Xi’s paradoxical China policy

In both domestic and foreign policy, Xi has taken a hard and soft line simultaneously, aimed at bringing China closer to his vision of the “Chinese dream”.

In March 2013, Xi Jinping assumed office as president of China, a few months after stepping into the role of new chief of the Communist Party in November 2012. Xi came to power with a vision for China: the “Chinese dream” of “resurrecting” Chinese power, and of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. More concretely, he called for improving China’s legal institutions, promoting the “rule of law”, raising social standards, and carrying out further market economic reforms, as pledged during the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee in November 2013. Since then, the party and the government have worked on developing measures to achieve these general objectives. From 5 March to 15 March 2015, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference held their annual session to take decisions aimed at moving the president’s agenda forward. Will the decisions be enough to enable China to reach Xi’s goals?

The first item on Xi’s agenda since his accession seems to have been accumulating and centralising power within the Chinese political system.

In practice, the first item on Xi’s agenda since his accession seems to have been accumulating and centralising power within the Chinese political system. In addition to the three top offices customarily held by the supreme Chinese leader (the third being chairman of the Central Military Commission), Xi made himself head of all seven party committees newly set up to lead on national security and the economic reform process. Ever since, Xi has been in the driver’s seat of China’s domestic, foreign, and economic policy. He started to clean up the system, bringing down actual and potential rivals within the party. He initiated an anti-corruption campaign that took down party cadres from among the top of the top; the highest-ranking official thus felled was Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo in charge of security. Investigations against other senior military officials continue and have even reached the secret service (Ministry of State Security) apparatus. To date, 100,000 officials at various levels have been implicated in corruption investigations.

As well as accumulating power, Xi has been taking measures to strengthen the party’s standing with the Chinese public. Xi promotes himself as competent, as a man of the people (“Uncle Xi”, as one well-known song calls him), and as a leader who requires that his people stay in line – the line prescribed by the Communist Party. Censorship, internet and media control, arrests, disappearances, and detentions of political activists have all increased. In addition, the Chinese government has tightened its control over research and academic facilities. At the end of January 2015, China’s education minister announced a ban on textbooks that promote “Western values” as well as on any criticism of the Communist Party’s leadership. However, despite Xi’s ideological tightening of the reins, he needs to reform and open China – and he needs the West. This dichotomy “has created an unresolved tension in his presidency”, as The Washington Post recently wrote.

Although frequently assertive, Chinese foreign policy has also at times been conciliatory.

A similar tension seems to exist in Xi’s foreign and security policy: although frequently assertive, Chinese foreign policy has also at times been conciliatory. For example, in May 2014, China placed an oilrig in waters near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam. This led to a crisis between the two countries. However, a couple of months later, China withdrew its oilrig and has since sent friendlier signals to Hanoi. Incursions by Chinese troops into territory claimed by India have grown more frequent and more regular, with the most recent taking place in September 2014. But at the exact same time, Xi was visiting India, to try to make progress on both countries’ hope to improve economic and trade relations. And India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit China in May 2015. Tensions between China and Japan have increased dramatically over the last two years: no high-level meetings took place in the period, until the two heads of state finally met again in November 2014. Since then, it seems that China’s relations with Japan have been slowly recovering.

Domestically as well as internationally, Xi takes both a hard and a soft line in parallel. He does not want to escalate existing tensions, but he does intend to show his strength and power. However, many responsibilities come along with power, and Xi has many challenges to tackle if he is to fulfil his “Chinese dream.” As his next step, he will need to deal with urgent domestic issues such as combating the environmental crisis, and he will also have to stabilise the market at slower growth. The decisions taken by the NPC indicate that Xi recognises this need. China’s economic growth is slowing down, according to the World Bank: it will grow by an estimated 7.4 percent in 2014, and drop further to 6.9 percent by 2017. The Chinese government has acknowledged this fact. Before the NPC meeting, Prime Minister Li Keqiang announced a growth target of 7 percent.

For Xi, the challenge is to translate his pledges into action.

The NPC took other decisions on more concrete measures to move Xi’s agenda ahead, such as making it easier for new and private businesses to register and mandating more power to lower-level governments to promote growth. The NPC stressed the need to push through the reforms that had been previously announced, such as giving the market an increasing role and tackling smog and pollution. For Xi, the challenge is to translate his pledges into action. The environmental crisis is serious; in the medium to long term, there is a real possibility of a debt or financial and economic crisis; and improving China’s social system will cost a great deal of money.

If Xi succeeds in stabilising the economy and improving social standards for the large part of the people who have so far been left behind, it will be seen as his own personal success. He will be a leader who has made dreams come true. But if the Chinese leadership under Xi fails in its efforts, Xi personally will take the blame – and his “Chinese dream” might turn into his very own “China nightmare”.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Editor, China Analysis
Senior Policy Fellow

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