Outside of China, concern exceeds optimism as Xi Jinping begins third term as ruler

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Outside of China, concern exceeds optimism as Xi Jinping begins third term as ruler

By Paul Eckert

Originally published by RFA on Oct. 23, 2022

From U.S. relations to human rights to Uyghur repression, many experts see more potential trouble than hope.

People watch a live broadcast of China’s President Xi Jinping speaking during the introduction of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, in Huaibei in China’s eastern Anhui province, Oct. 23, 2022.

The Chinese Communist Party wrapped up its 20th National Congress at the weekend, granting an unprecedented third five-year term to CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping. Xi, 69, is set to have his term as state president renewed by the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress in March. RFA asked experts on key aspects of China for their impressions of the congress and expectations of Chinese policies as Xi enters his third term after already a decade at the helm of the world’s most populous nation.

China-U.S. relations and foreign policy

Oriana Skylar Mastro, Center fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and author of The Costs of Conversation: Obstacles to Peace Talks in Wartime:

The bottom line is, the next five years is undoubtedly going to be more rocky for U.S.-China relations and for other countries with security concerns in the region. The issue is not that Xi Jinping really has nailed down the third term. It wasn’t the case that his position was so precarious that he couldn’t be aggressive before. However, it was unlikely that he was going to take moves to start some sort of conflagration that would extend into the party Congress. So the party Congress did serve as a restraint in so far as it was useful to wait until afterwards to take any more aggressive actions against Taiwan, for example. But the reason it didn’t happen previously is largely based on China’s military capabilities. Xi Jinping has been relatively clear since he took power in 2013, where his goals were in terms of promoting territorial integrity, is trying to define that and resolving a lot of these territorial issues, enhancing their position in Asia to regain their standing as a great power.

The rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and a dominant position in Asia of which it had previously been decided not only by Xi, but by strategists, analysts and pundits ever since. [Former President Barack] Obama mentioned in his State of the Union that he wouldn’t accept the United States as number two. It had already been decided that there was going to be conflict with the United States if China wanted to be number one in Asia. And so Xi Jinping has been on a trajectory, China has been on a trajectory that’s been relatively consistent, that includes an improvement in military capabilities and thus a heavier reliance on those capabilities to achieve their goals over time. So with the frequency and intensity of competition and conflict, the general trend is that it increases over time.

Denny Roy, Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii and author of Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security:

At least two messages from the CCP’s 20th Party Congress bode ill for China-U.S. relations.  The first is that a shift in the international balance of power creates an opportunity for China to push for increased global influence and standing.  This is a continuation of a reassessment reached late in the Hu Jintao era, and which Xi Jinping has both embraced and acted upon. 

There is no hint of regret about Chinese policies that caused alarm and increased security cooperation among several countries both inside and outside the region, no recognition that Chinese hubris has damaged China’s international reputation within the economically developed world, and no sense that damage control is necessary due to adverse international reaction to what has happened in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.  Instead, Beijing seems primed to continue to oppose important aspects of international law, to resist the U.S.-sponsored liberal order, and to extoll PRC-style fascism as superior to democracy.  This orientation portends continued if not increasing friction with the United States on multiple fronts, both strategic and ideological. 

Secondly, while the Congress expressed optimism about China’s present course, it evinced increased pessimism about China’s external environment, especially what Chinese leaders call growing hostility from the United States.  Not long ago, PRC leaders perceived a “period of strategic opportunity” within which China could grow with minimal foreign opposition.  Increasingly, however, PRC elites seem to believe that alleged U.S. “containment” of China will intensify now that the power gap between the two countries has narrowed and China has become a serious threat to U.S. “hegemony.”

PRC efforts to undercut U.S. strategic influence, especially in China’s near abroad, will continue.  Beijing will try to draw South Korea out of the U.S. orbit, and may wish to do the same with Japan and Australia, although in those cases it may be too late.  Beijing will continue to try to establish a Chinese sphere of influence in the East and South China Seas, while laying the groundwork for possible new spheres of influence in the Pacific Islands, Africa and Central Asia.

Human rights

William Nee, Research and Advocacy Coordinator at China Human Rights Defenders:

To some extent, the 20th Party Congress will not see any dramatic break from what is happening thus far–and that’s exactly the problem. China is experiencing a human rights crisis: human rights defenders are systematically surveilled, persecuted, and tortured in prison. There are crimes against humanity underway in the Uyghur region, with millions of people being subjected to arbitrary detention, forced labor, or intrusive surveillance. The cultural rights of Tibetans are not respected. And now, Xi Jinping’s ‘Zero-COVID’ policy is wreaking havoc on China’s economy, and particularly the wellbeing of disadvantaged groups, like migrant workers and the elderly.

But there have been no signs whatsoever that the Communist Party is ready to course correct. Instead, after the 20th Party Congress, we will see a new batch of promotions, with these Communist Party cadres more indebted to Xi Jinping’s patronage for their positions of power. In other words, Xi Jinping will have created an incentive structure in which these sycophantic ‘yes men’ will only repeat the ‘thoughts’ of the idiosyncratic leader to prove their loyalty. This makes it even more unlikely that Xi or the Communist Party will even see the necessity of a human rights course correction after the 20th Party Congress, let alone be bold enough to enact changes.


