Xi Jinping: Bad Emperor?

Some have asked me what will be the greatest risk to China in the next five years. My answer: That Xi Jinping will overstep and enact policies that Chinese people won’t accept, especially those that have a direct impact on their lives and livelihoods.

Malcolm Riddell



January 2, 2023
Xi Jinping: Bad Emperor?

Greetings once again from Sarasota, Florida.

  • Where it’s sunny and clear with a temperature of 74.

And welcome to 2023.

  • I have never been so happy to start a New Year.

Surveying China over 2022, I tried to pick out the most consequential event.

  • Xi Jinping’s third term? Biden’s ban on advanced semiconductors and what that portends of U.S. policy? Mr. Xi’s sudden reversal of his Zero-COVID policy?

All of those – and several others – were in the running.

  • In the end, though, I chose a change in perception, not an event, as the biggest thing for China last year.

My choice is summed up by Nick Kristof, who writes:

  • ‘Xi has meticulously cultivated a personality cult around himself as the kindly “Uncle Xi” — whose slogan could be “Make China Great Again” —'
  • ‘but in the major cities it’s now obvious that he’s regarded by many as an obstinate, ruthless and not terribly effective dictator.’

The focus is on a ‘not terribly effective dictator.’

  • Chinese citizens might obey an obstinate and ruthless dictator but not an ineffective one.

From all accounts, Mr. Xi is a well-liked and trusted ruler.

  • But if doubt has taken root among the Chinese people, despite a continual drumbeat about Mr. Xi’s being darn near infallible, then the impact his ability to rule without undue coercion could be the most consequential outcome for China in 2022.

1 | ‘The first public display of defiance’

That doubt became visible in the demonstrations against Mr. Xi’s Zero-COVID policy, as Yuen Yuen Ang explains:

  • ‘What is different and significant about the recent protests is that they are not about narrow, local conflicts.’
  • ‘Instead, they are directed at a national policy personally pioneered by Xi.’

‘Yet these demonstrators, as extraordinarily brave as they are, do not yet constitute a revolutionary force.’

  • ‘Although the political protests attract the most media attention, many on the streets appear to be demanding only their physical freedom and the right to their livelihoods—not political change.’
  • ‘The anti-lockdown protests are not a “color revolution” aimed at or able to topple the regime.’
  • ‘But they are the first public display of defiance against a national policy that Xi has encountered under his iron-fisted rule.’

‘Still, there could be a silent majority that complies with state policies and supports the Chinese Communist Party and Xi.’

  • ‘Xi remains popular among nationalists and those who benefited from his antipoverty policies.’

2 | ‘A major policy failure that did not need to happen.’

But it’s hard to believe that even that silent majority doesn’t feel some doubt after Mr. Xi suddenly, without warning, and without preparation began to ease his Zero-COVID policy.

As Minxin Pei notes in ‘Why Didn’t China Prepare Better for Covid Chaos?’:

  • ‘China ended its Covid Zero policy only weeks ago, after nationwide anti-lockdown protests.’

‘But President Xi Jinping’s government may already be losing its grip on the virus.’

  • ‘Hospitals are filling up with Covid patients and an alarming number of medical staff have been infected.’
  • ‘Pharmacies are running out of fever medication.’
  • Deaths attributed to Covid-19 appear to have jumped.’
  • ‘Modeling by experts forecasts as many as 1.5 million deaths in the coming months.’

‘The trauma of China’s exit from Covid Zero represents a major policy failure that did not need to happen.’

  • ‘The country had plenty of time to prepare for this moment.’
  • And Mr. Xi did not.

Back to Mr. Kristof:

  • ‘Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, something important may have changed.’

‘ “It is so significant, for it’s a decisive breach of the ‘Big Silence,’” said Xiao Qiang, the founder and editor of China Digital Times.’

  • ‘ “It’s now public knowledge that the emperor isn’t wearing clothes.” ’

3 | Xi Jinping falters

Taking the notions of Mr. Xi as a ‘not terribly effective dictator’ or that he is an emperor without clothes to an extreme is Jonathan Tepperman in ‘China’s Dangerous Decline,’ in Foreign Affairs.

