Chinese foreign policy is clearly in Xi Jinping’s grip. Xi’s power concentration has given him a strong personal and institutional capacity to chart a new course for China’s approach to its international relations. But he is also prone to make mistakes, increasing Beijing’s foreign policy incoherency.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the final session of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco on November 17, 2023. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the final session of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco on November 17, 2023. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Upon coming to power, Xi abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile foreign policy of avoiding confrontation with the United States and Western powers and “biding time.” No longer bending to U.S. demands unless the United States complies with China’s core national interests that are essentially nonnegotiable, Xi has adopted an assertive approach to promoting Chinese interests. He has shown himself willing to challenge through diplomacy and gray zone tactics what he perceives as a declining United States that will not accept its fall from grace and would do whatever it takes to subvert the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime and thwart China’s rise.

However, Xi struck a notably softer tone when he met with President Joe Biden on November 15, 2023, and declared, “The world is big enough to accommodate both countries, and one country’s success is an opportunity for the other.” Emphasizing that “there are a thousand reasons to improve Sino-US relations,” Xi went on a charm offensive aimed foremost at the U.S. business community, which he would like to see back in China as a direct source of foreign investment and U.S.-China trade. Following Xi’s softened tone, after beating the drum about the United States being an enemy on a path of terminal decline for so long, Chinese media paused the usual anti-U.S. rhetoric and pushed messages emphasizing engagement and cooperation.

A Xi-in-Command Model

Xi’s ability to quickly shift the policy tone reflects his power. Xi is arguably the most powerful leader in the history of the People’s Republic of China. He has eliminated potential factional rivals and elevated confidantes to positions based on their personal loyalty to him, running the country without credible rivals. Decision-making under Xi has completely shifted from the consensus-building model started by Deng, China’s first post-Mao leader, and has become a Xi-in-command model of decision by top-level design.

Three triggers enabled Xi’s success in consolidating power after becoming CCP general secretary in 2012. The first was elites’ complaint that the Hu Jintao leadership was too weak and the factional makeup of collective leadership too divisive to curb massive corruption and liberal ideas, threatening the CCP’s one-party rule. Presenting himself as a strong and visionary leader in coping with the unprecedented challenges of the scale that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Xi consolidated power with the consent of the ruling elite.

The second trigger was a series of high-profile political scandals involving Xi’s rivals to succeed Hu, including Bo Xilai, Ling Jihua and Zhou Yongkang. Xi used these scandals to launch a wide-sweeping anti-corruption campaign and purge potential rivals.

The third trigger was Chinese elites’ rising nationalist aspirations following Beijing’s successful hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics and their frustration about what they perceived to be anti-China foreign resistance to China’s rise.

The China Dream of Great Rejuvenation

Just days after taking the position of CCP general secretary, Xi proposed the “China Dream of Great Rejuvenation” and declared that the time had arrived for China to reclaim its lost global power position, matching the mood of renewed nationalism, confidence and self-assertion.

Xi’s power concentration has been institutionalized within the foreign policy hierarchy. He has established his authority, making personal loyalty to him the most important political principle guiding actions among members of the CCP Politburo, including the Politburo Standing Committee at its apex.

Xi has also engaged in institution-building to consolidate his grip. In 2013, Xi established the Central National Security Commission (CNSC) as a coordination and decision-making organization responsible for both domestic and external security. At the same time, reflecting the CNSC’s marked orientation toward domestic security, Xi upgraded the Central Foreign Affairs Leadership Small Group to the Central Foreign Affairs Commission in 2018, which he chairs as he does the CNSC, giving it more formal bureaucratic power. Xi has also convened high-level foreign affairs work conferences much more often than his predecessors to bring senior leaders and other key players in line with his foreign policy agenda. While Mao, Jiang Zemin and Hu respectively held such conferences in 1971, 1991 and 2006 on a small scale, Xi had three large Central Foreign Affairs Work Conferences in 2013, 2014 and 2018 and has restructured meetings of Chinese diplomatic envoys so that they meet annually rather than once every five years.

At the policy implementation level, Xi has politicized and enlarged foreign policy bureaucracies. Starting from Deng’s years, Chinese diplomats were recognized as professionals. This development produced a paradoxical transformation of their political status: the more professionalized the Chinese diplomats, the less important their political status. The position of the foreign minister has declined from the rank of Politburo member, when Chen Yi served in that position from 1958 to 1972, to that of vice-premier (Qian Qichen, 1988 to 1998) and state councilor (Tang Jiaxuan, 1998 to 2003). Xi has emphasized diplomats’ political loyalty over professionalism; Wang Yi, China’s current foreign minister directs the Central Foreign Affairs Commission and is a Politburo member.

Xi has also expanded the mandate of CCP actors in foreign policy, namely the Central Liaison Department that works with foreign political parties, the Central Propaganda Department that oversees ideology-related propaganda and United Front Work Department that focuses on sympathetic foreign celebrities and Chinese diaspora communities. Party diplomacy distinguishes its role from that conducted by the Foreign Ministry in being more long-term in orientation, more flexible and more focused on helping project China’s positive image abroad. These agencies had long conducted party diplomacy covertly but now play a key role in amplifying Chinese views on the international stage.

Foreign Policy Implications

Xi’s power concentration has at least five important foreign policy implications. To begin with, Xi has built strong institutional capacity to chart a new course for Chinese foreign policy as a big power, with new initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the artificial island buildup in the South China Sea and new concepts such as building a “community with a shared future for mankind.” Xi has also constructed an “anti-hegemonic” coalition with Russia and Iran and uses economic coercion against other countries, and even individuals, that criticize Chinese policies.

Second, Xi’s politicization of the foreign policy bureaucracy has changed the incentive structure of Chinese diplomats from professionals who make friends and turn enemies into friends to political loyalists and wolf warriors who win diplomatic battles with a “fighting spirit” to defend the core national interests. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs that reportedly once received calcium tablets as a message to grow a backbone has recast itself as the party’s vocal defender and become a wolf warrior ministry.

Third, with unchecked power, Xi’s big-power foreign policy risks overreach, making enemies on all fronts, alienating potentially valuable would-be partners and unifying rivals. Xi sees the pushback and resistance from the United States and other countries to his foreign policy as threats to China’s regime and national security, has elevated security to a status previously reserved only for economic development and called on the CCP to be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms.

Fourth, Xi’s security obsession has increased his risk tolerance for escalation and economic blowback and led to the implementation of a series of “national security” laws, including “anti-espionage” laws, making foreign business operations in China increasingly difficult. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said that China will become “uninvestable” if complaints about raids on firms and unexplained fines are not addressed. Many U.S. corporations have moved operations out of China and created supply chain redundancies in alternative locations, expediting China’s economic slowdown. China is now more isolated and stagnant than at any time since the 1970s. In danger of falling into the middle-income and middle-tech trap, China is now moving far less inevitably toward supplanting U.S. power.

Fifth, although Xi has concentrated policymaking power, he does not have Mao’s charismatic authority to command obedience. Those who dare to tell Xi the unpleasant truths or disagree with his policies have been ruthlessly punished. Xi’s personalization of and concentrated control over foreign policymaking has minimized the opportunities for his wrong decisions to be corrected. If Xi makes wrong decisions, the course correction of wrong decisions is minimal, if not impossible, unless he comes to see the dire consequences. He put on a friendlier face in the San Francisco meeting with Biden, as he realized that overhyping the U.S. threat did more harm than good to help halt a deep economic downturn, with rising unemployment and a sharp slowdown in foreign investment.

Suisheng Zhao is the director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.


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