Sean Roberts, associate professor of international affairs and anthropology at George Washington University and author of The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign against Xinjiang Muslims:

It’s clear that the present policy in the Uyghur region that has been so devastating for Uyghurs is something that Xi Jinping was very much involved in formulating. And in that context, it’s hard to see that his continued rule is likely to be positive for Uyghurs. I have long suggested that in order to resolve this problem it’s going require a major reckoning and a mea culpa to the Uyghur people about what has happened. And I cannot see any way that that would happen. With Xi Jinping still as leader because he can’t really blame this policy on anyone else. It’s been well documented that he has been part of pushing the policies and he has continually defended them in his speeches and in his addresses to the international community. So I don’t see his continued rule being a positive thing for the Uyghurs in China.


Nyiwoe, Researcher at the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy:

During Xi’s second term since 2016, the policies of Sinicization and forced cultural assimilation have been at their most aggressive comparatively. In recent years, Tibetan writers and people influential in academics and culture, and younger generations in Tibet, have been arrested and imprisoned under the allegation of being ‘national security’ threats.

China-India relations

Kalpit A. Mankikar, China researcher with the Strategic Studies program at Observer Research Foundation, an independent global think tank based in Delhi, India:

There is kind of a dissonance that we see. So on one hand, I know talking about peace publicly and globally. On the other hand, you have Xi Jinping internally talking about a rich nation, strong army. You also have a certain kind of a mobilization of people in China, because there is a certain level of militarism that Xi Jinping is trying to instill in society. Now, given these ramifications, I think one has to be very vigilant because look at it: It is the weaponization of history, the weaponization of the historical narrative that Russia is using to justify its war in Ukraine. And when China says that it is not expansionist, it is implicit in this argument that it is only trying to take back what belongs to it.

Kanwan Sibal, retired career diplomat, former Indian Foreign Secretary:

If you look at the tenor of his speech in terms of where he wants to take China in his ambitions, there is no stepping back from the policies that he has pursued so far and which has led to many issues both within and outside China. So if he’s going to be very tough with regard to his views and thinking, which we already know, and within the power structure, there is no opposition now to what he intends to do and what his policies are, then this will automatically, automatically get reflected in his dealings with the outside world, and which would include India.

One might have actually reasoned that part of the reason why Xi Jinping was following hostile policies towards India, or unfriendly policies towards India, was because he had to show his muscle in order to consolidate power within the system, and that there might have been voices within the system which advocated a more open approach, a relatively more open approach, and with India in terms of ensuring that the relationship doesn’t go downhill completely. But now that he has acquired full power, he’s going to challenge the United States. And if he’s going to challenge the United States, automatically he will challenge India.

Economic reform

Dexter Roberts, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative and author of The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World:

The content of X’s speech is indicative of this attitude that the economy comes second. There’s this new attitude that other things are more important. I think Xi Jinping not only does not care as much about economic growth, I also think, frankly, that he really doesn’t understand the economy. He doesn’t really understand basic economic principles–unlike who clearly does, but is certainly on his way to retirement.

I call Xi’s approach to the economy, ‘Xi Jinping’s politics in command economy,’ and what we’ve seen over the particularly over the last couple of years is almost a disregard for a healthy economy. Instead. Xi Jinping very much puts his ideology above that. And we see areas that arguably really needed attention and definitely needed attention, like dealing with leverage in the property sector and in the economy that perhaps wasn’t managed that well because it dramatically slowed the real estate sector, which is responsible for about a third of GDP. And then we’ve seen in other areas, where it just seemed it wasn’t something that anyone thought or could see as a priority, for example, he cracked down on private education and basically wiped out this flourishing industry that was providing tens of thousands of jobs for smart, young Chinese people to teach English or teach math or teach Chinese or whatever. And he basically wiped it out with a little concern for the economic consequences.

One of the primary challenges is soaring youth unemployment — around 20 percent, something which China hasn’t seen in a very, very long time. Well, wiping out that sort of private tutoring and education sector was a direct blow to youth employment. Cracking down in a very heavy-handed fashion on the larger tech sector and some of China’s wealthiest tech entrepreneurs– people like Jack Ma and others also–without question contributed to growing youth unemployment.

So I think Xi Jinping, if you look at his record over the last, decade, the priority has been, as it is in sort of all aspects of life, to have tighter Communist Party control over the economy and over the private sector. This is not new. In 2016, he commanded entrepreneurs to love the Communist Party. And from then on he’s said that repeatedly, and he’s pushed to put Communist Party cells into private companies and then more recently, basically threatened some of the richest private entrepreneurs in China that they needed to line up and put large amounts of their money into some of his signature policies, like common prosperity, for example.

 Additional reporting by RFA Tibetan and Uyghur.

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