Chinese leader Xi Jinping cemented himself as "clearly the most powerful ruler in China since Mao" at the recent National Party Congress. But USIP's Andrew Scobell says Xi has staked his legitimacy on delivering for the Chinese people — and sputtering economic growth poses a significant challenge going forward.

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Julie Mason: Andrew Scobell is distinguished fellow for China at the United States Institute of Peace. Here to discuss the Chinese National Party Congress. Hi, Andrew.

Andrew Scobell: Good morning.

Julie Mason: How are you?

Andrew Scobell: I'm good. Thanks.

Julie Mason: That was quite a show they put on.

Andrew Scobell: It was, it really was.

Julie Mason: What came out of it, other than Xi, for what, another five years?

Andrew Scobell: Well, everything went according to plan, you know, as you intimated. It's a carefully scripted and controlled event. It’s a major propaganda opportunity for the Communist Party, and in particular for one man Xi Jinping. And I think [there were] no huge surprises out of this. It did largely go according to plan. But what we see is a China that's a continuation, likely to be a continuation, of the past but even more so under Xi. He's clearly the most powerful ruler in China since Mao and the most ambitious. And his emphasis is on trying to assert as much control as possible over the party, the military, the government and society, and the people.

Julie Mason: How does China's bad economy affect that? Affect those ambitions?

Andrew Scobell: That's a good question. Even though, officially Xi was elected, the positions that he holds are elected including president of the People's Republic, but that election, he'll be re-elected to that position early next year. But largely, his legitimacy is what I would call performance based. Meaning, it depends on, it relies on, him delivering the goods to the Chinese people. And a good part of that is economic growth, jobs, opportunities for your kids. And that's a challenge because of COVID and other reasons. The Chinese economy has been slowing. So, this challenge is one that Xi and his colleagues are well aware of and they're trying to deal with. And one way is to put the attention on other issues like national security. And so, he's emphasized in his work report to the party congress, he emphasized the serious and unprecedented challenges that he argues China faces. And so, the attention being on national security and threats from outside China [and] from inside China, that tees up an area where he's able, arguably able, to perform better, and that is to show he's capable of defending China from enemies and threats around the world.

Julie Mason: So often bad economies lead to bad decision making on other fronts, doesn't it? Like let's distract from our bad economy by waging war on Taiwan.

Andrew Scobell: Yeah, hopefully it won't come to that. But I think what we're going to see, what we can expect to see from China and their newly re-coronated emperor, perhaps emperor for life, Xi Jinping, is a more combative and assertive China, which is likely to saber rattle in the South China Sea, in the Taiwan Strait and in other places as well. So, Xi Jinping is not Vladimir Putin and so he has a different way. He's certainly a dictator who is very ambitious, but his modus operandi, at least to date, has been quite different to Putin. So, I don't think we're going to see war, but we're just going to see a lot more confrontation and likely crises all around China's periphery.

Julie Mason: You mentioned China's struggle with COVID, their zero COVID policy keeps millions of people under lockdown, and their vaccines don't work. I mean, not as well as other countries like ours, for example. How do they get out from under that?

Andrew Scobell: That's a great question. And what Xi is preoccupied with or consumed with, as I mentioned, is asserting control over all aspects of Chinese society. And so, you see this really most vividly in the zero COVID policy. He staked his reputation on it. And it's really difficult for him to back away from and we clearly see in China a lot of dissatisfaction with this policy, because obviously it upsets, it discombobulates people's lives and, not to mention, bad for the economy. But it's this larger concern with maintaining control over all of China. So, I'm writing something that the title is, you know, “Welcome to the People's Republic of Control,” because it really is all about control. And yes, economic growth is good, it is a positive, but overall, it's about control of the Communist Party as an institution over all aspects of Chinese society. And it's about Xi Jinping's personal control over the party and beyond.

Julie Mason: Before I let you go, what did you make of that incident with Hu Jintao when they escorted him out of the room? That was strange.

Andrew Scobell: It was strange. It could be he wasn't feeling well, but the safest thing to say about it is it underscores who's in charge. It's not Hu Jintao. It's Xi Jinping. And that film footage underscores there's only one emperor in China in 2022, and it's Xi Jinping.

Julie Mason: Andrew Scobell, distinguished fellow for China at the United States Institute of Peace. Thank you for joining me.

Andrew Scobell: Thank you.

Julie Mason: Take care.

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