4. He has strong ties to Russia
In March 2013, Xi chose to go to Russia on his first trip abroad as president. According to Chinese reporters, at a meeting in the Kremlin, Xi suddenly told counterpart Putin that “we are somehow similar”. The US and its allies have viewed with concern closer Russia-China relations under Xi and the mutually supportive personal relationship between Xi and Putin. China’s muted response to Russia’s aggression in Crimea and Russia’s similar approach to China’s military expansion in the South China Sea have been regarded in the West as damaging to the liberal rules-based international order and a possible play for regional hegemony in an effort to counter American global leadership.
5. He wants to control everything
Xi has consolidated party and political power counter to Deng’s administrative reforms on separation of powers in 1980s. He has been in charge of many Central Leading Groups (领导小组) and policy coordinating bodies including those concerned with deepening reforms across a wide swathe of areas including national defense and the military, national security, finance and foreign affairs. While these many issues require collective decision-making, including input from retired senior officials and princelings, Xi has taken the lead, bolstered by his own sense of confidence and deep understanding of the challenges. He clearly aspires to control everything rather than share power.
6. He is a risk taker
Xi’s controlling character and his willingness to take risks could be a tricky combination. The CCP could well make policy misjudgments, particularly on important matters such as relations with the US, Taiwan, management of the economy, the military, and political and social controls.
By being a risk taker, Xi himself might be considered a source of risk. Consider his assertive policies including a more robust foreign policy particularly towards the US, tough stances on Hong Kong and Taiwan, repressive actions to rein in political freedom and social activism, and the aggressive anti-corruption campaign have created enemies and prompted pushback, which might potentially undermine Xi’s political position, cut into his power and possibly negatively affect the CCP’s legitimacy and standing.
7. He is unpredictable
Xi’s unprecedented anti-corruption campaign, the abolition of the presidential term limit, and the institutionalization of his personal philosophy – “Xi Jinping thought in the new era” – have had a profound impact on Chinese politics and society that arguably were not anticipated and have certainly distinguished him from his predecessors going back to Mao. Armed with the powers and standing that he enjoys, Xi could conceivably push drastic reforms especially in the post-pandemic environment. He could well do something highly unpredictable. Indeed, in the US, there are concerns that Xi, having taken a strong approach to cracking down on political freedom in Hong Kong, may be intending to take some kind of strong action on Taiwan.
8. He believes in the CCP and the need to counter the West
Xi truly believes that the CCP will ensure national survival and secure the people’s happiness. His fervor for the party outstrips even those of his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. “The party leads everything”, Xi had written into the party and national constitutions. Absolute leadership by the party has been the biggest feature of the CCP’s leadership in the Xi era.
One more symbolic and substantial feature of Xi’s politics is its emphasis on “Chinese characteristics” (中国特色). Through policies on domestic and foreign affairs, education, and even medicine, Xi has repeatedly emphasized the importance of values such as spirit, resolve, wisdom, culture, sense of civilization, and so on. For example, in tackling the Covid-19, Xi promoted the use of traditional Chinese medicine. He has urged Peking University to strive to become world class but to maintain Chinese characteristics.
The rest of the world should take notice of Xi’s Chinese chauvinism (compared with Trump’s “America First” populism) and his inclination to resist the West, particularly its liberal democratic values and political systems. Xi believes that the Soviet Union collapsed due to actions taken by the US to undermine it. He sees American support for the Hong Kong protesters, the trade friction with Washington, and US moves to put down China’s technological challenge as a concerted effort to contain the rise of China, undermine the CCP’s leadership, and eradicate socialism with Chinese characteristics.
These perceptions are not likely to change with the advent of the Biden administration. “Biden’s views on Xi have totally changed over these years,” the American China expert noted. “Biden will deal with Xi very toughly.” The new US president’s diplomacy and security teams are unlikely to compromise on critical issues such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang which China sees as “core interests”. The Trump-Pompeo approach of attacking the CCP is likely to continue. Biden has announced a plan to convene a group of like-minded democracies around the world. He is expected to try to rally allies and partners together to come up with a coordinated China strategy. That may prove difficult, especially after Trump’s unpredictability and rough treatment of Washington’s old friends. The EU’s conclusion of a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China before Biden took office suggests that European countries may not so readily toe the American line on Beijing.
Meanwhile, Xi and his officials will remain highly cautious in their approach to the new US administration, mindful not to undermine Xi’s leadership and foundation of power, or weaken the unity of the CCP. Xi will likely view the “Longer Telegram” as a real challenge from the West against him personally and as a dangerous attempt to promote a schism in the CCP. This will doubtless stoke further Xi’s distrust and frustration with the West and could presage a deterioration in relations with the US and its allies just at the time when there is ample opportunity to dial down the rhetoric and lower the tensions.