China’s Leader Is on a Grandiose Mission to Revitalize Socialism

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Illustration by Ben Konkol

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About the author: Seong-Hyon Lee is a senior fellow at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations and a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

Will Chinese leader Xi Jinping tone down his boldness once he clinches his third term? By now, those who were initially skeptical are accepting the force of reality in China: Xi will almost certainly be granted a renewal of his power. And during his third term, we are likely to see the same Xi, with more or less the same policy mandate that he has marshaled so far, only more self-confident.

The enduring features of Xi’s third term are likely to be as follows. In politics, the Communist Party’s grip over all sectors of Chinese society will be strengthened in the name of “comprehensive leadership.” As Xi puts it, “East, west, south, north and center—the Communist Party leads everything.” In economics, the “dual circulation” strategy to fortify China’s domestic demand will be implemented with more vigor. Some misinterpret “dual” as meaning “domestic and international,” in the sense of expanding production for exports and for domestic consumption. In reality, it means the world’s second-largest economy is withdrawing to its domestic market and shying away from the world, in order to become a more self-sustaining economy, less dependent on foreign trade and foreign supply chains.

Semantics should be put aside when analyzing China’s slogan politics. In society, the term “common prosperity” will be front and center again. This slogan refers broadly to economic inequality and was used to justify crackdowns on the technology sector, among other policies. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was briefly relegated to the back burner.

In China’s foreign policy, a “new type of great power relations” will be the dominant theme, to place China on an equal footing with the U.S. Xi first raised the idea with President Barack Obama in 2013. “The Pacific Ocean is big enough to hold both the United States and China,” Xi explained at the moment. It took a while for Obama’s aides to realize Xi’s actual meaning. He was asking America to make concessions by renouncing the Western Pacific. In his third term, Xi will not give up on his vision of establishing a “new type” of relationship with the U.S.

On Taiwan, realizing “national reunification” will remain an enduring focus of China’s national mandate. Amid deepening U.S.-China tensions over the Taiwan Strait, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently reiterated the importance of Taiwan by describing it as “core of core interests.” Whenever China wants to identify the issues considered important enough to go to war over, it uses the term “core interests.” In the case of Taiwan, Wang used the word “core” twice.

If one looks closely, these platforms are all internal and external policies promoted by the Xi administration over the past decade. Xi’s policies are all long-term goals, and he will stick to them in his new term.

Those who study Xi’s disposition call him an “ideological purist.” That is, Xi is a person who truly believes in socialism. Xi is also a believer in China’s historic sense of rejuvenation. As he put it in 2019, “Our world is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century.” Xi senses a once-in-a-century historic opportunity and believes that the Communist Party is destined for victory.

Xi has shown, time and time again, that he differs from his recent predecessors in that he does not hesitate to enter into conflict with the U.S. In a September 2021 speech at the Central Party School, an institution comparable to the Harvard Kennedy School that grooms midcareer officials, Xi diagnosed that the great revival of the Chinese nation had entered a “critical period” and said, “Not wanting to fight is unrealistic. You must abandon the illusion and fight bravely.” Xi has also said, “The East is rising, and the West is declining.” In China’s political discourse, “the East” refers to China, while “the West” is often a euphemism for the U.S.

Overall, in Xi’s third term, he will focus on laying the groundwork for the Communist Party’s goal of “socialist modernization.” His goal is to prove the superiority of socialism and turn China into a global power that will awe the West. It also means that Xi’s foreign policy will pursue ideological competition with the U.S., in addition to economic, military, and technological competition.

Conventional wisdom holds that the task facing the Communist Party today is to maintain the one-party system by strengthening its legitimacy, especially through economic recovery. Xi has somewhat invalidated this old formula, as his larger and more important mission is to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over other considerations. The Western business community has overlooked this aspect of Xi’s vision in its puzzlement over his policies, including his crackdown on Big Tech entities and the brake he has put on China’s real estate market, not to mention the rigid zero-Covid policy that severely undermined China’s economy. They regard these acts as China shooting itself in the foot.

But Xi is simply on a different mission, a grandiose one to revitalize socialism in the 21st century. For that reason, Xi, the strongman, is likely to remain second only to Mao Zedong as the most closely watched and vigorously debated leader in modern Chinese history.

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