China’s supine parliament, the National People’s Congress has rubber-stamped Xi Jinping’s precedent-breaking third year term as president. He really is lord of all he surveys in the world’s second most powerful nation; China’s most dominant leader since Mao Zedong
However, it’s not all peace and prosperity in Xi’s China. The economy has faltered, China’s property market has imploded. The population is ageing rapidly. Regional banks have faced angry crowds as they run out of hard cash. Xi’s draconian pandemic lockdowns have unsettled Chinese society.
And beyond China’s borders, geopolitical events, with their basis in China’s growing enmity with the US, threaten to spin out of his control.
Domestically, China faces a challenging recovery from three years of Xi’s draconian and ham-fisted, zero-Covid policy, fragile confidence among consumers and businesses and weak demand for China’s exports.
Last year, the economy grew by just 3 per cent – among its worst performances in decades.
“In his third term, Xi will need to focus on economic revival,” said Willy Lam, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation think-tank, told Reuters
The role of president in China is largely ceremonial, and the continuation of Xi’s main position of power was confirmed last October when he was given – or perhaps, gave himself – the key role of general secretary of the central committee of the Communist Party for another five years.
Many observers say he’s starting to look and act like a dictator-for-life.
Suitably, Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Xi on his third presidential term. The two sealed a “no limits” partnership between China and Russia in February last year, days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.
And there-in lies one of Xi’s key problems on the world stage. Xi is by inclination drawn to a partnership with Putin, both as an alliance with a fellow authoritarian, and as a foil against Western hegemony.
China experts, including Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London, think the pair share three common interests.
“Reducing US dominance in the world, making the world safe for authoritarians, and they share a parallel, delusional view of history. Putin thinks that Ukraine is merely part of Russia. Xi thinks that Taiwan is part of China or it’s nothing”
But Putin’s Russia is also a dead weight. Beijing’s support for Russia and its invasion of Ukraine exposes China to ridicule over the oft-stated sacred tenet of its own foreign policy; the need to respect the “national sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations”.
Some commentators note that Xi has not referred to Ukraine as a sovereign nation. But this is a feeble get-out for such hypocrisy.
More seriously, it has helped send already frosty relations with the US, its biggest trading partner, into a deep freeze. And worse, Beijing, which is always looking to disrupt ties between the US and the world’s other great economic block, the EU, has seen America and Europe unite in their outrage at Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Some China experts suggest recent events – particularly the spy-balloon fiasco, which wrecked hopes for a conciliatory meeting between the Chinese leaders and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, may indicate a degree of dysfunction on Xi’s regime. But if this is the case, it’s due to Xi concentrating too much power rather than him facing political opposition.
In the longer term Xi wants desperately to reduce China’s vulnerability to Western sanctions by promoting new digital currencies and alternative payments systems, that don’t involve the mighty US dollar and therefore can’t be policed by the US treasury. But these are still some way off.
But for all the economic challenges, most China experts think that Xi wants to make his mark by making what he sees as the renegade province of Taiwan part of mainland China again. His uncontested power in China will allow him to make plans for the day when is Beijing sufficiently confident to retake the island.
But even then, all Xi’s domestic might won’t make such military aggression less dangerous for the region and the world, given that the US, is pledged to come to Taiwan’s aid.