China Power

Just How Powerful Is Xi Jinping?

China’s leader has all the levers of power, but can he provide results commensurate with his status?

Just How Powerful Is Xi Jinping?
Credit: Xi Jinping image via Kaliva / Shutterstock

It has become accepted wisdom now to say that Xi Jinping is the most powerful leader China has had since Deng Xiaoping. This is almost certainly something that Xi himself would not thank people for pointing out. As the National People’s Congress (NPC) in 2015 has made patently clear, the promises made by the leadership that he sits at the heart of are hostages to fortune — every single one of them.  A quarter of the way through his likely time in office, the question is beginning to be raise: when do the real achievements start? Xi has been given all the trappings of power, but is he truly using his titles to make a lasting impact?

The signature themes of this leadership are better quality growth, green and sustainable development, and national self-confidence and status. The Congress addressed all of those items, carrying on from the Plenums of 2013 and 2014. There was plenty of coherence and consistency, certainly. But a nagging question started to raise its head over the first week of March as the two meetings (the NPC and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) were going on: where is the implementation? When is the good news about successful outcomes going to start? Beijing’s pollution continued to be a visible reminder of how entrenched some problems are. And the drama of the anti-corruption campaign, while it shows the muscular side of power, is froth on the surface. For the 1.3 billion people across China, how do they feel their lives are doing under the new leadership? This is the one question that Xi and co. need to fear the answer to.

There are other possible figures of comparison for Xi besides Deng. Xi and Hua Guofeng, Mao’s immediate successor, are linked by their uniquely having all the main levers of power — civil, military and economic — fall into their hands at the same moment. But Hua is not a figure Xi would want to be compared to, with his rapid sidelining under Deng and his fading into a long obscurity. Meanwhile, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao both had substantial achievements under their rule. For Jiang, it was China’s entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO), reform of the state enterprises, booting the military out of commercial activity, and sorting out a Taiwan policy put into disarray after the 1996 elections on the island. For Hu, it was the simple success of quadrupling China’s GDP from 2002 to 2012 and successfully holding the 2008 Olympics.

All the shouting about Xi’s power has done nothing more than create a sense of expectation that he can achieve huge things. But the largely downbeat tone of Li Keqiang’s work report on March 5 showed just how much ground he and his colleagues have to cover to live up to these high hopes. The climate change accord with the U.S. last November was a sign that Xi might be able to pull off some important things. But as with politics anywhere, if he can’t start chalking up some big achievements that really have impact – things on the level of WTO entry or successfully managing the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, as Deng did – then the power base Xi sits proudly atop at the moment will prove to be a massive liability mocking his impotence.

Over the last two years Xi has set out a broad manifesto for reform. He has created consensus with no obvious dissent — at the moment. But now he needs achievements. It is here that the outside world might also see an opportunity. If China under Xi’s leadership can create a long-lasting solution to (for instance) the problem of North Korea, or Iranian nuclearization, or Russia and its current clashes with the U.S. and the EU, such an accomplishment might prove, to observers inside and outside the country, that China’s leader is not just about hoarding power, but knows what to do with it.

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And if there are no major achievements in the coming year to 18 months, then pressure will build. Xi doesn’t have the luck of his predecessor, Hu, who was always able to point critics to the consistent, fast growth in China. Xi and Li have said that growth is inevitably going to fall. The brutal political reality remains that of the 60 promises made in the 2013 Plenum, and all the others made in the NPC this year, Xi has to deliver one big success for his power will translate from notional to actual. As of today, like a company that has wealth on paper, but overstretched assets and commitments, Xi is exposed and vulnerable. The Party has given him a lot of status and space. But it will be interesting to see just how merciful the Party is if he doesn’t return something significant — and soon.