China under Xi Jinping

This piece is part of a special "Student Focus" section in the issue and appears in vol. 75, no. 1, "Insecurities: The 75th Anniversary Issue, 1947-2022" (Fall/Winter 2022).

By Jenny Li


The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which concluded in the fall of 2022, was a victory for Xi Jinping. Commonly known as the 20th Party Congress, the meeting cemented Xi’s norm-breaking third term as both the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). His loyalists also filled top positions left vacant by retired officials.[1] Inner-party factionalism, an informal mechanism that offered checks and balances within an otherwise authoritarian decision-making body, appears dead. Now, many argue that Xi has accumulated power of a degree not seen since Deng Xiaoping.

The centralization and personalization of power within Xi is a dangerous development. China’s policies will increasingly reflect Xi’s preferences for greater assertiveness both at home and abroad. Without dissenting voices among Beijing’s top policymakers to offer alternative perspectives to Xi, the risk of miscalculation has risen substantially. Considering China’s military power and numerous territorial disputes with other countries, a policy misstep could quickly escalate into all-out conflict. Xi’s efforts to consolidate power, however, began long before the 20th Party Congress. This article examines how Xi accumulated power and analyzes the destabilizing effects of an increasingly authoritarian China to international security.

Consolidating Power From Within

Xi Jinping has sought to consolidate power since assuming leadership of the Chinese government in 2012. Just as the CCP constantly searches for ways to justify its control over the whole of China, so too Xi seeks legitimacy for his leadership amid factionalism within the party. To this end, he has gradually cracked down on dissenting voices and ideologies, shattering any hopes for liberal reform. In the words of Cai Xia, a former professor at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party who became disillusioned with the party, Xi’s regime has “degenerated further into a political oligarchy bent on holding on to power through brutality and ruthlessness” and “grown even more repressive and dictatorial.”[2] She added that “a personality cult now surrounds Xi, who has tightened the party’s grip on ideology and eliminated what little space there was for political speech and civil society.”[3] Cai was later expelled by the party for speaking out against it.

Xi’s attempt to assert control within the CCP began with a large-scale anti-corruption campaign launched shortly after becoming the general secretary of the CCP. Many have suspected that Xi has used this campaign as a means to weaken his political rivals. In March 2018, under Xi’s direction, the National People’s Congress adopted the Supervision Law, which set out the operations for a newly created National Supervisory Commission.[4] Compared to anti-corruption procedures adopted prior to 2018, the Supervision Law granted greater authority to the commission than what was previously possible. For instance, it allowed the commission to supervise people and gave it broader powers like the power of detention. While the commission aimed to institutionalize anti-corruption proceedings and replace the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI)’s extralegal procedures, its accountability is questionable. The National Supervisory Commission is supervised by two parties: the public, which cannot enforce transparency laws applicable to the commission, and the people’s congresses, which the commission monitors. And the man chosen to lead the commission was Yang Xiaodu, former Deputy Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and Xi’s trusted ally.[5] Within five years since the beginning of the anti-corruption campaign, over 1.5 million Chinese officials, including senior army generals and high-profile figures like Ling Jihua, chief of staff to Hu Jintao, were prosecuted.[6]

The reorganization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was another consequential reform that consolidated Xi’s power over the party. Between 2015 and 2016, Xi’s military reforms created a system of joint theater commands and established new structures like the Strategic Support Force to facilitate joint operations and conduct informatized warfare.[7] The size of the PLA was reduced by 300,000, bringing the total personnel from 2.3 to 2 million in 2018.[8] Part of the reorganization campaign also involved dissolving the general departments (i.e., the General Staff Department, General Political Department, General Logistics Department, and General Armament Department) because their independence had led to poor oversight and corruption.[9] Xi personally led these reforms, investing significant resources and political capital in the process.[10] He attended more military events than Hu Jintao to establish closer ties with new leaders and the services: Xi made 53 public appearances at military events between 2012 and 2015, while Hu made 36 appearances between 2004 and 2007.[11] He also sought to increase ideological control over the PLA, underscoring the importance of “absolute obedience” to the party.[12] In April 2016, Xi appointed himself commander-in-chief of the CMC Joint Operations Centre.[13] Among other changes, these reforms helped transform the PLA into a modern military and strengthened Xi’s status within and control over the military through his leadership of the Central Military Commission (CMC).

