How Washington Overestimates Chinese Weakness

After Chinese President Xi Jinping secured a historic third term in October 2022, many Western analysts heralded him as a modern-day emperor. But just four months later, a glance at the headlines suggests he is under pressure at home and his grip on power may be looser than many thought. A messy exit from China’s “zero COVID” policy and a rogue spy balloon—allegedly the work of a Chinese military seeking to prevent Xi from stabilizing relations with Washington—are seen by some observers as evidence that the Chinese leader is suddenly on the back foot. But such analyses ignore both Xi’s ruthless political cunning and his efforts to better manage the intrinsic pathologies of a system whose flaws are viewed by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) magnates as acceptable risks as long as they remain in power.

A hallmark of Xi’s rule has been his propensity to make big bets that he thinks will pay off for him and for China. At the very beginning of his tenure, he launched a withering anticorruption purge that decimated once mighty barons of the Politburo, military, and security services. Many analysts thought such a move would be impossible at the time: they presumed that Xi was constrained by powerful interest groups, just as his two predecessors had been.

But Xi quickly outmaneuvered those alleged kingpins, allowing him to launch a transformative policy agenda comparatively early in his rule. What followed were other big bets, including his risky gambit to deleverage China’s debt-plagued financial sector, his unapologetic stance on the world stage, and his claim that China has a unique and effective development model—what Xi calls “Chinese-style modernization”—that may work for others. Western analysts roundly condemn these innovations as ruinous for China and threatening to other countries. But the hard truth is that it is too soon to make such confident judgments.

Most of Xi’s big bets have one thing in common: they keep his adversaries, both domestic and foreign, off balance. As a Leninist organization overseeing a continual revolution rooted in so-called contradictions and struggle, the CCP lacks, and even eschews, the legitimacy democratic systems derive from their institutions or from shared beliefs such as constitutionalism. In Xi’s eyes, that makes China’s bureaucracies possible rival centers of power, incentivizing him to keep them decoupled from—and perhaps even at odds with—one another.

But isolating the bureaucracies too much risks germinating autonomous fiefdoms that are only nominally loyal to their party masters. This dilemma has plagued each of China’s leaders since Mao Zedong, but Xi has turbocharged it with his obsessive emphasis on party dominance. His solution, “political shock and awe,” mixes raw power with new institutional arrangements that bolster that power. Because it keeps China’s major security organs under stricter civilian control, this developing approach may make Beijing less dangerous than those pushing the narrative of a new cold war with China want to acknowledge. Unfortunately, it will take patience, confidence, and a steely commitment to a China policy rooted only in the national interest to find out—all of which are in short supply in today’s Washington.


Many observers were shocked when China suddenly abandoned its zero-COVID policy in late 2022. They had thought that Xi was fiddling while China’s economy burned in order to deny his rivals ammunition ahead of the 20th National Congress of the CCP or that he was obsessed with building his surveillance-driven dystopian wonderland. Just before the congress, the consensus was that Xi might drop the policy after the conclave because it no longer made sense or that a “savior premier” from a rival leadership constituency might emerge and push back on Xi’s misguided approach. Those hopes were dashed when a supposedly sycophantic group of Xi’s yes men were appointed instead, leaving no one to tell the emperor he had no clothes. And yet observers still interpreted Xi’s decision to scrap his zero-COVID policy as evidence that he was terrified by a few students holding blank pieces of paper. Such commentary, in turn, prompted more suggestions that Xi’s third term already lay in ruins.

Additional evidence of Xi’s chastening was said to be found in the adulatory funeral honors he gave to former President Jiang Zemin, who died just days after the street protests in November. A damaged Xi and his Politburo allegedly feared that Jiang’s death might provoke additional unrest, as the passing of other venerable CCP leaders had in the past.

Such analysis supposes Xi to be either a fool or a fanatic, when he clearly is neither. More likely, he began reconsidering his zero-COVID policy after the disastrous Shanghai lockdown last spring, which was overseen by his ally Li Qiang. Li obeyed orders, but he probably told Xi afterward that the policy was becoming untenable. The dilemma Xi faced, moreover, was different from the ones suggested by commentators. Months earlier, in another of his big bets, he appears to have decided to dump former President Hu Jintao’s allies from the Politburo in a surprise putsch as the party congress closed. That made it necessary to control as many risks as possible, and letting COVID-19 loose would mean a wave of deaths for which Xi and the party would risk being blamed. After all, the CCP’s mantra from the beginning of the pandemic had been “people first, lives first,” and Xi had styled himself as “the people’s leader.”

Xi’s reopening bet has paid off.

The protests gave him just the out he was looking for. If abandoning zero-COVID went well, he could keep his new honorific and say he listened to the people. If it went poorly, he could blame the protesters and the “hostile foreign forces” that his top security chief publicly suggested were behind them. This calculus, the damage to China’s economy, and an awareness from his allies in the provinces that the Omicron variant had won, presumably encouraged Xi to make yet another big bet and let the disease rip. In that sense, Xi’s bet has paid off, because the outbreak, although messy and unnecessarily deadly, has spawned neither a new variant that might escape China nor the rebound wave that many experts predicted. That leaves the Chinese economy primed to return to growth much earlier than global investors anticipated.

Against this backdrop, the notion that Xi sought to tread carefully at Jiang’s funeral seems far-fetched. As David Bandurski of the China Media Project observed, the official treatment of Jiang’s death was far more ritualistic than revelatory, and it was nearly identical to the hagiography that followed Deng Xiaoping’s passing in 1997. As it did with Deng’s passing, the Politburo had ample time to prepare for Jiang’s demise, leaving it less concerned about protests than it was after the surprise death of former party boss Hu Yaobang in 1989, which touched off the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Likewise, Hu’s involvement in the mourning rituals, which some analysts have painted as evidence of Xi’s weakness, was predictable; as a former president and Jiang’s immediate successor, his absence would have signaled an insecure Xi.


Senior Pentagon official Colin Kahl’s recent statement that “a major civil-military divide” in China lay behind the spy balloon that derailed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s scheduled visit to China is another troubling misreading of events. True, it seems strange that Xi would endorse such a risky operation when he presumably wanted the visit to help stabilize relations with Washington. But an understanding of Xi’s overall worldview, as well as the CCP system and Xi’s efforts to better manage some of its intrinsic shortcomings, can demystify the situation.

One piece of evidence for the rogue military theory cited by its proponents is that China’s Foreign Ministry seemed genuinely ignorant of the operation. But compartmentalization is a feature of CCP rule, not a bug. The Foreign Ministry’s role is to manage overseas perceptions of China and to defend the regime when embarrassments occur. In that sense, the Foreign Ministry is China’s “civilian army,” but it is also viewed with indifference, if not disdain, by its secretive CCP bosses. Not so the People’s Liberation Army, which, given its role as the armed wing of the CCP (rather than the national military of China), is integral to regime survival. The PLA is the ultimate guarantor of CCP rule, as it ruthlessly demonstrated during the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. It can also be an instrument in elite CCP conflict and was used to arrest various prominent figures in the 1970s. In short, the Foreign Ministry does not make policy and certainly does not tell the PLA what it should or should not do.

Still more misguided is the notion that the PLA or other regime hard-liners sought to sabotage Blinken’s visit to frustrate Xi’s interest in détente. Xi is a hard-liner. Watching the first two years of the Biden administration has affirmed his judgment that U.S. hostility to China is deeply bipartisan and that therefore the United States is China’s implacable enemy. After six years of a perceived de facto war launched and waged by Washington to deny Beijing its strategic ambitions and overthrow the CCP, spy balloons seem inoffensive in comparison. Xi probably does not see the balloon program as in conflict with wanting Blinken to visit.

The Politburo remains convinced that the people agree with its choices.

If not outright sabotage, then perhaps the balloon mission reflects another feature of the CCP ecosystem: bureaucratic stovepiping. After all, there were several instances during Hu’s tenure when it appeared that the Chinese president did not know what his military was up to. Although still under notional party control, the high command took advantage of certain intrinsic monopolies—such as intelligence flow and military-technical expertise—to expand its policy influence in areas touching on the PLA’s corporate interests.

But Xi is not Hu. Unlike his predecessor, Xi has some knowledge of the PLA’s internal workings from his stint as aide-de-camp to a senior figure in the CCP body overseeing the military and from fellow CCP blue bloods who serve as senior officers. His time as Hu’s understudy apparently confirmed his instinct to get the PLA back in line. From the moment he took power, he initiated an aggressive anticorruption purge of the senior officer corps in conjunction with a comprehensive force restructuring, which disrupted the PLA’s long-standing organizational networks. He also declared himself commander in chief of the PLA and reworked the official lines of authority to emphasize his grip over the military. In this new ecosystem, it seems inconceivable that Xi was unaware of the balloon program, if not this specific mission.

A misguided desire to view China’s challenges and choices through the same lens as other foreign systems lies at the crux of these misperceptions. Because the West abandoned COVID-19 controls early in the pandemic, China’s strict adherence to them was deemed intrinsically foolish. When the Politburo clung on to these policies longer than apolitical foreign health officials thought reasonable, Western analysts assumed that Xi had to be either under pressure internally or a tyrannical madman. His decision to relax COVID-19 controls must, therefore, be deemed an embarrassing climbdown rather than a strategic gambit. No doubt, the regime badly erred in wasting the time its harsh approach bought to better prepare for the inevitable. In the aggregate, however, the outcome differed little from that in other countries: the disease won, prompting a messy exit resulting in preventable loss of life. The regime’s formal declaration of unqualified victory over COVID-19 this month underscores the Politburo’s conviction that China’s people largely agree with its choices.


The spy balloon episode offers just the latest example of the dangers of misreading Xi and his system. The state presidency is the least important of the Chinese leader’s main posts. His duties as head of the party and of the military come first, and Xi views his foreign and security agencies as instruments to be wielded in an unflinchingly hierarchical world of CCP power and control, not as empowered institutions contributing input to a collective policy framework. His National Security Commission is strategic and focused on achieving broad CCP goals, not on crisis management and preventing interagency friction, like its notional American analog. China’s top diplomat is not like the U.S. national security adviser, and its foreign and defense ministers lack the broad authority of their U.S. equivalents.

Yet U.S. President Joe Biden and his top officials repeatedly demonstrate little awareness of these critical differences between the American and Chinese systems. Biden tells Xi he wants competition instead of conflict but then repeatedly says publicly that the United States will defend Taiwan militarily and quips in his State of the Union address that no foreign leader wants Xi’s job. His secretary of defense is mystified that his Chinese counterpart will not answer the phone, and Biden’s advisers wonder why China will not discuss security guardrails. The answer is that Xi does not want them. His grip on the PLA is still firm, and he believes that such measures cast China as another Soviet Union and are formulated to determine how far the United States, as the superior power, can push without sparking a conflict.

These misunderstandings are hardening into resentments that risk tanking relations still further. Senior Biden officials have relished the opportunity to needle China over the spy balloon and expose the apparent sweep of its program to allies and others. But Xie Feng, China’s soon-to-be ambassador in Washington, has warned that such actions have “severely impacted and undermined the efforts and progress made by the two sides to stabilize China-U.S. relations” since Biden and Xi met in Bali in November. Indeed, the mostly performative meeting last weekend between the countries’ foreign ministers in Munich, echoed the toxic March 2021 exchange in Anchorage, Alaska. Consequently, the longer the Biden administration insists on prioritizing political point scoring at home the harder it will be to get relations back on track.


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