The Case of Xi Jinping


In January 1980, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping gathered senior cadres from the upper reaches of the country’s political system to discuss "the present situation and the tasks before us."1 Just two weeks into the new decade, Deng sensed that the 1980s would be “a dangerous decade” typified by “great turbulence and crises.” But it was also, he exhorted, a “crucial decade” during which he hoped China would lay a strong economic foundation so that the country could achieve “modernization with Chinese characteristics” within 20 years. All of this, he believed, was with one final goal in mind: To build “a modern, powerful socialist country.” While the challenges China would confront were profound, Deng had confidence that the Communist Party of China (CCP) – which he called “great, glorious and correct” – could overcome such obstacles, much as it had done repeatedly since its founding in 1921.

Nearly 40 years later, in the summer of 2018, Xi Jinping convened the Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference for the second time in the nearly six years since he had been promoted to general secretary of the CCP. (By way of comparison, his immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, had only done so once during their respective two terms.) The 2018 conference brought together the senior-most echelons of China’s political system – including the full Politburo and its Standing Committee, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, and leading officials from across the country – to discuss the direction and substance of China’s foreign policy. The meetings’ readout was a tight encapsulation of China’s foreign affairs in the Xi Jinping era, including references to Xi’s doctrine of a “community of common destiny” and his signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).2  

Buried in the long document were two phrases that demonstrated how strong the common strategic lineage was connecting China’s great reformer – Deng Xiaoping – and its rising autocrat – Xi Jinping. Like Deng, Xi stressed that China was experiencing a period of systemic volatility and risk, or what he called “profound changes unseen in the world in a century” (世界处于百年未有之大变局). Such an external environment would test the organizational fortitude of the CCP, requiring a “high degree of consistency within the Party’s Central Committee in its ideological and political operations to ensure strict obedience and unified action.” But such challenges aside, Xi shared Deng’s vision to build “a modern, powerful socialist country,” albeit under a slightly different, even older formulation: The “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Rather than just a vague or inchoate slogan, the idea of “national rejuvenation” has served as the lodestar for both foreign and domestic policy for decades, with its final objective being national prosperity and dominant military strength under the socialist system by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC.

As Xi nears the end of his seventh year in power, we have become accustomed to discussing all that is different under his rule compared to previous Chinese leaders, from the extreme centralization of political power and decision-making at home, to the more “aggressive” behavior abroad, as exemplified by the militarization of the South China Sea and China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti. But in the perennial debate of “does the system make the leader, or does the leader make the system,” our view of the People’s Republic of China under Xi has swung too far towards the latter. When it comes to Xi’s view of China and its place in the world, his policies are certainly unique and profoundly important, yet they are in keeping with long-standing priorities of the CCP dating back to the late-1970s. Xi’s own style of leadership and vision for China are undoubtedly important (as will be discussed below), but an over-estimation of his singular role in forming China’s evolving grand strategy and implementing its foreign policy will leave foreign capitals disoriented when they confront challenges that persist beyond his reign. China’s current trajectory was set long before Xi came to power, and it will likely continue after he leaves office, whenever that may finally be.

China’s window of strategic opportunity widens

To understand China’s current foreign policy under Xi, it is necessary to rewind to 2001, a year in which China officially acceded to the World Trade Organization (WTO), but also, crucially, the year the United States made an unexpected and violent pivot to the Middle East in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11th and later, the controversial (and false) premise that Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. For CCP leader Jiang Zemin, this redirection of US strategic focus came at a crucial moment, for American’s incoming president George W. Bush had already announced a tougher line on China, stating in 1999, “The next president needs to understand that China, while we can find some areas of agreement such as opening their markets, that they need to be viewed as a competitor, and a strategic competitor. We need to be tough and firm.”3 The collision of a US Navy EP-3 aircraft and a PLA Navy J-8II interceptor fighter in the summer of 2001, while eventually deescalated without further incident, seemed to portend a fractious bilateral relationship along the lines Bush had espoused.  