Xi has also used social stability to justify concentrating power within the CCP’s elites. In November 2013, the CCP established the Central National Security Commission (CNSC) to coordinate national security matters.[14] The CNSC’s inner workings remain a mystery to outside observers, but its objectives likely extend beyond the coordination of internal affairs to encompass external and transnational security issues. What’s concerning is that the inherent vagueness of the concept of national security implies that anything that can be rationalized as a security concern could easily fall within the commission’s purview. In other words, the chairman of the CNSC is naturally endowed with expansive powers because there are no bounds to what may be considered a security threat. It is no surprise that Xi has appointed himself as the head of this commission.

Other measures to broaden the concept of national security have served as an impetus for the CCP to tighten its control over ordinary Chinese life. In 2014, the CCP produced an “overall national security concept” (总体 国家安全观), defining national security as the foundation for the security of the Chinese people.[15] A year later, the National People’s Congress also passed the National Security Law (国家安全法), which adopted a similarly broad interpretation of national security to allow the CCP to crack down on matters antithetical to party interests, including democratic sentiments in Hong Kong.[16] In 2020, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress also implemented the “Hong Kong National Security Law” (香港 国家安全法) as a response to the anti-extradition movement in Hong Kong that began a year earlier. By criminalizing “separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with a foreign country” (these are terms that can be arbitrarily defined), Hong Kong’s new national security law has expedited the persecution of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and furthered mainland China’s control over life in Hong Kong.[17] By framing the people’s security as the objective of national security, the CCP has “securitized” everyday life for the Chinese people through seemingly legal means, allowing those in the party’s top echelons greater control over local affairs.

In 2018, the National People’s Congress voted to remove term limits on the Chinese presidency, paving the way for Xi to become president for life after two terms in office.[18] The Chinese presidency is not a powerful position on its own but the constitutional change would allow Xi to retain the two most powerful positions in China: General Secretary of the CCP and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. To be sure, the CCP does not designate formal rules on term limits and retirement, and norms surrounding retirement only arose after Deng Xiaoping, just over two decades ago. The lack of an institutionalized process to facilitate succession is not definite evidence of totalitarianism. What Xi’s abolishment of term limits on the Chinese presidency does signal, however, is his ambitious character and strong desire to leave a mark on China’s history.

These developments are some of the institutional reforms that have allowed Xi to recentralize power to the central government and, by extension, strengthen his position within the CCP. At the 6th plenum of the 18th Central Committee, Xi was recognized as the “core” of CCP leadership.[19] This is a status that his predecessor, Hu Jintao, was never able to achieve.

Xi’s China Dream: A Nationalistic Drive for Power

Xi’s core foreign policy objective is the achievement of the “China Dream (中国梦),” at the core of which is the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation (中华民族伟大复兴).” As the name suggests, it is an ambitious foreign policy initiative infused with highly nationalistic sentiments. By evoking memories of the “Century of Humiliation,” the China Dream reconstructs a sense of historical victimhood as stimulus for a whole-of-government approach in elevating China’s international standing.[20]

“Our struggles in the over 170 years since the Opium War have created bright prospects for achieving the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi remarked in 2012 during his visit to an exhibition on China’s road to rejuvenation. “Achieving the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is both a glorious and arduous mission that requires the dedicated efforts of the Chinese people one generation after another.”[21]

For Xi, the achievement of this dream would be a two-step process. From 2021 to 2035, China would seek to transform itself into a “great modern socialist country” through continued economic development. During this period, it will address the PRC’s “principal contradiction” of economic inequality.[22] Then, from 2035 to 2049, China would continue a path of national rejuvenation to become what Xi describes as a “global leader in terms of comprehensive national strength and international influence.”[23]

A comparison of Xi’s foreign policy objectives with the PLA’s goals is illuminating. By 2020, the PLA should have “basically achieved mechanization.” By 2035, it should have completed modernization. And by 2049, the PLA should have become a “world-class military.” Central to all these objectives is the annexation of Taiwan and the ability to project power over the Indo-Pacific. As such, many point to 2035 or 2049 as years of potential conflict. Others are less optimistic and believe Beijing may contemplate kinetic action as early as 2027, the PLA’s centennial.[24]

