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The Problem With Xi’s China Model

Why Its Successes Are Becoming Liabilities

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, December 2018. Fred Dufour / Pool via REUTERS

As China’s National People’s Congress and its advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, gather this March in Beijing for their annual two-week sessions to discuss the country’s challenges and path forward, President Xi Jinping may well be tempted to take a victory lap. Within his first five years in office, he has pioneered his own style of Chinese politics, at last upending the model Deng Xiaoping established 30 years ago. As I wrote in Foreign Affairs last year (“China’s New Revolution,” May/June 2018), Xi has moved away from Deng’s consensus-based decision-making and consolidated institutional power in his own hands. He has driven the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) more deeply into Chinese political, social, and economic life, while constraining the influence of foreign ideas and economic competition. And he has abandoned Deng’s low-profile foreign policy in favor of one that is ambitious and expansive.

And yet the mood in Beijing is far from victorious. As Xi begins his second five-year term as CCP general secretary and (soon) president, there are signs that the new model’s very successes are becoming liabilities. Too much party control is contributing to a stagnant economy and societal discontent, while too much ambition has cooled the initial ardor with which many in the international community greeted Xi’s vision of a new global order “with Chinese characteristics.”

Xi has given few signals publicly that anything has gone awry: the first speeches of his second term even suggest that he is doubling down on his current approach. Doing so will only exacerbate the challenges that are emerging. But fortunately, because most of the country’s current problems are of Xi’s own making, he still has both the time and the power to correct his course.

HE’S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS

Xi’s accomplishments to date are undeniable. His efforts to consolidate institutional power paid off in March 2018, when he successfully maneuvered to eliminate the two-term limit on the presidency, ensuring that he could continue

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