Maximum Xi

Maximum Xi

Xi Jinping emerged from October’s 20th Party Congress with tighter control over the ruling Communist Party – and, therefore, over China – than any leader since Mao Zedong. He can now continue his state-centric approach to China’s economy and an overtly nationalist foreign policy with even less internal resistance than he has encountered since beginning his consolidation of power a decade ago.

As a result, Xi’s ability to make arbitrary decisions that impact the lives of billions of people is also unrivaled. And because China is exponentially more important for the stability of the global economy and the balance of geopolitical power than during Mao’s reign, Xi’s power has become a global problem.

Consider a few of his recent decisions. His refusal, up to now, to import foreign-made mRNA vaccines has left China’s 1.4 billion people far more vulnerable to Covid-19 than they should be. To date, Covid deaths in China are a small fraction of those in the United States and Europe, but there is good reason to fear this remarkable (though economically and socially costly) success cannot last. Add China’s failure to adequately vaccinate people even with Chinese-made vaccines, and millions are at risk of severe disease and worse.

The Chinese leader’s drive for control has produced considerable damage in other areas, as well. A secretive crackdown on private sector technology companies, probably driven by fears these firms have too much influence over the flow of information in the country, has undermined China’s ability to build groundbreaking new digital technologies and the confidence of international investors that China remains a safe place to invest… taking a trillion dollars of market capital from one of China’s most efficient areas of the private sector.

On foreign policy, Xi’s announcement of a “no limits” Chinese friendship with Russia just three weeks before the invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated fears in America and Europe that Xi shares Putin’s hunger to remake the international system.

In all three cases, Xi’s authoritarian personality, his drive for tight political and economic control, and his hawkish approach to foreign policy have overridden the wise counsel he might have received from within the state bureaucracy. And this was before Xi crowned himself emperor in November by filling the Politburo Standing Committee with trusted loyalists and discarding the post-Mao consensus of rule by committee in China. Now that Chinese policy flows directly from a single all-powerful leader, there’s even less transparency in the policy process, less reliable information flowing to the top to inform that process, and less room to admit error, change course, or even to compromise.

The problem of Maximum Xi will grow larger in 2023. First, the startling decision to end Zero Covid all at once and without careful preparation could kill a million or more Chinese people. This snap decision to allow the virus to spread unchecked, particularly with dangerously low vaccination rates among the elderly, was made without warning citizens or even local governments, will create deadly chaos that his government will try to hide from the outside world and his own people. Only an emperor could execute such an extraordinary – and extraordinarily costly – reversal.

If a dangerous new strain of Covid were to emerge, Maximum Xi makes it more likely that it would spread quickly across China and across borders. China’s ability to identify this new variant would be compromised by Xi’s order to sharply and suddenly reduce testing. We should also fear that China’s hospitals are not prepared for the waves of seriously ill people they have begun to accept. Nor can the world have confidence, given Covid’s origins in late 2019, that China will share information needed to protect lives outside China.

For the economy, Xi’s drive for state control will produce decisions unchallenged by expert opinion and a surge in policy uncertainty. That is bad news for an economy already weakened by two years of Covid lockdowns, falling confidence in China’s all-important real estate sector, and debt defaults that could undermine the country’s financial sector. Beijing’s handling of economic statistics will also face scrutiny. A sudden decision to delay the release of long-scheduled economic data during the party congress was an ominous sign of things to come for global markets.

Finally, for foreign policy, Xi’s nationalist views and assertive style will define Beijing’s relations with rivals, allies, and the very large number of governments that are deeply reluctant to risk becoming either one. Xi knows his country can’t afford a near-term crisis, given the scale and immediacy of economic challenges at home. But “wolf warrior” diplomacy will intensify nonetheless as diplomats echo Xi’s aggressive foreign policy rhetoric. Xi’s personal affinity for Vladimir Putin and his worldview will limit how closely China engages with governments that support Ukraine. More destructive Russian behavior, a virtual certainty in 2023, will color US and European attitudes toward Xi and China.

The last time a Chinese leader had this much unconstrained power, the result was widespread famine, economic ruin, and the deaths of millions of people. There is no “cultural revolution” or “great leap forward” on the horizon, and the size of China’s educated urban middle class provides one of the few checks on Xi’s ability for such drastic measures. But Maximum Xi has already cost China and the Chinese people a great deal, and it will likely cost them even more in 2023.

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “The Power of Crisis.”

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