In March, China will have a new government in place but with Xi Jinping, now into his third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, continuing at the helm. Since Xi consolidated his already considerable power at the National Party Congress in October 2022, writes Tiong Wei Jie of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, his regime appears to have returned to the traditional governance approach of restraint and pragmatism, quickly reversing direction on Covid-19 and the property market and toning down “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
Power sweep: Xi Jinping speaks at the opening of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, October 16, 2022 (Credit: Foreign Ministry of the People's Republic of China)
Xi Jinping’s power sweep at the 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October 2022, while not surprising, was remarkable. He secured a historic third term as general secretary of the CCP and promoted trusted allies into influential party positions. Personnel who were not considered part of Xi’s inner circle were relegated to largely ceremonial positions.
The consolidation of Xi’s political power attracted considerable attention abroad, with most observers in the West reckoning that this presaged a more “dangerous” China abroad and greater repression at home. But contrary to those widespread expectations, since the Party Congress, China has shown restraint in both its international and domestic behavior.
Under strongman Xi, many expected Beijing to double down its “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Reviewing the Chinese leader’s videotaped encounter with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali on November 16, Ben Lowsen, an advisor to the US military, dubbed him the leader of China’s “wolf warrior pack”, calling him “dangerously out of touch”. An international relations analyst for The Indian Express argued that Xi’s strident approach was linked to his “more authoritarian tendencies as compared to earlier [Chinese] leaders.”
While these opinions may be valid and it may yet be too early to say for sure, evidence is mounting of a general effort by China to rein in the provocative rhetoric and take a more conciliatory approach in its diplomatic dealings. The transfer of Zhao Lijian, who as a spokesman at the foreign ministry was one of China’s most prominent wolf warriors (he caused a stir when in March 2020 he alleged that it “might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan”), was recently transferred to a less visible role in what appears to have been a demotion.
In January, the Chinese ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, who in his 17 months in Washington generally took a toned-down approach mixed with occasional tough talk, was promoted to foreign minister. The following month, Fu Cong, China’s new envoy to the European Union (EU) proposed that Beijing and Brussels lift sanctions on each other simultaneously so as to advance the stalled Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), concluded by the two sides in December 2020 but never signed. In May 2021, the European Parliament shut down further discussion of the deal after China imposed sanctions on European individuals and entities in retaliation to similar action by the EU over accusations of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region of northwest China.
China watchers are scrutinizing how Beijing responds to a US fighter jet shooting down a suspected Chinese spy balloon after it floated across the US. Amid the cacophony of voices of American politicians pronouncing on the controversy and Washington’s decision to postpone the much-anticipated visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Chinese reaction has appeared moderate and limited. That said, after initially sounding practically apologetic, spokespersons have sharpened their statements, calling the missile strike on what they insisted was an errant civilian airship an “indiscriminate use of force”, accusing the US of overreacting and violating the spirit of international law and practice.
The invectives could certainly have been worse. Christopher Twomey, a security scholar at the US Naval Postgraduate School in California, reckoned that the Chinese “hope to sweep this under the rug”, while Zhu Feng, executive dean at China’s Nanjing University, wished that “the two governments can turn the page as soon as possible so that Sino-US relations can return to an institutionalized channel of communication and dialogue”. While China’s decision to remove the director of national meteorological administration without immediately naming a replacement indicated that it would stick to its claim that the airborne vessel was not an intelligence-gathering device, it has repeatedly called for levelheadedness from both sides, while stressing the importance of communications in properly managing bilateral relations.
Another indication of Chinese restraint has been its behavior with respect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since the outbreak of the war a year ago, Beijing has firmly advocated for respecting sovereignty and resolving the conflict through peaceful means. In a bilateral meeting in December with Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia and chairman of the United Russia Party of Russia who served as Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012, Xi Jinping highlighted the need for “relevant parties to remain rational and exercise restraint.”
Beijing has been cautious not to be overtly against the war lest Moscow question the integrity of their strategic partnership. Russia has been China’s most significant partner in resisting US-led political pressure and continues to serve as an important bulwark for China’s energy security. Given practical constraints, Beijing’s implicit rhetoric on the war could therefore be viewed as veiled disapproval of Moscow’s militarism. Ambassador Fu Cong described China as “collateral damage” in the conflict, given how its relations with Europe have been negatively affected.
Beijing has been moderating its stance not only on foreign policy but on domestic affairs as well. Consider the government’s response to nationwide protests against Covid-19 lockdowns in the run-up to and after the Party Congress. Some of the demonstrations were explicitly against Xi’s rule. At rallies on Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road, many people shouted for Xi to step down, while hundreds of students at Tsinghua University in Beijing called for “democracy and rule of law”.
Even though police presence and online surveillance were stepped up during these incidents, there was no evidence of any large-scale crackdown. Authorities vowed to counter “illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order”, and some protesters were indeed taken to custody. The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) reported that police in Shanghai assaulted one of its journalists, a claim which Beijing denied. Such cases might have been attributable to local authorities. In general, the Chinese government appears to have held back from taking action against the vast majority of protesters, who remained peaceful.
That said, Beijing’s zealous commitment to the unpopular zero-Covid policy before the mass protests erupted is puzzling. According to Financial Times, the central government’s adamance in the face of pervasive discontent was due to Xi’s dominance in China’s authoritarian system, with underling bureaucrats hesitant to paint for leaders the true picture of the worrying situation on the ground. The pressure mounted when Xi repeatedly staked his personal prestige on the uncompromising policy.
In the years leading up to the 20th Party Congress – Xi’s first two terms as CCP chief – he had already centralized political control through initiatives such as the anti-corruption campaign and the creation of “leading small groups” (领导小组), many of which he personally chairs. Thus, even though the Party Congress symbolically marked Xi’s power sweep, his authoritarian tendencies and their implications had been emerging for some time.
Since Xi became China’s leader in 2012, the nation’s foreign policy has indeed grown more assertive, especially in the context of its assertion of sovereignty in the disputed South China Sea and over Taiwan and its control of Hong Kong. It has also shown increasing willingness to flex its economic muscle, imposing sanctions or other penalties on countries which it sees as impinging on its strategic interests. In domestic policy, with its efforts to take down big tech platforms, cool down the property market, control the education sector and tame Covid-19, Xi and his government have been resolute but capricious and stubborn at times. Yet, in all these areas – abroad and at home – its recent behavior suggests that the Xi regime is capable of traditional restraint and level-headed pragmatism.
Going forward, with Xi’s power consolidated, will Beijing necessarily become more dangerous and repressive? Achieving post-Covid economic recovery and navigating the tense relationship with the US and its like-minded allies and partners, especially in the context of financial and technological decoupling, are tasks fraught with difficulties. Because of simmering geopolitical and ideological differences, it will continue to be difficult to find common ground with the US and even with neighbors and major trade and investment partners such as Japan and India. Expect Xi Jinping to remain focused on maintaining his and the CCP’s political legitimacy, with that overarching goal the main driver of his government’s policy.
García-Herrero, Alicia. (February 2, 2023) “The Boom, Bust and Future of China’s Real Estate Sector”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Reyes, Alejandro. (November 17, 2022) “An Emerging G2? The Key to a Working US-China Rivalry is Agency”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Sridhar, Siddharth. (January 12, 2023) “China Decides to Live with Covid: An Open Door to a Post-Pandemic World”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Tiong Wei Jie
S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU)