January 28, 2022 | Foreign Policy

Xi Jinping Is Watching His Back

His rhetoric has taken a paranoid turn—and holing himself up in Beijing hasn’t helped.
January 28, 2022 | Foreign Policy

Xi Jinping Is Watching His Back

His rhetoric has taken a paranoid turn—and holing himself up in Beijing hasn’t helped.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s image may be all over the news these days, but in real life, Xi has all but vanished from the world stage. Hunkering down in Beijing for more than 700 days, Xi was a no-show at last year’s United Nations General Assembly, the G-20 summit in Rome, and the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Xi’s disappearing act is occurring at the same time he and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) face serious domestic headwinds, including rampant energy shortages, rising unemployment, and a real estate market teetering on the edge of collapse.

Times have clearly changed since before the COVID-19 pandemic, when Xi confidently boasted about ushering in a new, China-centric global order. Xi’s refusal to go abroad clearly reflects his fervent desire to stay on top of any renewed coronavirus outbreaks, the second-order effects of which have paralyzed China’s industrial output. But the pandemic alone cannot explain Xi’s refusal to leave his seat of power—or to shelve, however temporarily, his grand international ambitions.

Instead, if Xi’s latest pronouncements are any indication, there is something else keeping him awake at night: growing fears about resistance to his rule from factions inside the CCP.

Put plainly, as China’s economy stumbles and its global standing tumbles, Xi is quickly realizing that after almost a decade in power, his demand for “absolute loyalty” within the CCP remains quixotic at best—and foolhardy at worst. And that is a major cause for concern less than 10 months before the CCP’s 20th Party Congress, when Xi is expected to assume a once unthinkable third term as the party’s general secretary.

“If you’re soft, people will die in the end,” Xi warned this past November. Such vaguely ominous words hardly denote a leader’s confident grip on power, but they nevertheless featured prominently in Xi’s keynote address during the Sixth Plenum, a key gathering of CCP elites. It was during this meeting that Xi muscled through a historical resolution that upended decades of precedent limiting Chinese leaders to two five-year terms. In doing so, Xi effectively enshrined himself alongside Mao Zedong in the pantheon of great Chinese rulers. But, perhaps sensing disunity within the ranks, Xi bluntly warned that, “Cliques, gangs, and interest groups within the party will be resolutely investigated and punished.” On this front, Xi promised “no mercy” for CCP officials who put themselves before party unity.

Less surprising is that Xi avoided any mention of the reforms institutionalized by China’s other great revolutionary leader, Deng Xiaoping. They included Deng’s opposition to the cult of personality and his abolition of lifetime political appointments. Such omissions were almost certainly not lost on CCP elites long suspicious of Xi’s hasty and often messy consolidation of power over the last 10 years.

The simple explanation for Xi’s refusal to leave China and his recent, over-the-top loyalty push is that Xi recognizes he is increasingly vulnerable.

Xi’s November warning remained private until New Year’s Day, when key excerpts of his speech were published in the CCP’s leading theoretical journal, Qiushi. The timing of the speech’s release—more than six weeks after the party’s plenum—was no mere accident, either. Instead, it was intended to send a stark threat to CCP members on the first day of what is likely to be Xi’s most consequential calendar year in office. And that message was: Get in line this year, or else.

Xi struck a similarly forthright tone at an early December 2021 event ratifying his government’s strategy to protect “national security,” a term that in Mandarin is mostly used to describe domestic threats to the CCP’s legitimacy rather than military or geopolitical challenges. At the top of 2022’s threat list was not simply the risk to “stability,” a catch-all term used in prior documents. Instead, Xi doubled down on the notion of protecting “state security,” meaning any threat to the state is, by extension, a threat to the party. This emphasis on prevention and control to maintain strict societal cohesion suggests a more proactive approach to governance than in the past. It also comes at a time when Xi has doubled down on the role party members play in protecting the so-called two safeguards—the notion that party members must vigilantly protect both the central government’s authority and Xi’s core leadership position.

Xi’s focus on regime security also carried over into remarks later in December before an audience that included nearly every member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest-level decision-making body. Xi asked that all those present take a pledge to protect the authority of the party’s centralized, unified leadership. Put another way, Xi demanded that the party’s leaders demonstrate their personal loyalty to him. On how many occasions have Standing Committee members repeated this same pledge in recent years? Countless times, for sure. More puzzling is why Xi must constantly hear them declare it in public if, as he so defiantly claims, his political future is all but assured?

The simple explanation for Xi’s refusal to leave China and his recent, over-the-top loyalty push is that Xi recognizes he is increasingly vulnerable.

To be fair, Xi has long sought to project confidence as a means to disguise his personal insecurities and deep-seated suspicion of those closest to him. Xi’s bravado was most intense early in his tenure, when China’s economy quickly rebounded following the 2008 financial crisis. Whether or not party leaders personally liked or even respected Xi appeared much less important than his ability to deliver results. And, by nearly every quantifiable measure, he did.

Until 2021, that is. Although China’s economy had already been cooling for a while, growth slowed dramatically in the final months of last year. One can trace some of this downward pressure to Xi’s fiscal mismanagement, including his sweeping regulatory agenda aimed at “curbing the disorderly expansion of capital” not just in the technology sector, but throughout the Chinese economy. Other factors include factory shutdowns as part of China’s zero-tolerance COVID-19 policies, as well as surging raw material and labor prices. No matter the cause, the sudden slowdown has clearly spooked the CCP. Ominously, China’s top law-enforcement body recently remarked that with “the economic downturn, some deep-seated problems may surface.”

At what could hardly be a more inopportune time for Xi—a few months before his third-term coronation—growing voices within the party are raising uncomfortable questions about not just Xi’s economic stewardship but his entire governing philosophy.

One recent speech by a former Chinese ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, has attracted tremendous interest in Chinese political and diplomatic circles. Using words like “careless” and “incompetent,” Cui sounded the alarm about Beijing’s eroding global standing and Washington’s growing ability to constrain China’s ambitions. In a scathing rebuke of the so-called wolf warrior diplomacy Xi has unleashed, Cui noted that China “should not fight a war we are not prepared for, a war we are not sure of winning, a war of anger and attrition.” Even more pointedly, Cui warned that, “Every ounce of our peoples’ gains has been hard-won, and we must not allow them to be plundered by anyone or suffer losses due to our own carelessness, laziness, and incompetence.”

The evolving nature of Xi’s ostensible anti-corruption push also reveals a party seemingly at odds with itself. Mao’s purges were often indiscriminate, targeting friends and foes alike who disagreed with him. Xi’s push for party purity has primarily targeted potential successors and political rivals. Case in point: this week’s “death sentence with reprieve” for Dong Hong, a close confidant of Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, a Xi rival. Recently, however, a number of other high-level officials, some of whom had been handpicked by Xi, were also removed from their posts for egregious corruption-related infractions. These include former Deputy Minister of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security Sun Lijun; former Justice Minister Fu Zhenghua; and Zhang Yongze, a vice chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region government. Other top CCP officials, including former Guizhou Deputy Party Chief Wang Fuyu and Hangzhou party boss Zhou Jiangyong, have also been detained on corruption charges by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s top disciplinary watchdog. Still unclear is whether Xi will remove prominent Politburo member Li Zhanshu over a controversial real estate scandal involving Li’s daughter, not to mention former Politburo member Zhang Gaoli, whom tennis star Peng Shuai recently accused of sexual assault.

All this suggests that Xi’s lofty global aims will likely take a back seat to more pressing challenges at home for much of 2022.

While’s Dong’s purge fits the Xi playbook, some of the other purges ensnared officials who were not just installed by Xi but for whose virtuousness he personally vouched. None of them were seen as credible rivals, which suggests Xi did not purposely set them up to fail. These developments raise more questions than answers. At a minimum, they suggest that after nearly 10 years in office, Xi’s stewardship over the party remains a messy, torrid affair.

All told, as China’s global reputation falters, it is becoming apparent that Xi cannot lead the world in the “new era” he once forecast while barely leaving his palaces of power. And, while Xi remains focused on positioning China as an alternative to the United States, his aversion to leaving the country and his recent paranoid rhetoric suggest that his lofty global aims will likely take a back seat to more pressing governing challenges at home for much of 2022. That narrow window of opportunity could provide the Biden administration with a chance to finally codify its much-delayed China policy, which, after a year in office, remains one of its most glaring foreign-policy gaps.

Of course, many observers have misinterpreted signs of resistance to Xi’s crackdown in the past, so it would be premature to augur Xi’s political demise. What’s more, the deck is clearly stacked against any potential conspirators, who may pray for Xi’s next major misstep but lack nearly all means to safely and confidently rally others to their cause. At least one thing is certain: Xi is increasingly concerned about those inside China who might be doing just that.

Craig Singleton is a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. diplomat. Twitter: @CraigMSingleton. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.