For 35 years, the central issue confronting China’s leaders has been a primarily economic one: how to assure a continued run of rapid economic growth. Indeed, so important was China’s quest for growth that it became, in effect, the leadership’s default solution to a vast array of political and social challenges in the post-Mao era. Consider, for example, the challenge of forestalling revolt and maintaining political stability. Beijing’s apparent strategy to assure public support for an unelected ruling party was to deliver rapid growth, raise living standards for millions of Chinese, and thus co-opt potential sources of discontent. Or take foreign policy, where Beijing leveraged growth and sheer market power to build ties in Asia and around the world.
Yet if economic policy lies at the center of Beijing’s priorities, then one would logically expect China’s leaders to redouble their focus on it as growth slows. Over the past year, Beijing has faced a raft of bad economic news—weak indicators, stock market turbulence, and a serious loss of confidence in China’s presumed Midas touch at economic management. In a sea of such troubles, it would make sense for economics to be at the top of President Xi Jinping’s list of priorities. Paradoxically, however, it is politics that most preoccupies China’s leaders today. The central project of Xi’s first term in office (2012–17) has not been economic rebalancing but, rather, consolidating, rebuilding, and broadening the reach of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Xi’s recent predecessors tended to view “getting the economy right” as the secret sauce to assure the party’s credibility and its political success. Xi has bet the reverse—that a rejuvenated and more credible CCP is the ticket to implement necessary economic reforms and shepherd China into the role of a great power in the twenty-first century. Indeed, from his first minutes as China’s top leader, when he stepped from behind a red curtain in Beijing’s Great
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