The following is an adapted excerpt from Helen Raleigh’s new book, Backlash: How China’s Aggression Has Backfired.
The Chinese Communist Party’s leader, Xi Jinping, is the most powerful leader in Communist China since Chairman Mao. Yet, Xi’s outward strongman image is a veneer over his inner insecurity. When he came into power in late 2012, China’s economy had slowed down from double-digit growth to single-digit growth; the mass working-age population, which had been the engine of China’s economic growth, has begun to decline. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, projects that by 2030, “China will round out its thinning labor force by hiring workers from abroad.” At the same time, according to Mark Haas, a political-science professor at Duquesne University, “China alone in 2050 will have more than 329 million people over 65.” Consequently, China is expected to be the first major economy that will grow older before it achieves widespread prosperity.
Without its demographic dividend and with an aging population, China’s economic growth will further slow down at the time when the government needs to keep its growing middle class from demanding a level of political freedom matching their newfound wealth. An aging population would also force the government to allocate more national resources for elder care and social services, which means there will be fewer resources to compete against the U.S. This is probably one of the most important reasons why Xi feels that he has to abandon the so-called strategic-patience guidance issued by Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader of China from 1978 to 1997, who instructed his comrades to bide their time and avoid any confrontation with powerful external forces until China was in a much stronger position both economically and militarily.
Xi, however, believes that China can’t afford to bide its time any longer. It must replace the liberal world order with a Sino-centric world order before China’s population becomes too old and the Chinese economy becomes too stagnant. However, rather than furthering economic reform and opening up more sectors to foreign investment and competition to strengthen its economy, Xi chose to hide China’s weaknesses and exaggerate China’s economic strengths. He emphasizes self-reliance and utilizing China’s resources to pump up “national champions,” or state-owned enterprises that could compete against global leaders in strategic sectors. Xi feels that nationalism is his new trump card, something he can use to motivate, excite, and unite a billion people all the while strengthening the CCP’s rule over them. Others say that his inward-looking nationalist policies are leading China to the very middle-income trap — in which China’s level of development stalls out before reaching the heights of other modern industrial nations — that Xi and his predecessors tried very hard to avoid.
Yet the more the Chinese economy slows down, the more Xi feels the need to project a strongman image both abroad and, especially, at home. As Wang Gungwu and Zheng Yongnian, two Chinese scholars, wrote in China and the New International Order, this dynamic has deep roots in Chinese history: “China’s internal order was so closely related to her international order that one could not long survive without the other; when the barbarians were not submissive abroad, rebels might more easily arise within. Most dynasties collapsed under the twin blows of inside disorder and outside calamity, nei luan wai huang, that is, domestic rebellion and foreign invasion.”
Xi is keenly aware that he is vulnerable to internal rebellion. He has purged more than 1.5 million government officials, military leaders, and party elites. His trade war with the U.S. is deeply unpopular inside China because it has caused economic pains such as rising unemployment, closing of factories, and the shifting of the global supply chain out of China. Xi knows very well that if he shows any signs of weakness, he may end up like his political rival, Bo Xilai — a princeling who is currently languishing in a notorious Chinese prison for high-level party officials.
In addition, Xi saw former U.S. President Obama as a “weak” leader who led a nation that was on its way to inevitable decline, which opened up an unprecedented opportunity for China. Xi also has certain milestones he wants to reach: In 2021, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and in 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of Communist China. Xi wants to do something big to cement his place in history when he reaches these milestones. Therefore, in his mind, the era of hiding strength and biding time is over. He wants to show the world a new set of policies, actions, and attitudes that match China’s powerful status.
For a while, Xi was succeeding. Internally, he ruthlessly cracked down on religious believers, political dissenters, party officials, and business elites. He also built a mass surveillance state that turned the dystopian nightmare imagined by George Orwell’s 1984 into a reality. Internationally, he imposed his strong will on businesses and nations big and small through his signature project “One Belt and One Road.” The way Xi sees it, the more other countries become economically dependent on China, the more he can dominate them peacefully without having to use force. One commentator has observed that Xi “resembles a clenched fist. At home, he is clenching hard to assert his control. To the outside world, he is a hard-thrusting force determined to get his way.” Xi’s fist has conditioned many nations including the Western democracies to believe that China is stronger than it actually is and that China’s global dominance is inevitable. Therefore, few are willing to challenge China’s human-rights violations at home and its assertive behavior abroad.
But even the most powerful emperor can fly too close to the sun. The dissenting voices inside China are getting louder, while global backlash against China reached new heights in 2019. Then the 2020 coronavirus outbreak stripped the facade of Xi’s powerful image, revealed deep flaws within the CCP’s dictatorial political system, caused immense anger and frustration among Chinese people, brought serious detriments to China’s prestigious international image, and brought China’s seemingly unstoppable rise to a halt. As the prominent Hong Kong entrepreneur Jimmy Lai has written, “The more Mr. Xi pursues his authoritarian agenda, the more distrust he will sow at home and abroad. Far from transforming Beijing into the world’s leading superpower, his policies will instead keep China from taking its rightful place of honor in a peaceful, modern and integrated world.” Xi has misread the situation, overplayed his hand, and his aggressive policies at home and abroad have backfired, proving the saying: Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.