became president of China in 2013, launching what will be seen as a new era in the nation’s steady climb to first rank of nations and securing himself a near-cult status frequently compared to that of the founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong.
Most of Xi’s work has been within his country. The West finally took notice as China began to assert power in Asia and beyond. But Xi and his allies have been working for years to prepare for this moment. Communist Party leadership was shaken by the rapid collapse of the USSR in 1991. One of his initial actions was ensuring the party’s discipline, loyalty and involvement in all aspects of the rapidly growing economy.
Strengthening the military was important in protecting national unity, securing Xi’s position and preparing for the projecting of power. His adoption of a corruption campaign was no doubt needed, given the amount of party and government corruption and the public’s view of its prevalence. But, it was also useful for removing rivals. Most recently in Hong Kong, a patriotism test is used to screen local legislative candidates. Xi and the party have dramatically increased censorship and are using new technology to surveil the internet and all manners of transactions and movement.
In 2018 and 2019 party meetings and national Congress, Xi made explicit his national dominance by eliminating the expectations of term limits and the public perception of collective leadership. Xi’s “thoughts” on socialism with Chinese characteristics were embedded into the constitution, making clear his undisputed leadership. Only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have had similar treatment of their political doctrines.
Receiving the most notice is China’s assertion of foreign policy and military power, not only off its coast, but as far as the Middle East, Africa and Latin America – in fact, globally. China is now and intends to continue to exercise world influence, especially to secure its economy, and because it saw a clear opportunity from a dearth of leadership in the U.S. and Britain in the Trump-Brexit period. After years of a philosophy of low-key accumulation of power (Deng 1990: “hide your strength, bide your time”), China under Xi is reaching for control of its core interests – Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and significant influence globally. But the effort has costs, and China is finally receiving pushback, with the U.S. in the forefront.