What China’s Leader Wants—and How to Stop Him From Getting It
In October, at the 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), General Secretary Xi Jinping set himself up for another decade as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, replaced his most economically literate Politburo colleagues with a phalanx of loyalists, and enshrined the Stalinist-Maoist concept of “struggle” as a guiding principle in the Party Charter. The effect was to turn the page on “reform and opening,” the term the CCP uses to describe the economic liberalization that began in the late 1970s and led to the explosive growth of the Chinese economy in the past four decades.
At the party congress, Xi was granted a third term as the CCP’s top leader—an unprecedented development in the contemporary era and a crucial step in his effort to centralize authority. But perhaps even more significant was the way the congress served to codify a worldview that Xi has been developing over the past decade in carefully crafted official party communications: Chinese-language speeches, documentaries, and textbooks, many of which Beijing deliberately mistranslates for foreign audiences, when it translates them at all. These texts dispel much of the ambiguity that camouflages the regime’s aims and methods and offer a window into Xi’s ideology and motivations: a deep fear of subversion, hostility toward the United States, sympathy with Russia, a desire to unify mainland China and Taiwan, and, above all, confidence in the ultimate victory of communism over the capitalist West. The end state he is pursuing requires the remaking of global governance. His explicit objective is to replace the modern nation-state system with a new order featuring Beijing at its pinnacle.
Granted, Beijing’s aspirations, like Moscow’s, may be greater than what it can realistically accomplish. But Xi, like the man he has described as his “best, most intimate friend,” Russian President Vladimir Putin, does not seem to believe that his reach exceeds his grasp. Policymakers around the world should take note.
It would be better to constrain and temper Xi’s aspirations now—through coordinated military deterrence and through strict limits on China’s access to technology, capital, and data controlled by the United States and its allies—rather than wait until he has taken fateful and irrevocable steps, such as attacking Taiwan, that would lead to a superpower conflict. The war in Ukraine offers constant reminders that deterrence is far preferable to “rollback.”
The Biden administration’s recent steps to constrain Xi’s quest to make China the world’s dominant semiconductor manufacturer—a status that Beijing has already achieved in telecommunications equipment, solar panels, advanced batteries, and other key sectors—mark an important evolution in U.S. strategy. If Congress, the White House, and U.S. allies move quickly to enact similar measures that sustain Chinese dependence on the rest of the industrialized world, it could blunt Xi’s growing appetite for risk.
There is a moral imperative for concerted action, too, highlighted by the street protests that have erupted in several Chinese cities in recent days as people have grown exasperated with draconian anti-COVID measures bearing Xi’s signature. If the demonstrations gain momentum, Xi’s response could be severe, judging from some of his more ominous statements. In any case, democracies should do more to side with the Chinese people by facilitating safer means for them to communicate with one another both inside and outside China.
MOUTHFULS OF SAWDUST
Reading CCP documents can be a brutal exercise. The late Simon Leys, one of the most insightful China watchers in the West, compared it to “swallowing sawdust by the bucketful.” Wading through the texts of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” as the leader’s ideology is officially known, is no exception. Much of Beijing’s rhetoric, particularly when it is directed at foreign audiences, is confusing and ambiguous. But Xi’s most revealing statements are not the ones he makes at Davos or while standing next to the U.S. president in the Rose Garden. Rather, he is at his most trenchant when delivering speeches to top CCP leaders. Such speeches, which serve as guidance to the party faithful, are sometimes kept secret for months or years before appearing in Chinese-language publications. But as Leys understood, they contain slivers of insight if one is patient and diligent enough to search for them.
Xi’s texts reflect his inheritance, as the latest in a long line of communist theorists and leaders steeped in similar doctrines, traditions, and desired end states. Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao can all be seen in Xi Jinping Thought, in letter and in spirit. And Xi does not represent as radical a departure from his more immediate predecessors as some analysts believe; his ambitions and those of the party that elevated him are broadly in sync.