  • I don’t concur with this extreme – Mr. Xi has a slew of accomplishments and no doubt more to come – or with the assertion that he has brought ‘China teetering on the edge of a cliff.’

Having been a trial attorney, I know you have to hear both sides – and here is clearly just the prosecution’s case.

  • But it’s hard to argue that Mr. Xi hasn’t made a hash of an awfully lot of things.

In the early years of his reign, I had a grudging respect for Mr. Xi.

  • Mr. Xi appeared to have a broad plan to remake China in his own vision – and he was carrying it out carefully - step-by-step – and successfully.

I say grudging because I felt he was no friend of America and the advanced democracies.

  • And the better Mr. Xi ruled, the more danger I saw to these democracies and the liberal world order itself.

Then he faltered.

4 | Xi Jinping: ‘Bad Emperor’?

‘Since taking office in 2012,’ writes Mr. Tepperman, ‘Xi, in his single-minded pursuit of personal power, has systematically dismantled just about every reform meant to block the rise of a new Mao—to prevent what Francis Fukuyama has called the “Bad Emperor” problem.’

  • ‘Unfortunately for China, the reforms Xi has targeted were the same ones that had made it so successful in the intervening period.’

‘Over the last ten years, he has consolidated power in his own hands and eliminated bureaucratic incentives for truth-telling and achieving successful results, replacing them with a system that rewards just one thing:’

  • ‘loyalty.’

‘Meanwhile, he has imposed draconian new security laws and a high-tech surveillance system, cracked down on dissent, crushed independent nongovernmental organizations (even those that align with his policies), cut China off from foreign ideas, and turned the western territory Xinjiang into a giant concentration camp for Muslim Uyghurs.’

  • ‘And in the past year, he has also launched a war on China’s billionaires, pummeled its star tech firms, and increased the power and financing of the country’s inefficient and underperforming state-owned enterprises—starving private businesses of capital in the process.’

‘Xi also faces external problems on just about every front—'

  • ‘again mostly of his own making.’

‘Having abandoned Deng’s dictum that China “hide its strength and bide its time,” he has instead sought confrontation. That has meant:’

  • ‘accelerating land grabs in the South and East China Seas,’
  • ‘threatening Taiwan,’
  • ‘using usurious loans tendered under the Belt and Road Initiative to grab control of foreign infrastructure,’
  • ‘encouraging China’s envoys to engage in bullying “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, and most recently,’
  • ‘backing Russia in its illegal and unpopular war on Ukraine.’

‘The consequences have been predictable:’

  • ‘around the world, Beijing’s public standing has fallen to near- or all-time lows,’
  • ‘while states on China’s periphery have poured money into their militaries, crowded under Washington’s security umbrella, and embraced new security pacts such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (which links Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) and AUKUS (a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States).’

‘The recent party congress was just the icing on this toxic cake.’

  • ‘More than a display of China’s grandeur, the event served to highlight its growing flaws.’

‘It was Xi’s coronation as China’s latest Bad Emperor.’

5 | The most consequential outcome of 2022

Do the Chinese people think Mr. Xi is a Bad Emperor?

  • Not that I’ve seen.

Those of us outside China have watched Mr. Xi falter in the ways Mr. Tepperman describes.

  • The Chinese people, consuming only Party-controlled media, have not.

Until now, that is.

  • When they can directly ‘seek truth from facts’ from their own lived experiences.

Some have asked me what will be the greatest risk to China in the next five years.

  • My answer: That Xi Jinping will overstep and enact policies that Chinese people won’t accept, especially those that have a direct impact on their lives and livelihoods.

As I have often said:

  • The Chinese are patient, until they aren’t.

TheCOVID policy debacle shows this.

  • More tests of their patience are on their way if the Chinese people begin to perceive Mr. Xi is, in fact, a ‘not terribly effective dictator,’.

Then, this first change in their perception of Xi Jinping will turn out to be the most consequential outcome in China in 2022.

  • Because, as I said in the opening, the Chinese people might obey an obstinate and ruthless dictator but not an ineffective one.



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