The China Dream’s nationalistic and assertive approach to foreign policy is most apparent in its treatment of Taiwan. In 2013, Xi said that “the issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides [China and Taiwan] must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”[25] In 2019, he reiterated that the “long-standing political differences cannot be dragged on generation after generation.”[26] Both statements are more forceful than those made by his predecessors. When former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan, China responded with intense live-fire military exercises around Taiwan and launched a ballistic missile into Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).[27] China’s reaction to the visit was disproportionate, but it illustrated the threat of rising nationalism to rational decision-making in Beijing. High levels of nationalistic fervor cultivated by the China Dream may compel Chinese policymakers to escalate conflict despite obvious risks of miscalculation. This is a worrisome development for security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

The China Dream also has a vision for changing the world order. In its 2019 foreign policy white paper “China and the World in the New Era,” Beijing declared it would “take a lead in reforming and developing the global governance system.”[28] This statement is a clear deviation from the 24-Character Strategy inspired by Deng Xiaoping, which called for China to “observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, never seek leadership, hide brightness and cherish obscurity, and get some things done (冷静观察、稳住阵脚、沉着应付、决不当头、韬光养晦、有所作为).”[29] Today, Beijing envisions a “Community of Common Destiny (人类命运共 同体)” as an alternative to the liberal international order, a new model of global governance. Specifically, it would follow “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” that promises sovereign equality, common security, common development, win-win cooperation, and inclusiveness and mutual learning.[30]

Yet one need only review Chinese actions over the past few years to see that such a community is a pretext for constructing an amoral world order in which liberal internationalist norms no longer restrict Beijing. At home, it has embraced Han-centrism, persecuted religious minorities, and silenced Chinese dissidents.[31] Abroad, its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has plunged countries into unsustainable levels of debt.[32] And there is neither equality nor security in its threats against the Taiwanese people or employment of gray-zone tactics against its neighbors. Contrary to the Western order, a Community of Common Destiny would be a convenient framework free of liberal values. It would be a new order based purely on utilitarian economic interests — or, more accurately, CCP interests. The crackdown on freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, forcible imprisonment of Uyghur minorities, and other repressive policies like mass surveillance have all been pursued in the name of national unity, or so-called “national rejuvenation.” China’s recent policies undermine established norms surrounding human and international security. The only question left is whether its actions will have a lasting effect on the global system.

Is China Revisionist, or Is There a Plot Against China?

Officially, China rejects hegemonism. The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China declares that China will consistently oppose “imperialism, hegemonism and colonialism.”[33] The CCP’s constitution, too, asserts that the party would work to “oppose hegemonism and power politics” and strive to build a “community with a shared future for mankind.”[34] These rejections of hegemonism, however, are inconsequential when evaluated in concert with Chinese strategy. The success of objectives like those espoused in the China Dream naturally requires China to project and acquire power required of a regional (if not global) hegemon. Even so, scholars like Wang Jisi argue that accusations of hegemony are only part of a Western plot to subvert the Chinese state.[35] By labeling China as a revisionist power seeking to overthrow the liberal international order, the United States finds both a scapegoat for its sluggish economy and reason to keep China weak. It is a “Plot Against China,” a convenient story that allows the West to contain Beijing’s development. “Many in Washington argue that this tougher new consensus on China has emerged in response to more assertive, even aggressive moves on Beijing’s part: in their view, China has forced the United States to take a firmer stance,” Wang wrote. “In the United States, China’s rise is a source of neuralgia and anxiety.”

But the “Plot Against China” is a problematic narrative that justifies Beijing’s hyper-nationalism and revisionist tendencies. First, the PRC is already capable of altering the international landscape and undermining international stability. Its official rejection of hegemonism does not lessen the influences of its hegemonic-like ambitions. Second, the narrative fails to acknowledge that rising tensions between the PRC and the United States are frequently precipitated by the former’s policies and behavior. Wang argues, for instance, that the U.S.’s denunciation of the persecution of Falun Gong—that is, the torture, imprisonment, and organ harvesting of its practitioners—was an attempt to subvert the Chinese state. Wang also criticized the U.S.’s support for Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Chinese dissident, who must have won because “U.S. politicians pushed the Nobel Committee to award the prize to Liu.” Such assertions would convince few in the West; these framings appear directed toward a domestic audience. By misrepresenting Beijing’s disregard for human rights and democracy as a Western plot to subvert the Chinese state, intellectuals like Wang cultivate hyper-nationalistic public sentiments within China that are subsequently channeled into ethnocentric policies that often institutionalize repression in the name of national unity. This is not to say that the West should be absolved of its historical offenses. One may argue that the PRC’s insecurity is partially informed by its experiences with Western imperialism. But nothing can rightly justify crimes against humanity or expansionist ambitions that threaten other countries’ sovereignties.