During his address to the 16th Party Congress in 2002, Jiang Zemin declared, “An overview of the situation shows that for our country, the first two decades of the 21st century are a period of important strategic opportunity, which we must seize tightly and which offers bright prospects.”4 While he did little to elucidate precisely what he meant, subsequent analysis by Chinese writers pointed to America’s recently-launched War on Terror as the primary catalyst for Jiang’s comments. With the US bogged-down in the Middle East, space was opening for China to accelerate a global shift towards a multipolar order, one that CCP leaders felt was already occurring. In practice, however, this diagnosis meant more continuity in China’s foreign policy than it did radical change. “The diplomatic balancing [China] had undertaken during the Cold War would continue in the post-Cold War era, although of course, there were new challenges to be confronted,” observes Tufts University’s Sulmaan Kahn. He added, “The basic precepts of Chinese grand strategy would remain the same as they had in the Cold War; the strategic environment was different, and yet, in key respects, it was the same.”5

The 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) further bolstered the view among China’s foreign policy elite that the United States was in the midst of a prolonged structural decline, which was widening China’s window of strategic opportunity. While China’s leaders since Deng Xiaoping had seen the adoption of markets and the absorption of foreign technology and know-how as important elements in China’s ongoing modernization efforts, they still held a fundamentally Marxist outlook about the long-term “contradictions” of a global capitalist system. Such ideological underpinnings were kept at bay so long as the US-led economic order dominated, but with cracks appearing, voices emerged within China’s political system calling for a new world order. This shift was illustrated by a comment China’s now-vice president Wang Qishan made to then-treasury secretary Hank Paulson as the two countries struggled to stave off a full-blown economic crisis in the months following the outbreak of the GFC. “You were my teacher but look at your system, Hank, we aren’t sure we should be learning from you anymore,” Wang told Paulson.6

Such a perspective was more than just a temporary bout of hubris. Indeed, this view was coming into focus even before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in late 2008. As an outspoken academic booster of China’s political system Zhang Weiwei proclaimed in 2006, “So long as the American model remains unable to deliver the desired outcome…the Chinese model will become more appealing to the world’s poor.”7 For many intellectuals and members of the CCP elite, the GFC finally and fully exposed the inherent weaknesses in the US-led global economic order, and the resulting governance vacuum could only be filled by a rising and increasingly powerful China under the leadership of the CCP.8

This confidence manifested in a debate over ending the Deng-era stratagem of “keeping a low profile,” which had first been formulated in 1990 as a means to avoid unduly provoking the United States. Viewing economic development as the primary foundation of national power, the ailing Deng urged his fellow CCP leaders to focus on supporting a stable international environment and to eschew the temptation for China to assert itself more forcefully abroad. “Some developing countries would like China to become the leader of the Third World,” Deng said in a speech to the CCP Central Committee in December 1990. “We can’t afford to do it and besides, we aren’t strong enough. There is nothing to be gained by playing that role; we would only lose most of our initiative.”9 Focusing on economic development would give China room to build and consolidate its material and military capabilities. Time, Deng believed, was on China’s side, and if the country could develop peacefully for “50 or 60 years, socialist China will be invincible.”10

Following the GFC, “strategic patience” came under increasing strain, with a growing chorus of Chinese intellectuals, academics, military professionals, and policymakers arguing that China’s political and economic system was genuinely outperforming the US, and thus the time was ripe for moving further into the global spotlight. Frustration was likewise mounting amongst some in the foreign policy community that China was being placed into an increasingly untenable position under the status quo: Hide its brightness, and it was a considered a global free-rider. Take initiative, and it was suddenly a revisionist power. “Foreign media have distorted the Chinese government’s clear stand and decisive actions in defending its national sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well safeguarding the country’s core interests and development rights as ‘arrogant, an ‘overreaction’ and ‘aggressive,’” lamented Liu Xuecheng of in 2011.11