None of this is to say, however, that CCP bosses are interchangeable. Leadership matters in Leninist systems as much as in any other system. And Xi’s personal imprint is all over Beijing’s current approach, even if his desired end states are consistent with those of his predecessors. Chinese critics mock him as “The Great Accelerator,” alleging that he is speeding the eventual demise of the party’s monopoly on power. His champions would probably agree that he is an accelerator—but in their eyes, he is speeding up the process of achieving the party’s long-standing goals. Either way, there is no denying that Xi is the most important person to watch and read if one is to understand where China is headed and why.
Xi does not seem to believe that his reach exceeds his grasp.
One key to understanding Xi is to look at his interpretations of history. It is well known that Putin once declared the Soviet Union’s collapse to be the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. Less well understood is the extent to which the Soviet collapse also haunts Xi and how it functions as a fundamental guide to the Chinese leader’s actions.
In December 2012, just after becoming general secretary, Xi gave a closed-door speech to cadres in Guangdong Province, excerpts of which were leaked and published by a Chinese journalist in early 2013. Xi’s speech, framed as a cautionary tale, provided an early window into his worldview:
Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken. . . . 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.
Xi’s mention of “historic nihilism” may have been an implicit criticism of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had faulted the record of his predecessors. But the explicit villain in Xi’s speech was Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader whose perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (opening) reforms set the stage for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “A few people tried to save the Soviet Union,” Xi said. “They seized Gorbachev, but within days it was turned around again, because they didn’t have the tools of dictatorship. Nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.” The phrase “the tools of dictatorship”—the idea that it is essential for the party and especially its top leader to control the military, the security apparatus, propaganda, government data, ideology, and the economy—would recur again and again in Xi’s speeches and official guidance over the next decade.
A month later, in January 2013, Xi gave another speech, effectively an inaugural address, to new members and alternate members of the CCP’s Central Committee, which is composed of China’s top few hundred highest-ranking officials. This speech, kept secret for six years, shows Xi directing the party-state in terms borrowed right from the Cold War:
Some people think that communism can be aspired to but never reached, or even think that it cannot be hoped for, cannot be envisioned, and is a complete illusion. . . . Facts have repeatedly told us that Marx and Engels’s analysis of the basic contradiction of capitalist society is not outdated, nor is the historical materialist view that capitalism will inevitably perish and socialism will inevitably triumph outdated. This is the irreversible overall trend of social and historical development, but the road is winding. The ultimate demise of capitalism, and ultimate triumph of socialism, will inevitably be a long historical process.
Three months after that, in April 2013, the Central Committee issued Document No. 9, an internal directive to party cadres that has proved to be a foundational text of the Xi era—systematic and strategic in its vision, hugely influential on the course of Chinese governance, and deeply hostile toward the West and Western ideas. Kept secret until it was leaked to overseas Chinese-language media in the summer of 2013, Document No. 9 was formally titled “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere.” It told an unambiguous story: Western countries conspire to infiltrate, subvert, and overthrow the CCP, so the party must stamp out Western “false ideological trends,” including constitutional democracy, the notion that Western values are universal, the concept of civil society, economic neoliberalism, journalistic independence, challenges to the party’s version of history, and competing interpretations of the party’s “reform and opening” agenda. “In the face of these threats,” exhorted Document No. 9, “we must not let down our guard or decrease our vigilance.”
The Soviet collapse haunts Xi and functions as a fundamental guide to his actions.
Document No. 9 also warned of “color revolution.” This term originated in the first decade of this century, when a series of antiauthoritarian popular uprisings in former Soviet states became known by colorful names, including Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003), Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004), and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution (2005). Beijing began using the phrase to evoke the ever-present specter of Western-instigated subversion. As Document No. 9 put it, “Western anti-China forces” will always “point the spearhead of Westernization, division, and ‘color revolution’ at our country.”
In late 2013, Xi required party leaders at all levels to watch a six-part documentary titled “A 20-Year Memorial for the Soviet Loss of Party and Country.” This “internal educational reference film” attributed the Soviet collapse to deep problems within the Soviet Communist Party, including its inability to manage political and economic infiltration and corruption that it blamed on the United States. The film was jointly produced by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s internal loyalty enforcer.
The same year, Beijing’s National Defense University produced a separate documentary, Silent Contest, that was distributed by several party and state organs. The film similarly used the Soviet collapse to rail against the “world strategy” of the United States. This was the opening line of Silent Contest: “The process of China’s realization of the great undertaking of national rejuvenation must ultimately follow from testing and struggle against the system of American hegemony.” Later, the film shows a clip of Putin delivering his now famous remark that the Soviet collapse was a geopolitical catastrophe.
WHEN WATER BECOMES ICE
Xi’s decision-making can be understood only with reference to Marxist-Leninist theory. In Marxist dialectics, history moves inexorably toward its utopian destination “step by step,” accumulating “quantitative increases that culminate in a qualitative leap,” as Xi explained, paraphrasing Mao, in a speech delivered to high-ranking cadres in January 2021 and published in April 2021.
Mao, in turn, was paraphrasing Joseph Stalin’s rendering of Friedrich Engels’s theories about the application of the laws of physics to the processes of societal development. According to Engels, as quoted in Stalin’s 1938 Short Course on the History of the Bolsheviks, this process of change is akin to water heating or freezing:
The temperature of water has at first no effect on its liquid state; but as the temperature of liquid water rises or falls, a moment arrives when this state of cohesion changes and the water is converted in one case into steam and in the other into ice.
In the Short Course—the most widely published book in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule and, as the China expert John Garnaut has pointed out, the closest thing to a religious text in 1950s China—Stalin and his co-authors explain that this “science of history” helps the enlightened see patterns and great trends where others might see only “a jumble of accidents and . . . absurd mistakes.”
Xi believes that we are today witnessing a “qualitative leap” in world affairs, where China has moved to center stage and the U.S.-anchored Western order is breaking down. As Xi said in his speech published in April 2021:
The world today is undergoing a great change in situation unseen in a century. Since the most recent period, the most important characteristic of the world is, in a word, “chaos,” and this trend appears likely to continue.
Xi depicts the current historical period as one of great risk and opportunity. It is his “historical mission” to exploit the inflection point and push history along its inexorable course through a process of “struggle,” which includes identifying internal and external enemies, isolating them, and mobilizing the party and its acolytes against them.
Xi expanded on these ideas in an impassioned address to the Sixth Plenum meeting of Communist Party leaders in November 2021, lauding Mao’s 1950 decision to send “volunteers” across the Yalu River into Korea to fight the U.S. and UN forces commanded by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur.
Comrade Mao Zedong, with the . . . strategic foresight of “by starting with one punch, one hundred punches will be avoided,” and the determination and bravery of “do not hesitate to ruin the country internally in order to build it anew,” made the historical policy decision to resist America and aid Korea and protect the nation, avoid the dangerous situation of invaders camping at the gates, and defend the security of New China.
Xi’s speech made an equally strong endorsement of the CCP’s “decisive measures” to crush the student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and withstand “the pressure of Western countries’ so-called sanctions” that followed. This saved the party, in Xi’s telling, and today “the CCP, the People’s Republic of China, and the Chinese nation have the most reason to be self-confident” of any “political party, country, or nation” in the world. The statements leave little doubt that Xi would be willing to adopt “decisive measures” again today if less violent means to disperse demonstrations failed.
Like many of Xi’s most aggressive and important statements, his Sixth Plenum speech was initially kept secret. It was delivered behind closed doors and published in Qiushi magazine nearly two months later. The CCP does not appear to have published an official English translation of it, and the speech was all but ignored by Western news outlets.
But just over a year later, its implications have become clear: regardless of near-term economic considerations for China, Xi is being guided by ideology and his firmly held diagnosis that the West is declining and that Beijing, led forcefully by Xi himself, must take risks and act decisively to assert new spheres of influence and build a world conducive to Marxist autocracy.
MARXIST MEANS AND ENDS
Xi Jinping Thought makes clear that Marxism is not just the means to achieving global supremacy but also the goal of that supremacy. “Karl Marx dedicated his entire life to overthrowing the old world and establishing a new world,” Xi said in 2018 while presiding over Marx’s 200th birthday celebration in Beijing—an event surrounded by weeks of propaganda and publications timed to establish Xi as the designated heir to Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Xi called the German theorist “the greatest thinker in human history” and decreed that “Marxism is not to be kept hidden in books. It was created in order to change the destiny of human history.”
This phrasing evoked a major foreign policy initiative that Xi has embraced called “A Community of Common Destiny for Mankind,” which aims to shape the global environment in ways favorable to Beijing’s authoritarian model. (The ominous-sounding term “common destiny” is often misleadingly translated by the CCP into the more anodyne English phrase “shared future.”) Xi’s 2018 speech made clear that the initiative and Marx’s vision of a stateless, collectivized world are linked.
“Just like Marx, we must struggle for communism our entire lives,” Xi said. “A collectivized world is just there, over [the horizon]. Whoever rejects that world will be rejected by the world.”
Ian Easton, an American researcher, discovered a recent set of People’s Liberation Army textbooks focused on Xi’s ideology that elaborate further on the link between Xi’s foreign policy and global communism. These books, edited by top educators and administrators at National Defense University and labeled as “internal teaching materials” for senior military officers, can be taken as authoritative. In China, the military is subordinate to the party, not to the state, and ideological training figures heavily in the education of officers. Xi has described the National Defense University as “an important base” for training China’s officer corps.
Xi called Karl Marx “the greatest thinker in human history.”
Passages from the textbooks, cited in Easton’s 2022 book, The Final Struggle: Inside China’s Global Strategy, underscore the idea that overturning U.S. leadership around the globe is only one phase of Xi’s plan. Xi also seeks to upend the concept of equal and sovereign states that emerged from Europe four centuries ago and is the cornerstone of international relations, according to the texts. As one of them, Strategic Support for Achieving the Great Chinese Rejuvenation, explains:
The Westphalian System was founded on the notion of a balance of power. But it has proven unable to achieve a stable world order. All mankind needs a new order that surpasses and supplants the balance of power. Today, the age in which a few strong Western powers could work together to decide world affairs is already gone and will not come back. A new world order is now under construction that will surpass and supplant the Westphalian System.
This and the other textbooks leave no doubt that the system that replaces the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia must be the socialist model made in China. “As we push for the fusion of the world’s civilizations on the basis of developing our nation’s unique civilization, there are several things that must be done,” reads one passage. “[We] must insist on taking the road of development with Chinese cultural characteristics. . . . And we must insist on our principles and our bottom line as we actively engage with others.”
Another passage states: “The Community of Common Destiny for Mankind will mold the interests of the Chinese people and those of the world’s people together.” At another point, that same text makes clear who has decreed this approach: “Xi Jinping has emphasized that our state’s ideology and social system are fundamentally incompatible with the West. Xi has said ‘This determines that our struggle and contest with Western countries is irreconcilable, so it will inevitably be long, complicated, and sometimes even very sharp.’” The textbook’s authors evidently took the term “very sharp” to mean violent. As the book continues: “To use war to protect our national interests is not in contradiction with peaceful development. Actually, such is a manifestation of Marxist strategy.”
In the meantime, the book advocates weaponizing economic dependence and greed: “We must gain a grip on foreign government leaders and their business elites by encouraging our companies to invest in their local economies.”
Xi further codified this view of China’s mission at the party congress in October, as he adjusted official language to match his vision and made personnel changes to reflect his control of the CCP and the preeminence of his thinking. One way in which this was achieved was through an act of editing: Xi led the congress in unanimously voting to insert the word “struggle” into the Party Charter in several more places. These changes were missed by some foreign observers, perhaps because the CCP’s English-language propaganda selectively mistranslated the word “struggle,” using euphemisms such as “persistent hard work.” But the term now rivals references to “reform and opening” in the charter, signaling that Beijing’s focus will now be even more on confronting perceived enemies at home and abroad and less on growing the economy.
The personnel changes at the top of the party suggest much the same. In a difficult-to-parse sequence of events during the proceedings, Xi’s elderly predecessor Hu Jintao was removed, seemingly against his will, from his seat next to Xi on a dais in the Great Hall of the People. That might have been passed off as clumsy choreography or perhaps as a response to some medical issue. But soon afterward, Xi dumped all three of Hu’s allies from the Politburo, replaced them with personal loyalists, and elevated military industrialists and security-apparatus officials in place of officials with national-level economic experience. These changes made Hu’s removal appear more like a public humiliation.