It is crucial to recognize that many of the CCP’s actions are guided by its authoritarian structure. The CCP does not face opposition from other political parties, and its top decision-makers are elected by its own members. Though it cannot claim to represent all Chinese voices, it must constantly establish legitimacy for its increasingly authoritarian hold on China. To this end, it summons nationalistic fervor in the name of fighting against foreign influence and channels it into repressive policymaking, defending the party’s crackdown on dissenting voices as patriotic acts. The result is the loss of basic human rights, personal freedoms, diversity, and invaluable cultural assets. Internationally, the PRC also seeks to justify its role as a great power, advancing an alternative vision for the world in which liberal values are cast aside.

To successfully engage with an increasingly authoritarian China, democracies that seek to ensure the stability of the international system must strike a balance between strengthening its own coalitions and bolstering the international order. In an article for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon offered insight into the “unraveling of American power.”[36] Examining how American primacy relates to the liberal international order, they explain that the U.S. unipolar moment may have arisen from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but its continuation was contingent upon states being content to accede to the U.S.-led order. In other words, a robust international order is pivotal to the U.S.’s continued global leadership. Currently, the U.S. strategy to compete with China appears more outward than inward-looking. The 2021 Summit for Democracy held virtually by the United States, for instance, may have been a strong demonstration of U.S. support for democratic values, yet only democracies approved by the U.S. were invited. The anti-China narrative on Capitol Hill, too, is often used as a technique to rally support for domestic agendas rather than a means to compete with China productively. Indeed, it appears as though the U.S. frequently prioritizes the suppression of China’s advances rather than a revaluation of its own institutions. This limits policy options by confining the policymaker’s imagination within the paradigms of the current international order. It does not allow them to reflect on the misgivings of people who the promises of globalization or neoliberalism have disillusioned. The Chinese system is attractive to demagogues and developing nations precisely because the current world order has delivered inequitable returns.

A Brewing Conflict and Opportunities to Prevent It

Significant challenges lie ahead, but differences can be managed, and conflict is never inevitable. In the short run, the United States and its allies should seek more frequent and sincere dialogues with China – without conceding on central issues like democracy, human rights, and Taiwan. Even if these dialogues do not improve bilateral relations, diplomatic exchanges would give top party cadres in China exposure to different ideas and alternative perspectives. In the long run, the United States and other democracies should seek to be more inclusive in promoting democracy and offer incentives for all countries to reinvest in the rules-based international order. Instead of entrenching themselves within the existing world order, major powers like the United States could instead reflect on ways to address domestic and global issues, such as the shortcomings of globalization and neoliberalism, which have disadvantaged many and contributed to the decline of democracy and human rights worldwide. To compete with China from a “position of strength,” as Biden put it, the United States must first build on its strengths and reflect on its weaknesses.[37]

Under Xi Jinping, Beijing has taken on an increasingly nationalistic and authoritarian character. Framing policy objectives as issues of national pride, it has narrowed its policy options as it feels compelled to demonstrate resolve to internal and external audiences. Power has concentrated in a select few among the communist party, leaving little room for different opinions to counter what could be highly escalatory actions in contested regions. These destabilizing trends threaten international security and have devastated many people in China whose rights have been violated in the name of national unity. Given the costs of war with China, it behooves any key decision-maker to minimize the possibility of conflict escalation with careful and meaningful diplomatic maneuvers, all the while ensuring that concessions are never made on people’s rights. This will be one of the most significant challenges of the 21st Century.

[1] Edward White and Andy Lin, “Xi Jinping’s men: Why China’s new politburo has spooked markets,” Financial Times, October 24, 2022,

[2] Cai Xia, “The Party That Failed,” Foreign Affairs, December 4, 2020, articles/china/2020-12-04/chinese-communist-party-failed.

[3] Cai, “The Party That Failed.”

[4] Jamie P. Horsley, “What’s So Controversial About China’s New Anti-Corruption Body?” The Diplomat, May 30, 2018,

[5] Matt Ho, “Xi Jinping aide, Yang Xiaodu, to head China’s anti-corruption ‘super agency,’” South China Morning Post, March 18, 2018,

[6] Simon Denyer, “China’s leader tightens grip with new anti-corruption agency,” The Washington Post, March 19, 2018,

[7] Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders, “Introduction: Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA” in Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms, ed. Phillip C. Saunders, Arthur S. Ding, Andrew Scobell, Andrew N.D. Yang, and Joel Wuthnow (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2019), 2.