The final blow against Deng’s “low profile” consensus followed President Obama’s announcement of the US “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific in the fall of 2011. While the White House went to great lengths to assuage Beijing’s concerns that the pivot was not an attempt to “contain” China, according to Yan Xuetong, the core rhetoric coming from the White House and State Department finally and fully convinced Chinese leaders that the US was shifting its strategic focus away from the Middle East and towards China.12

The announcement of the “pivot” also provoked introspection about China’s mismanaging of its relations with its “peripheral” neighbors, which had become increasingly defined by territorial disputes, including with Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines. Yet for many of the increasingly hawkish foreign policy voices within China, the real concern with this mismanagement was not lost economic and trade opportunities, but rather how regional discord would further attract the attention of the United States. “Recently, due to various reasons, China has paid less attention to neighboring countries. Frictions and contradictions between China and neighboring countries have continuously appeared,” wrote Li Qunying in 2011. He continued, “China must attach importance to neighboring countries and establish good relations with neighboring countries, so as to avoid a big country like the United States from interfering in its affairs.”13

But a decade on from George W. Bush’s campaign speech signaling that the US would adopt a tougher approach to China, by 2011-12, the CCP was feeling genuinely confident about its economic and military capabilities, and better able to deal with possible increased US involvement in what it saw as China’s backyard. Qiao Liang, a senior officer in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and the co-author of the 1999 book Unrestricted Warfare (超限战), argued that the GFC had “weakened the overall strength of the United States” relative to China.14 Metrics such as Hu Angang’s “composite national power” (综合国力) were frequently employed to put quantitative muscle on this qualitative sense that the Chinese model was truly superior. China’s surpassing of Japan as the second largest economy in the world in 2010 further added credence to this worldview, as did the publication that same year of John and Doris Naisbitt’s book China’s Megatrends: The 8 Pillars of a New Society, which, as befitted the mood, was only later translated from Chinese to English.

Therefore, when Xi Jinping finally and fully ascended to power as general secretary of the CCP and chairman of the Central Military Commission in November 2012, followed by assuming the title of president of the PRC the following spring, elite domestic rhetoric in favor of a more aggressive foreign policy was already observable, even if some outside experts were questioning just how “assertive” China’s behavior actually was.15 The main tenants of this shifting world view were:

  • A concern that increasingly fractious relations with “periphery nations” would invite increased US involvement in the region, as evidenced by Obama’s “pivot”;
  • A desire to stabilize the global economic order in the wake of GFC-produced volatility;
  • An overarching view that the US was undergoing a sustained and structural decline, which provided China with a temporary “strategic window” to advance its interests and shift the global order more in China’s favor;
  • Occurring in tandem with America’s secular decline is China’s rising “composite national power,” which demanded more active participation in global governance to secure China’s long-term interests.

The right leader at the right time

Comments by then-vice president Xi Jinping in 2009 gave an early taste of how China’s incoming leader felt about China’s place in the world. “Some foreigners with full belies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us,” Xi told an audience in Mexico. “First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?”16

Needless to say, Xi had a lot more say on the matter, and he began speaking almost immediately after coming to power. In retrospect, one of his most important and revealing comments came in a leaked speech, where he bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union, stating, “An important reason [for the collapse] was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken. In the end, ‘the ruler’s flag over the city tower’ changed overnight. It’s a profound lesson for us! To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the Party’s organizations on all levels.”17 Yet in this, Xi was simply reciting conventional wisdom within the CCP, albeit in more earthy language. The Party’s explanation for the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellite states is long, complex, and often baroque, but at its heart is the diagnosis that the Soviet elites simply gave up on defending the political and ideological system.

