What Xi Jinping’s Elevated Status Signals for Chinese Foreign Policy

In Brief

What Xi Jinping’s Elevated Status Signals for Chinese Foreign Policy

China will be even more self-confident now that Xi’s hold on power was confirmed during the Chinese Communist Party’s plenum.

Why is this year’s plenum by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) significant?

Plenums are major annual meetings held by the CCP. They set the agenda and lay out policies for the coming year. This year’s is especially important because 2022 is when the next party congress, which only happen every five years, takes place. During the congress, officials are almost sure to grant President Xi Jinping an unprecedented third term. (In recent decades, top leaders have held power for only two terms. Xi’s term should be up next year.)

How did the plenum elevate Xi?

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This year’s plenum adopted a resolution on history that essentially justifies a third term for Xi. The justification, according to a communiqué issued by the state-run Xinhua news agency, is that China is facing “worldwide changes of a scale unseen in a century” and thus needs a strong leader to see it through. The communiqué also says that Xi is now officially the founder of a third era of Communist Chinese history.

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The first was the Mao Zedong era, which lasted from the country’s founding in 1949 to Mao’s death in 1976. The second was the reform era of Deng Xiaoping and his handpicked successors, which ran roughly from 1978 to 2012. Now we’re in a new era of a stronger China—a true superpower. According to a state media communication ahead of the plenum, Marxism decrees that “every social epoch needs its own great men, and if there are no such men, it creates them.” Xi is that man.

Xi Jinping sits next to top Chinese officials.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top officials attend the sixth plenum in Beijing. Xie Huanchi/Xinhua/Getty Images

What did the plenum signal for the future of U.S.-China relations?

It means that China will be even more self-confident with Xi firmly ensconced as leader for the foreseeable future. The question is what Xi wants to accomplish to leave his mark on this era. Xi has already overseen a more robust Chinese foreign policy. Under his watch, China has expanded its massive Belt and Road Initiative to expand its economic influence abroad. It has also pushed further into the South China Sea, claiming shoals and reefs are its territory and building them out into islands.

But two other goals loom, both of which will affect foreign countries, including the United States. One is the party’s goal of making China a prosperous society by 2035. That means having the world’s biggest economy and a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of about $25,000. That would have implications for the United States: China would be a true economic equal as well as a country with greater business opportunities.

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The second accomplishment could—but only could—be reunifying China and Taiwan. China has long claimed Taiwan as an inalienable part of its territory. As Beijing’s economic power has grown, it has also obtained the capability of credibly threatening Taipei, even if it lacks the means to launch a full-scale invasion. Even if he fails in unifying China and Taiwan, Xi will want to show progress, or at least develop a strong-enough military to make that happen. Beijing’s continued pressure on Taiwan could force the United States and other countries to boost support for the island, which would in turn raise tensions with China.

What’s expected to happen before the party congress?

Just as the United States will be focused on next year’s midterm elections, China’s political calendar will be looking toward the party congress. Beijing will likely make a big propaganda push to guarantee that citizens understand the importance of Xi and this new era of Chinese history.

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Coupled with the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in February, the upcoming congress also means that any major changes—such as relaxing pandemic-related restrictions on entering or exiting the country—are likely to be on hold at least until after Xi is appointed to a third term.

Kathy Huang contributed to this In Brief.

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