[8] Wuthnow and Saunders, “Large and In Charge: Civil Military Relations under Xi Jinping” in Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms, 539.

[9] Wuthnow and Saunders, “Introduction,” 6.

[10] Wuthnow and Saunders, “Large and In Charge,” 521.

[11] Wuthnow and Saunders, “Large and In Charge,” 538.

[12] Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders, Chinese Military Reforms in the Age of Xi Jinping: Drivers, Challenges, and Implications (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2017), 3.

[13] Jean-Pierre Cabestan, “China’s foreign and security policy institutions and decision-making under Xi Jinping,” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 23, no. 2 (May 2021): 327.

[14] Joel Wuthnow, “China’s New ‘Black Box’: Problems and Prospects for the Central National Security Commission,” The China Quarterly 232 (2017): 886-903.

[15] “习近平:坚持总体国家安全观 走中国特色国家安全道路,” Xinhua News, April 15, 2014, http://www.

[16] “聚焦新国家安全法五大亮点,” Xinhua News, July 1, 2015, 07/01/c_1115787097.htm.

[17] “English translation of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” Xinhua News, July 1, 2020, http://www.xinhuanet. com/english/2020-07/01/c_139178753.htm.

[18] Chris Buckley and Adam Wu, “Ending Term Limits for China’s Xi Is a Big deal. Here’s Why,” The New York Times, March 10, 2018,

[19] Cabestan, “China’s foreign and security policy institutions,” 322.

[20] Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” report delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017, http://www.’s_report_at_19th_CPC_National_Congress.pdf.

[21] The National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, “Achieving Rejuvenation is the Dream of the Chinese People,” November 29, 2012, 32191c5bbdb04cbab6df01e5077d1c60.shtml.

[22] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” November 3, 2021, 4, Nov/03/2002885874/-1/-1/0/2021-CMPR-FINAL.PDF.

[23] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report,” 4.

[24] Brian Hart, Bonnie S. Glaser, and Matthew P. Funaiole, “China’s 2027 Goal Marks the PLA’s Centennial, Not an Expedited Military Modernization,” China Brief, March 26, 2021, https://jamestown. org/program/chinas-2027-goal-marks-the-plas-centennial-not-an-expedited-military-modernization/.

[25] Reuters Staff, “China’s Xi says political solution for Taiwan can’t wait forever,” Reuters, October 6, 2013,

[26] Lu Hui, “Xi says “China must be, will be reunified” as key anniversary marked,” Xinhua News, January 2, 2019,

[27] “Japan protests after Chinese missiles land in its exclusive economic zone,” Reuters, August 4, 2022,

[28] The State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “Full Text: China and the World in the New Era,” September 27, 2019, WS5d8d80f9c6d0bcf8c4c142ef.html.

[29] Dingding Chen and Jianwei Wang, “Lying low no more? China’s new thinking on the Tao Guang Yang Hui strategy,” China: An International Journal 9, no. 2 (2011): 198, S0219747211000136.

[30] Xi Jinping, “Carry Forward the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence to Build a Better World Through Win-win Cooperation,” transcript of speech delivered at meeting marking the initiation of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, July 1, 2014, zyjh_665391/201407/t20140701_678184.html.

[31] “‘Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots’: Chinese Government Crimes against Humanity Targeting Uyghurs and Other Turkic Muslims,” Human Rights Watch, April 19, 2021, default/files/media_2021/04/china0421_web_2.pdf.

[32] Dylan Gerstel, “It’s a (Debt) Trap! Managing China-IMF Cooperation Across the Belt and Road,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, October 18, 2018,

[33] The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.

[34] The Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party.

[35] Wang Jisi, “The Plot Against China? How Beijing Sees the New Washington Consensus,” Foreign Affairs, June 22, 2021,

[36] Alexander Cooley and Daniel H. Nexon, “How Hegemony Ends: The Unraveling of American Power,” Foreign Affairs, June 9, 2020, how-hegemony-ends.

[37] “Biden vows to restore U.S. alliances and lead with diplomacy in his first foreign policy address,” CNBC, February 4, 2021,