The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Xi wants China to eclipse the U.S. He could be his own worst enemy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening session of the national congress on Sunday in Beijing. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

On Feb. 4, as the Winter Olympics were opening in Beijing, Xi Jinping hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin for a formalization of their shared project of throwing off America’s hegemony. With the world’s eyes fastened on China, they announced in a joint statement that a new era of “multipolarity” had arrived in which nations would respect one another and not meddle in one another’s business.

The first eight months of their partnership have not been good for the new sheriffs in town. From Beijing, Putin returned to Russia and immediately launched a war of staggering stupidity. Intending to reveal the West’s weakness by snatching Ukraine from under NATO’s nose, Putin instead galvanized and strengthened NATO while revealing that his military is a hollow husk. While the United States and its allies send state-of-the-art weaponry to Ukraine, Russia is seizing pacifists and reeling drunks from the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, pressing them into service without food or guns.

That leaves Xi. Like a newlywed who discovers on the honeymoon that her spouse collects human ears, the Chinese leader must have — to put it mildly — some regrets. But he put on a brave face at China’s Communist Party congress, where he is nailing down his near-dictatorial powers. The “helmsman,” as party propagandists describe Xi, reiterated China’s plans to eclipse the United States; no mention this time of his Moscow partner.

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You might call this story “When Bad Things Happen to Great Powers.” All hegemons, past and present, know how it goes. Indeed, the true test of a world-leading nation is not how it looks on its best days, with the Olympics for a backdrop. It’s how the nation handles the bad patches and periods of weakness.

This is where the United States has shined in history, and why, when the chips are down, most of the world prefers to be on America’s side. Annoying as it is to live in a world where one nation has an outsize portion of power, it’s less dangerous than a world in which power is always up for grabs.

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The United States excels at comebacks. That’s what I’ve observed in my many years on the planet, which began a couple of weeks into John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Kennedy had been very narrowly elected on the promise to rectify the “missile gap” between the supposedly superior Soviet Union and weak old USA. During my boyhood, the United States caught up in space but bogged down in Vietnam and blazed with protest.

In the 1970s, we were made to dance like puppets by Saudi oil sheikhs, watched the economy flatline and sagged into a national malaise.

The United States was held hostage by Iran at the start of the 1980s and was fearful of falling behind Japan by the end of the decade. By the turn of the century, a guy in a cave was making videos promising to defeat us. Lately, it’s China that’s going to outpace America — if we don’t have a civil war first.

More than 60 years of threats and setbacks — and guess what? The United States is still the superpower on which friends rely and by which rivals measure themselves. What explains this? Geography plays a role, undoubtedly. If you could choose any piece of real estate on Earth for building a strong economy, you’d pick ours: abundant resources, fertile soil, moderate climates, multiple seaports, attractive scenery and so on.

That said, the bone-deep aversion to centralized power that inspirits the Constitution and hums in the background of all American culture makes this nation comparatively nimble in terms of noticing frailty, discussing failure and crowdsourcing improvement. We are more likely to make a hero or a billionaire of someone who strays from the herd than to make a political prisoner of him.

Open dissent often seems inefficient, much as groupthink can feel streamlined and muscular. But then something goes wrong, and it’s the dissenters, the freethinkers, who diagnose the problem and devise the solutions.

Xi doesn’t get this. He continues to consolidate his grip on power even as China enters a period of likely stagnation and deterioration. Xi is sitting on a debt bomb that he appears unable to disarm. His covid-19 policy has stalled China’s economy. (China has abruptly stopped publishing economic data — precisely the opposite approach to weakness as the American model.) Xi has crushed free speech in Hong Kong. His Belt and Road Initiative has lost its way. His workforce is aging.

As Putin’s fiasco teaches: An autocrat is his own worst enemy, choking off information and smothering creativity in the closed society he rules. Durable power, by contrast, springs not from projecting strength but from admitting and addressing flaws. Do that well, and the strength takes care of itself.