The Chinese government is preparing its one-year report, to be delivered to the public on Wednesday. In anticipating the government’s own assessment of the new leadership’s accomplishments during its first year in power, The Diplomat saw fit to offer its own assessment of President Xi Jinping’s performance during his first year on the job.
Xi was formally elected president of the People’s Republic of China on March 14 last year, and has since then accomplished much in terms of domestic and foreign policy. On the domestic front, Xi’s number one priority – as with any Chinese leader – was to consolidate power. He has accomplished this with impressive speed.
Xi came to power in the middle of the infamous Bo Xilai scandal which threatened to rock the Communist Party from within. Bo’s cozy relationship with China’s New Left set an uneasy tone across the country. Following Xi’s rise to power, Bo’s case was handled relatively swiftly. A formal charge for bribery was set against him in July 2013 and he was sentenced to life in prison in September 2013. In the interim months where Xi was General Secretary of the Communist Party, but still in waiting for his formal anointment as president, Xi made it clear to the Chinese public that anti-corruption policies would become a major feature of his domestic portfolio, vowing to clear the Communist Party of both “tigers” and “flies.” Bo was the first tiger, and there have been several flies caught during his first year as well – in the military and within the party ranks. At least 11 senior leaders at the ministerial and provincial level have been arrested during Xi’s tenure.
In the domain of economic policy, Xi finds himself somewhat struggling with a dichotomy. On one hand, both he and the Politburo Standing Committee see value in allowing a greater role for market forces in the Chinese economy, but they also can’t entirely let go of state control. This sort of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” (to corrupt Zhao Ziyang’s phrase) could work for China in the short-run, but concerns that China’s economy is losing steam might prompt the leadership to reconsider. State-owned enterprises still appear as monolithic and iron-clad as ever. The renminbi is another issue and one that Xi Jinping appears content to let China’s financial technocrats handle.
Internal security will be a challenge for Xi. Following the horrific terror attack by knife-wielding assailants that took place in Kunming over the weekend, Chinese citizens are increasingly starting to feel that separatist violence isn’t only restricted to the western provinces. On Xi’s watch, terror also struck Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. For a first-year Chinese president, however, Xi’s involvement in China’s domestic security and police apparatus is remarkably deep. He maintains leadership over policy groups in police, intelligence, military operations, and Internet security. As Max Abrahm’s argued in The Diplomat some months ago, China will likely face more terror in the future. Xi has positioned himself well during his first year to respond.
Xi has also shown interest in expanding the scope of the central government’s role in domains such as the environment and cybersecurity. One of Xi’s slogans regarding the environment is China’s “ecological civilization” – it’s unclear at this point exactly what this means, but it seems like Xi envisages an eventual pollution-control regime. This is in line with the economic reform plan laid out at the Third Plenum – a gradual shift from dependence on manufacturing to investment and demand-driven growth could ease the environmental toll on China’s cities. On cybersecurity, Xi has expressed his intention to transform China into a “cyber power.” His involvement in a group on Internet security and policy underlines his commitment to that goal.
On foreign affairs, we see a mixed picture. Xi came to power contemporaneously to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan, and while the two leaders are oddly alike in several ways, they have taken steps to drive China-Japan relations to a near freeze. The East China Sea dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a mere symptom of what Xi sees as the problem in how China maneuvers its relationship with its neighbors. The East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone implemented in November 2013 offers an idea as to what Xi sees as suitable treatment for that state of affairs. Xi hasn’t been shy in asserting Chinese sovereignty over disputed regions in the East and South China Seas during his first year, and it is unlikely that this will change in the future.
Sino-U.S. relations have maintained their delicate balance of the line between cooperation and competition during his first year. Xi successfully maintained China’s global trade clout – as of 2013, China is the largest trading partner for over 120 countries. After a stand-off with India in April 2013 in the disputed region of Aksai Chin in Kashmir, China managed to conclude a Border Defense Cooperation Agreement in October 2013 that was advantageous for China in the sense that it preserved its status quo advantage in the region. Xi even took the unprecedented step of authorizing engagement with Taiwan last month which offered little in the way of concrete results, but set up a new communication mechanism.
In November 2012, after being elected General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission by the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, one of the first things Xi chose to do with his newfound prominence was head south to Guangdong and Shenzhen. The trip symbolically harkened back to Deng Xiaoping’s own 1992 tour of the region. After two decades of so-so leadership under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping stands to emerge as the most significant reformer since Deng Xiaoping. He still has up to nine years ahead of him, but the first year indicates that Xi is a calculating political adept, capable of steering China both domestically and internationally.