China’s Xi Jinping faces serious economic challenges and growing tensions with the United States as he begins his third term in office.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping was awarded an unprecedented third term as president on Friday and was also named commander of China’s two-million-strong People’s Liberation Army.
Considered the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong — who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949 — Xi faces several challenges as he begins his final five-year term in office.
Six other officials who serve alongside Xi on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the ruling Communist Party are taking on new roles. All are party veterans with close personal and professional ties to Xi.
Here are some of the key issues facing the president’s new term and some of the key players in Team Xi.
China’s sluggish economy
China’s growth is slowing and likely to dominate Xi’s next five years. The world’s second-largest economy grew just three percent last year, well missing its target of about 5.5 percent in the face of a draconian zero-COVID policy and a bubbling crisis in China’s real estate market. Beijing has set a growth target of “around five percent” for 2023, one of the lowest in decades. Xi’s decision to stack the Chinese Communist Party’s top leadership with his loyalists has raised concerns that he is prioritizing ideology and loyalty at the expense of growth. With the United States pledging to prioritize maintaining “a lasting competitive advantage” over Beijing as the two countries battle for technology dominance, China may come under increasing pressure internationally as growth slows domestically.
Tension China, US
Relations between Beijing and Washington have deteriorated in recent years, with both sides grappling over everything from trade to human rights, China’s growing assertiveness in Asia Pacific and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The US having recently shot down a Chinese balloon – which is said to be monitoring US territory – has put a serious strain on ties with Beijing. Beijing denies the balloon was involved in surveillance and Chinese diplomats have since gone on the offensive with anti-US criticism: On Friday, the State Department accused the US military of “looting in Syria” and Foreign Minister Qin Gang warned this week for “conflict and confrontation” with potentially “catastrophic consequences” if Washington does not reverse its path of confrontation with China.
China’s FM on Friday urged the US to immediately end illegal military presence and looting #Syrialift unilateral sanctions, stop making and exacerbating humanitarian crises, after Milley’s visit to US bases and House rejection of troop withdrawal
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) March 10, 2023
Xi also made a rare direct rebuke to Washington, accusing “western countries led by the United States” of trying to thwart China’s rise. China said on Sunday that its military budget would increase this year at the fastest pace in four years. Taiwan is now a focal point between Washington and Beijing, with military planners on both sides assessing the possibility that Xi can fulfill his stated ambition to conquer the self-governed democratic island and return it to Chinese control. Chinese military activity around Taiwan has greatly intensified since then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei last year, which enraged Beijing. But any attempt to invade Taiwan would meet global revulsion and would also wreak havoc on global supply chains, as the island is a major supplier of semiconductors – an essential component of nearly all modern electronics.
Discord and critics
Xi has overseen the near-total eradication of civil society in China. In Hong Kong, dozens of activists have fled the country and opposition to Beijing has all but died down. In the far western region of Xinjiang, human rights groups say the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities face serious abuses that amount to crimes against humanity. Human rights in China are unlikely to improve over the next five years as Xi’s power grows and his leadership resists international pressure.
Perhaps the official closest to Xi, Li Qiang, 63, is widely expected to be prime minister, nominally responsible for the cabinet and caretaker of the economy. Li is best known for ruthlessly enforcing a brutal “zero-COVID” lockdown in Shanghai last spring as party boss of the Chinese financial center, proving his loyalty to Xi despite complaints from residents about their lack of access to food, medical care and basic services.
A holdover from the previous Politburo Standing Committee, Zhao Leji, 66, won Xi’s confidence as head of the party’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which ran an anti-bribery campaign that suppressed any potential opposition to the leader has frozen. He was appointed head of the National People’s Congress on Friday.
Another returnee from the previous standing committee, Wang Huning, has an academic background. He was a professor of international politics at Fudan University in Shanghai and a senior adviser to two of Xi’s predecessors. Unusually for a top official, Wang, 67, has never held office at the local or central government level. He is known for writing books critical of Western politics and society.
As the leader of the capital since 2017, Cai Qi oversaw the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was celebrated as a victory by the party. The 67-year-old Cai also oversaw the forced eviction of thousands of migrant workers from derelict urban neighborhoods and kept Beijing’s COVID case count relatively low without taking the harsh measures seen in Shanghai and elsewhere.
As director of the party’s General Bureau since 2017, Ding Xuexiang has effectively served as Xi’s chief of staff, particularly attending state visits and meetings with foreign leaders. Like Wang, Ding, only 60 years old, has never held a government position, but Ding’s career took off after he was appointed secretary to Xi during his short term as party leader of Shanghai.
Prior to his appointment as a member of the standing committee, 66-year-old Li Xi was the head of Guangdong province, one of China’s wealthiest regions and the base of its huge manufacturing sector. He previously served as party secretary of Mao Zedong’s famed revolutionary base of Yan’an and became an early pioneer in what is known as “red tourism,” promoting sites sacred to the party’s history prior to its takeover in 1949.