Xi Jinping is awash in honorifics, bathing in the glory of unconstrained power. He is China’s president, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s general secretary, and the Central Military Commission’s chairman. And now, just two years after Chinese lawmakers abolished presidential term limits — allowing Xi, 67, to extend his rule beyond 2023 — he has set the stage to claim yet another title, one that signals his intention to lead China for life: CCP chairman.
Mao Zedong, communist China’s founding father, was the CCP’s inaugural chairman, ruling with a despotic fist from 1949 until his death in 1976. But the post-Mao Chinese leadership carefully rebuked their predecessor’s governance style, implementing reforms to prevent a similar “overconcentration of power.” The chairman title was retired in 1982.
For the following decades, Chinese leaders ruled mostly by consensus, producing carefully considered policies. Even Deng Xiaoping, a strong-willed reformer often at odds with CCP brass, worked largely within the system. But since he took power in 2012, Xi has replaced this collectivism with personalism, outflanking and ousting his opponents to create a qualitatively different regime in which there are few constraints on his authority. Chinese foreign policy has accordingly evolved with Xi’s ideology, becoming more impulsive and aggressive — ultimately augmenting the risk of military confrontation with the United States.
Personalism breeds policy mistakes; correcting these errors then proves difficult, as reversing a strongman’s decisions undercuts his purported infallibility.
Mao, for instance, pursued disastrous domestic projects, namely the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, which together tried to communize an agrarian society whether it made farming sense or not and “purify” China of bourgeois apostates. These campaigns came complete with cannibalistic massacres, famine, school closures, forced re-education, and imprisonment, leaving some 20 million dead and setting the country back decades.
Mao’s foreign policy decisions were similarly impulsive and bloody. He rejected the United Nations’ proposed cease-fire to end the Korean War and subsequently lost China’s diplomatic and military advantage. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he supported an array of violent and often unsuccessful foreign communist parties from modern-day Malaysia to Burma to Cambodia to Angola. In 1962, he invaded India to “humiliate” Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an emerging developing world leader and implicit rival, and undermine India itself, a perceived “tool” of the anti-China United States.
For Mao, the geopolitical was personal, and the personal became calamitous policy. “What policy debate?” a senior Chinese official remarked in 1975. “It was just a matter of doing what Mao decreed.”
It was this legacy, of personal decrees as governance, from which Mao’s successors hoped to divorce China. Deng specifically tried to preempt the rise of another dictator by introducing reforms like term limits and a mandatory retirement age.
Deng and China’s subsequent leaders, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, governed far more by consensus than Mao did. Even when Hu extended Chinese soft power throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, he was careful to emphasize the “peaceful” nature of China’s rise.
Xi, however, has over the last decade dismantled Deng’s balustrades, replacing oligarchic party rule with personal authority, making Chinese foreign policy substantially more impulsive and assertive in the process. Beijing now barely veils its hopes to turn the page on the liberal world order and write a new chapter into history.
And while Xi has proclaimed that a Chinese-led “community of common destiny for mankind” would act like a Swiss army knife — as a multifunctional tool to solve the world’s problems — his pursuit of this new Chinese epoch has so far only exacerbated global troubles. Already, Xi’s regime has unwisely and abhorrently oppressed the Uighur Muslims in what looks like genocide, transformed soft-spoken Chinese diplomats into “Wolf Warriors” who quarrel with foreign diplomats and media, effectively taken over Hong Kong, bizarrely extended new territorial claims to Bhutan, echoed Mao by skirmishing with India, and become increasingly aggressive in both the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
China’s late August firing of missiles into that sea — an unmistakably hostile message to the United States — is only the most recent episode.
But such maneuvering does not serve Beijing’s long-term ambitions, instead undermining China’s claim to a “peaceful” rise. Chinese heavy-handedness is now leading more than a few countries to reconsider their relationships with the Asian Giant. This should not be surprising: Personalist foreign policies are more conflictual than those formulated by political machines, while policy incompetence eviscerates soft power. Examples of such disaster abound in history, from Austria-Hungary to Romania to the Soviet Union to Iraq.
Xi “bears a great deal of culpability,” Cai Xia, a former CCP insider, recently declared. “But for one person to do ill over a long time, and for the whole party to not utter a word, that clearly shows that the party’s system and bodies have big problems.”
Still, Xi appears undeterred. His impatience — fueled by a fear of China’s eventual economic decline — has led him to seize this moment, a high water-mark of Chinese power as the United States flounders, to advance China’s case for global leadership. China is now following the historic trail of rising powers that responded to economic downturns by becoming “more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad,” as Michael Beckley, a professor at Tufts University, put it in a Foreign Affairs article last year.
This bellicosity accentuates the risk of US-China military confrontation. It does not take much imagination to see how Xi’s aggression, coupled with increased enmity between China and the United States, could lead the two countries to stumble into war in the South China Sea or over Taiwan.
The fact that Xi’s domestic legitimacy hinges largely on populist nationalism, which his and previous governments have stoked with decades of “patriotic education,” increases both the risk of such confrontation and its potential intensity. For Xi, backing down to the United States would be an intolerable humiliation to which confrontation might actually be preferable.
Xi’s personalization of the Chinese regime has left him without the flexibility needed to tamp tensions with Washington and made him more likely to blunder into a corner where the only options — engaging in military hostilities with the world’s greatest power or losing face domestically — are poor. Faced with those two courses of action, he could choose the first, plunging China into conflict to solidify his nationalist credentials while dissenting cadres stay mum.
Xi’s ideological rigidity and recklessness should put Washington on notice. He may not be a madman hoping to start World War III, but he is a fallible leader on whom American leaders cannot count to pull China back from the brink.
If faced with this unpleasant scenario, the United States must be flexible and judicious enough to de-escalate, knowing that Xi will not. American policymakers must seek back channels through which they can broker a face-saving deal with Xi, as John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev did in 1962, overruling their militaries to prevent the Cuban missile crisis from instigating nuclear war.
This, however, requires that Washington continue cultivating such lines of communication with Beijing, which are already drying up thanks to both countries’ belligerent diplomatic styles. Public rhetoric matters, for it both stirs up domestic nationalism and undermines the possibility of peace- and face-saving negotiations. Both sides interpret the other’s words as evidence of hostile intent.
War between the United States and China still remains avoidable, but with tensions rising and both countries governed by inflexible nationalists, the prospect of sleepwalking into disaster is more material now than at any moment in recent memory. Indeed, the impetuousness of the White House’s current occupant, an aspirant autocrat who prefers to recklessly fan the flames of ethnic nationalism, attacking China in the process, is yet another factor tipping the scales away from peace.
Imprudence on both sides of the Pacific has only fueled the fires of conflict. Given the promised endurance of Xi’s hostility, it is apparent that only American tact, wisdom, and bravery can extinguish the blaze.
Charles Dunst is an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank, and a journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesDunst.