Ignatius: Might Xi Jinping's star be burning too bright?
WASHINGTON – President Xi Jinping's command at this month's Communist Party gathering was so complete that President Trump likened him to a "king." But some China analysts are wondering whether Xi has overreached.
Xi dominated the stage, literally and figuratively, at the party's 19th Congress, which ended this week in Beijing. His consolidation of power has nearly erased the collective leadership style of his recent predecessors and vaulted him into a Chinese pantheon occupied only by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. "Xi Jinping Thought" is now celebrated as the guide to a "new era" for China.
Xi's capture of the commanding heights was summarized in a private report by Pamir Consulting, a leading advisory firm on China. During Xi's first five years in office, Pamir reported, his anti-corruption campaign has disciplined 1.53 million party members and prosecuted 278,000, including 440 ministerial or provincial officials and 43 Central Committee members, about 11.4 percent of that body.
Xi has purged the Chinese military, too. Under his rule, 13,000 officers have been sacked and more than 50 general officers have been imprisoned for corruption, by Pamir's count. In place of the ousted generals, Xi has installed new commanders for the joint staff, army, navy and air force of the People's Liberation Army. Members of this reshaped PLA now appear to control nearly 20 percent of the party's reconstituted Central Committee.
Xi also reigns supreme in the factional battle at the top of the party leadership. Of the 25 members of the Politburo, 17 are his allies, Pamir estimates. His faction has four seats on the Politburo's seven-member standing committee. And for the first time in several decades, the leadership hasn't signaled who will succeed Xi after he completes his second five-year term as party secretary, suggesting that he may ignore the 10-year limit that capped recent Chinese leaders.
Trump appears to see a kindred spirit in Xi. He made a congratulatory telephone call Wednesday and praised Xi's "extraordinary elevation" in a tweet. "Some might call him the king of China," Trump said in a television interview.
What could go wrong for a leader with such sweeping authority? Several leading analysts argue that Xi's dominance is now so complete that it carries a kind of vulnerability. He owns China's economic and foreign policies so totally that he'll get blamed for any setbacks. Perhaps more important, his power play may worry older Chinese who remember the damage done by Mao's cult of personality.
"Beneath the confetti, there's an uncomfortable apprehension among some of China's elderly leaders who recall the capriciousness and brutal realities of one-man rule," explains Kurt Campbell, who ran the State Department's Asia policy during the Obama administration and was in Beijing to observe the congress.
Will other top Chinese officials dare to question Xi? Analysts noted the mostly impassive posture during Xi's long speech from Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, former president and prime minister, respectively. The gathering wasn't attended by Li Rui, a deeply respected 100-year-old former secretary of Mao who suffered during the Cultural Revolution and helped establish the institutions of post-Mao collective leadership.
Xi's concern about dissent was perhaps signaled by a recent internal party document that, according to a Chinese source, warns against criticism of party leadership, Communist history, traditional Chinese culture and national heroes. That implies a ban on criticism of Xi himself.
The scope of Xi's ambition isn't just domestic or personal power. He outlined at the congress an agenda for China's growth through 2050 into a "modernized strong country" that can dominate technology, finance and security. China five years ago spoke of its ambitions to be a regional power, but Xi now describes a China that can frame a new global order.
Trump's America poses a tricky problem. For now, Xi chooses to reciprocate Trump's embrace. China is planning for Trump's arrival next month as if it's a royal visit, much as the Saudis received him last May. An elaborate welcoming ceremony is planned, perhaps followed by a photogenic meeting of Xi's grandchildren and Trump's. (Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are said to be coming with their family.)
The "deliverables" at the Trump-Xi summit will be mutual commitments on North Korea and trade. To oversee the Sino-America account, Xi is said to be readying Yang Jiechi, a former ambassador to Washington, as deputy prime minister with oversight of foreign policy.
Chinese strategists have traditionally argued that it's wise to appear less powerful than you really are, and take adversaries by surprise. This approach is no longer possible for a monarchical Xi. He must beware the weakness inherent in his dazzling display of strength.