But unlike Soviet leaders in the later phases of the USSR’s implosion, as we have seen, Xi rode into office at a time of rising confidence in China and the Chinese system. While foreign observers were fixated on the fallout from the purge of Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai in early 2012, or the astounding pace of debt accumulation stemming from China’s state-led response to the GFC, domestic intellectuals and Party leaders were looking at the changing global order, flowing from the perceived decline and weakness of the US (as best evidenced by Obama’s hesitation in the face of the expanding Chinese presence in the South China Sea). The domestic discussion was less focused on maintaining the posture of “hiding one’s brightness and biding one’s time” (韬光养晦) and instead it revolved around seizing the initiative and “striving for achievement” (奋发有为). Unlike previous leaders, who moved forward calmly and cautiously, Xi raced ahead.

While Xi’s unprecedented efforts to consolidate domestic political control through his anti-corruption campaign attracted most media attention, 2013 was also a year of far-reaching change in China’s foreign affairs. For his inaugural trip as president of the PRC, Xi traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin and to sign a joint-declaration in support of their respective territorial claims. That same month, he was in South Africa for the BRICS summit, visiting Tanzania and Congo along the way, and by trip’s end, he had signed an agreement with Russia, Brazil, India, and South Africa to create the New Development Bank (i.e. the “BRICS Bank”) to promote infrastructure and development projects. Two months later, Xi was off to Latin America, and in September, while visiting Kazakhstan, he unveiled the One Belt One Road initiative (later rebranded the BRI, which, he claimed, would create the “biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential”). One month later, Xi pushed forward with an initiative to create a competitor to the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). On October 24-25, Xi convened the Symposium on Peripheral Diplomacy, with the aim of “establish[ing] the strategic objectives, basic principles, and overall setup of the peripheral diplomatic work in the next five to ten years.”18 In November, China summarily announced an expanded Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over swaths of disputed territory in the East China Sea, and at the 3rd Plenum of the CCP Central Committee, also in that same month, Beijing announced the creation of a new National Security Council, chaired by Xi, to “make overall coordination for major matters and important tasks involving national security.”19 

This was an astounding pace of events for a new general secretary, most of whom typically spend their first five-year term consolidating power and purging rivals so that their second term can be spent driving policy and cementing their legacy. That this timeline did not apply to Xi signals just how much support he apparently had within the senior reaches of the Party and the military, including among the “elders” who hold significant sway, even after they have formally left office. Indeed, Xi moved with such force on both the domestic and international fronts that a better way to view his early period in office was that of a leader chosen by the Party elite to ride a wave of rising Chinese confidence to address long-standing challenges, but also to re-draw and reconstruct the global order in ways that better accommodated China’s continued rise and long-term success.

This narrative with Xi as the “grand implementor” of long-held Party leadership goals does not diminish his singularity as a Chinese leader nor his authority within the system. He can still appropriately be viewed as the “CEO of everything” even if, as Andrew Chubb has argued about China’s aggressive maritime policy, “Xi’s hard-line policy rhetoric seems to reflect long-term consensus ideas rather than his distinct personal preferences,” putting Xi in a role “more akin to a gatekeeper than an architect” of a tougher Chinese stance.20

At the same time, it would be inaccurate to simply describe Xi as a politician more adept at moving the ball further down the field. While he shares the same macro-strategic goals as Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, in many important areas, he is playing an entirely different game from his predecessors. Perhaps no area is more illustrative of Xi’s unique leadership style than his drive to centralize foreign policy decision-making – indeed, all policy decision-making – to a degree not seen in PRC history. Previous CCP leaders, including both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, never desired to be as involved in the day-to-day of policy- and decision-making to the extent that Xi does. While much has been written about his organizational reforms in the economic policy realm, especially his reliance on leading small groups to circumvent the normal bureaucratic apparatus, this drive has extended into the foreign policy realm as well. This trend reached its apogee in March 2018 at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, at which the Xi administration unveiled a wide-reaching bureaucratic restructuring that left no part of China’s political system untouched. Of central importance was the upgrading of the Central Leading Small Group on Foreign Affairs to become the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, giving the body vast new and direct powers over China’s foreign policy apparatus, with Xi serving as the commission’s chair.21 Xi’s belief in the necessity of centralization stems from his view that the current structure of party-state bureaucracy yields too much discretion to subordinate actors, which in turn leaves it unable to deal with what Xi has called “today’s world of increased factors of uncertainty and instability.”22  

Yet another important area where Xi’s personal influence can be seen is in the drive to position China as a progenitor of domestic and international governance innovations.23 The scope of Xi’s vision for China-led global governance came to its clearest focus during his speech at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, when he announced that China had entered a “new era.” Under Mao Zedong, China had “stood up” and secured its territorial independence. Under Deng Xiaoping, the country had “grown rich” by reforming and opening its economy, but now under Xi, China was “becoming strong.”24 Ensuring China could achieve its long-destined dream of national rejuvenation would require “all-out efforts to build a great modern socialist country,” which would result in China “moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind.” 

Such inclinations have only been strengthened since the election of the trade protectionist Donald Trump and the UK’s referendum vote to leave the European Union in 2016. According to Jin Canrong and Shi Yusong, “the current reality is that the United States and Europe have experienced a series of problems, and their ability and willingness to lead global governance have declined. As a result, the uncertainty of the entire system is becoming increasingly apparent.” As a result, they conclude, China “has increasingly become the focus of world attention and the stabilizing force for the development of human society.”25

The list of institutions China claims to have created or co-created to benefit “mankind” by filling the perceived “governance deficit”26 is long, including the aforementioned AIIB, the BRICS bank, and the BRI. However, they have all, in their own way, been controversial, and at times, China’s efforts to draw its neighbors and developing countries closer into its embrace have been undercut by competing geostrategic, economic, and territorial aspirations.

Conclusion: The downside of confidence

Constructing a narrative of China as an insecure and imperiled nation is relatively easy, and indeed, informs much of the outside outlook on the country’s behavior and future trajectory, especially in the United States: A slowing economy, untold number of “mass incidents” stemming from growing labor unrest, internal divisions and rampant corruption within the CCP, the overcentralization of power under Xi Jinping leading to information tunneling, not to mention China’s vulnerable geographic position, bordering fourteen nations. Add to this the long and growing list of domestic and external challenges Beijing will have to confront in the coming decades, ranging from a graying population, a shrinking workforce, and the full impact of a prolonged productivity slowdown. Xi and the Party leadership are certainly aware of these problems, and they fully understand what failure to effectively deal with such challenges mean for the sustainability of CCP rule.27

Many foreign analysts thus describe China’s grand strategy and its resulting foreign policy as primarily defensive; as an attempt to make the world “safe for autocracy.” This view, however, is at odds with how many elite foreign policy voices within China view the country’s place in the world. And it is also at odds with how Xi Jinping sees the world. As he declared at the 19th Party Congress in 2017: “The wheels of history roll on; the tides of the times are vast and mighty. History looks kindly on those with resolve, with drive and ambition, and with plenty of guts; it won’t wait for the hesitant, the apathetic, or those shy of a challenge.”

Xi’s worldview – indeed the Party’s worldview – is imbued with confidence about China’s continued rise and its role in shaping the global order of the 21st century. Relying on a newly constructed index measuring China’s “national strategic resources,” two researchers found a marked improvement in China’s position vis-à-vis the United States in the ten years following the Global Financial Crisis. From a base year of 2008, when China’s share of “national strategic recourse” stood at 63% of America’s, by 2018, this ratio had increased to 87%.28

But therein lies the challenge, as is already evident in the recent international pushback against China’s assertive and often aggressive illiberal behavior. China’s activities ranging from its industrial policy to so-called antiterrorism measures in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region are increasingly being denounced by governments around the world, much to the chagrin of Beijing, which sees these as solely domestic issues. And for all the rhetoric about cooperation, partnerships, and “shared destinies,” Xi has been unable to forge enduring relationships outside of the promise of financial rewards.

In the pre-Xi era, Chinese leaders were responsive to shifting global perceptions, willing to adjust China’s foreign policy. They understood the larger prize at stake – the eventual rise of China to become a true superpower, and they understood this could not be sacrificed for short-term wins. Now, however, China under Xi careens ahead, overflowing with confidence and convinced that the global order is tipping – as if by iron historical law – back towards the East.
This is not to say that there are no dissenting voices within China, even within the senior ranks of the CCP, but they are currently silenced under the weight of ideological and political obedience. In their place is a chorus of hosannas, which Xi will interpret as an ever-strengthening conviction in the wisdom of his path.  

1. “The present situation and the tasks before us,” China Daily, January 16, 1980,

2. “习近平:努力开创中国特色大国外交新局面,” Xinhua, June 23, 2018,

3. Quoted in Richard Baum, “From ‘Strategic Partners’ to ‘Strategic Competitors’: George W. Bush and the Politics of U.S. China Policy,” Journal of East Asian Studies, No. 1, 2001, p. 191.

4. Jiang Zemin, “Full text of Jiang Zemin’s Report at 16th Party Congress,” PRC Foreign Ministry, November 8, 2002,

5. Sulmaan Wasif Khan, Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), p. 183.

6. Tom Mitchell, Gabriel Wildau and Henny Sender, “Wang Qishan: China’s enforcer,” Financial Times, July 24, 2017,

7. Zhang Weiwei, "The allure of the Chinese model," The New York Times, November 1, 2001.

8. 李志永, “中国 ‘奋发有为’ 外交的根源, 性质与挑战: 自主性外交理论的视角,”李志永.pdf

9. “Seize the opportunity to develop the economy,” China Daily, December 24, 1990,

10. Ibid.

11. “中国走向 ‘大外交,’” People’s Daily,

12. Yan Xuetong, “From Keeping a Low Profile to Striving for Achievement,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2014, pp. 153–84.

13. “中国走向 ‘大外交.’”

14. “美国连打四场战争欲让石油交易与美元挂钩,” Sina News, February 25, 2011,

15. Alastair Iain Johnston, "How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?" International Security, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Spring 2013), pp. 7–48.


17. Sophie Beach, “Leaked speech shows Xi Jinping’s opposition to reform,” China Digital Times, January 27, 2013, 

18. Quoted in Michael D. Swaine, "Chinese Views and Commentary on Periphery Diplomacy," China Leadership Monitor, No. 44,

19. Joel Wuthnow, “China’s New ‘Black Box’: Problems and Prospects for the Central National Security Commission,” The China Quarterly, Vol. 232 (2017), p. 886.

20. “Xi Jinping and China’s maritime policy,” Brookings, January 22, 2019,

21. “近平主持召开中央外事工作委员会第一次会议,” Xinhua, May 15, 2018,

22. “Xi stresses centralized, unified leadership of CPC Central Committee over foreign affairs,” China Daily, May 15, 2018,

23. For an excellent overview of these efforts, see Melanie Hart and Blaine Johnson, “Mapping China’s Global Governance Ambitions,” Center for American Progress, February 28, 2019,

24. “Full text of Xi Jinping’s report at 19th CPC National Congress,” China Daily, November 4, 2017,

25. “金灿荣、石雨松:习近平的全球治理理念,” Academy of Ocean of China, November 20, 2019,

26. Tim Heath, "China Prepares for an International Order After U.S. Leadership," Lawfare, August 1, 2018,

27. "Xi urges major risk prevention to ensure healthy economy, social stability," Xinhua, January 22, 2019,

28. 门洪华,王骁:“中国国际地位动态研究(2008—2018),《太平洋学报》2019年第7期76-92.

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