The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Xi’s coronation portends a hard era for China and the world

Attendants wait to guide visitors at an exhibition highlighting Chinese President Xi Jinping and the achievements under his leadership at the Beijing Exhibition Hall in Beijing on Wednesday. (Andy Wong/AP)

On Sunday, 2,296 of the Chinese Communist Party’s 96.7 million members will assemble for a week-long party congress in Beijing, the outcome of which is all but certain: a third consecutive five-year term for Xi Jinping as ruler of 1.4 billion Chinese. In ratifying an extension of Mr. Xi’s time as the political figure who controls more people, with fewer constraints, than any other in the world, the Chinese party would confirm that national aggrandizement and dictatorship, not global cooperation and human rights, are its lodestars.

The first thing to note about this seeming inevitability is that, in a real sense, it should never have been possible. We’re not referring to the party congress itself: That’s a scheduled, every-five-years occurrence. Rather, the potential extension of Mr. Xi’s power for five years — and, in theory, more — undoes a key measure that the party leaders who succeeded Mao Zedong after his 1976 death took to prevent repetition of his disastrous personality cult. They wrote a two-term limit into the constitution in 1982; Mr. Xi, having been given a first term in 2012, engineered its removal early in his second, in 2018. By then, Mr. Xi had already defied optimistic expectations, Chinese and American, by acting on his deep-seated belief that political and economic openness had undone the Soviet Union and would also destroy Chinese Communism unless the party doubled down on what Lenin called “democratic centralism.”

Mr. Xi has stifled dissent, reimposed Marxist-Leninist indoctrination, subjected the populace to systematic surveillance, purged the party itself of potential opponents, and subjugated Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the latter through a genocidal campaign of forced labor and mass imprisonment of the Muslim Uyghur population. Ominously, he has expanded and improved China’s military capacities, while reasserting Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, most recently via massive military exercises to show displeasure with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August.

Half a century after President Richard M. Nixon’s opening to China, two decades after President Bill Clinton pushed Chinese most-favored-nation trading status through Congress, with bipartisan support, it is evident that the United States cannot guide China’s rise compatibly with U.S. strategic interests, much less in harmony with the rules-based international order, as many architects of past Western engagement efforts — governmental, corporate, scientific and intellectual — had hoped.

For today’s stewards of U.S. foreign policy, Mr. Xi’s coronation is therefore a moment to reflect on the wishful thinking and miscalculation of the past — and on how to avoid similar errors, without lapsing into the crude, episodic hostility of President Biden’s predecessor, President Donald Trump. To be sure, the Republican shift to a more China-skeptical posture means that Mr. Biden has the advantage of a two-party consensus in favor of competition with Beijing as broad as the consensus that used to favor engagement. He has spoken out forcefully for Taiwan’s right to exist as a democracy free of Chinese threats, while shoring up U.S. alliances with Australia, Japan and South Korea and inviting India’s help in containing China as part of “the Quad.” The president recently took a step toward limiting China’s bid for technological dominance by cutting off its access to advanced semiconductors that incorporate U.S. technology.

Mr. Biden’s national security strategy, released Wednesday, appropriately brands China “the only [U.S.] competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.” Yet the document holds out the prospect that China and the United States can “work together, for the good of our people and for the good of the world” on issues such as climate or pandemics. We hope that’s true, but fear it’s not. Mr. Xi has stonewalled global inquiries into the coronavirus’s origins and met more frequently with Russian President Vladimir Putin than with any other world leader. He has described the author of the aggressive war in Ukraine as his “best friend and colleague,” with whom he is “similar in character.” China indulged the Russian invasion from its start in February and has done nothing substantial to rein it in since.

It will be difficult for Mr. Biden to compete with China generally, while cooperating with it selectively. And yet Mr. Xi faces an arguably even harder task: to sustain China’s rise while stifling the private sector and curbing the free flow of ideas upon which material progress ultimately depends. A leader who trains his people to follow Xi Jinping Thought — and forbids them to question it — is likely to steer development as erratically as Mao did in his day. China’s economic growth, the font of its power, is flagging.

This results in part from structural factors such as slowing labor-force growth, which is in turn the consequence of a historic Communist error: the erstwhile “one child” policy. However, Mr. Xi’s own more recent policy choices are also harming the economy. One is his assault on successful e-commerce and other businesses, in the name of socialist equality. The other is his “zero covid” policy, which is looking more and more like a pet project Mr. Xi stubbornly refuses to reconsider than a public health measure. If China really wanted to find a way to reduce risks while resuming normal life, it would have imported Western-made vaccines rather than insisting on its own less effective product, which has not been fully administered to vulnerable elderly populations in any case. The net effect is a country that has paid a huge price for its reported low rate of infections and deaths yet remains underprotected against outbreaks.

Given these issues, and party control of the media, Mr. Xi’s true popularity is impossible to gauge. But he is likely testing his people’s patience. On Thursday, a courageous protester unfurled banners in Beijing, one calling for Mr. Xi’s ouster and another reading, in part, “We Want Freedom, Not Lockdowns . ... We Want Votes, Not Leaders.” When their economies stagnate and discontent increases, autocrats sometimes try to distract their people with adventures abroad. This is reason to worry that Mr. Xi might act on his ambition to seize Taiwan, sooner rather than later. So far, it is Mr. Xi’s success that has created risk for the United States and its allies. They must prepare for the possibility that his failures will create even more.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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