Xi’s picks to lead the military—the two vice chairs of the Central Military Commission, of which Xi himself is chair—further signal his disruptive geopolitical ambitions. Xi reappointed Zhang Youxia as first vice chair, despite Zhang’s advanced age (72), which put him well past typical retirement age. (Zhang’s father fought side by side with Xi’s in China’s civil war.)
For the second vice-chair seat, Xi selected He Weidong, a 65-year-old with a focus on joint operations and experience on China’s contested frontiers. He commanded ground forces in China’s west during a period of high tension (and some bloodshed) with India, then led the Taiwan-focused eastern theater, where he oversaw a dress rehearsal for war following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in August. But to become vice chair, he required a double promotion.
In short, Xi’s new leadership team appears tailormade for “the spirit of struggle” and for the “high winds and waves” and “stormy seas of a major test” that he referred to in his work report to the Party Congress. One wonders whether he had Taiwan in mind when he chose those particular words.
WARMING UP TO “CONSTRAINMENT”
In May, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a major address laying out the Biden administration’s China policy. “We are not looking for conflict or a new cold war,” Blinken asserted in his speech. “To the contrary, we’re determined to avoid both.”
The Biden administration avoids using the Cold War term “containment” to describe its approach to China, and Blinken did not use that term in his speech. But what he described echoes the successful approach Washington adopted in its contest with the Soviet Union. As one senior American official explained in a briefing to preview Blinken’s speech, U.S. policy is focused on “constraining Beijing’s ability to engage in coercive practices.” Washington seeks to work with allies to “leverage our collective strength” and “close off vulnerabilities that China is able to exploit.” Blinken summed it up in these terms in his address: “We cannot rely on Beijing to change its trajectory. So we will shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system.”
This is not quite containment, but it bears a family resemblance. “Constrainment” is the term that one of us (Pottinger) has used to describe it. A policy of constrainment, unlike containment, accounts for the current realities of economic interdependence and seeks to tilt them to Washington’s advantage. Constrainment should seek to puncture Beijing’s confidence that it can achieve its aims through war and sap Beijing’s optimism that it can decisively accumulate coercive economic leverage over the United States and other democracies.
The Biden administration avoids using the term “containment” to describe its approach to China.
Putin’s belief that western Europe had become too dependent on Russian energy to meaningfully oppose his armored assault on Kyiv appears to have been a significant factor in his decision to re-invade Ukraine. Xi is working to acquire similar coercive leverage—what he calls the “powerful countermeasure” of “international production chains’ dependence on China”—in semiconductor manufacturing and other high-tech inputs to the global economy. An allied constrainment policy would avoid falling into this trap, as well as extricate the United States where it has already stumbled into one. Washington and its allies must adopt, in essence, the opposite of Germany’s corporatist, antistrategic foreign policy that tethered European prosperity to the whims of adversarial “Führer states,” to borrow Wolfgang Ischinger and Sebastian Turner’s apt phrase.
Rules regarding semiconductors that the Biden administration issued in October take an important step in the right direction. Beijing currently must import hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of chips annually—a dependence that Washington should work to sustain. The most important elements of the new rules are limits on the export of chip-making equipment and U.S. skilled labor to China. If enforced diligently, the rules will foil Xi’s ambition to make China the world’s largest chipmaker and erode its goal of commanding the high-tech supply chains of its trade partners.
That dynamic is the essence of constrainment, which should strive to maintain a favorable balance of dependence in a wide range of areas. A policy of constrainment should, for example, strengthen the dominance of the U.S. dollar as a global reserve and trading currency, extending Washington’s ability to monitor and punish money laundering, weapons proliferation, bribery, and other dangerous actions by Beijing. Constrainment should remind Beijing of its dependence on foreign sources of food and energy while reversing the United States’ growing reliance on Chinese batteries, solar panels, and other “green” technology.
TikTok represents a potentially powerful instrument for censorship and mass manipulation.
Constrainment would also rectify the lead Beijing has, incredibly, opened over the United States in global Internet governance and control of information and data flows. The fact that ByteDance, a Chinese company, controls TikTok—the fastest growing news and video content outlet in the United States—represents a potentially grave failure by Washington to protect democracy and free speech. TikTok’s algorithms, whose source code Beijing has restricted from being transferred out of China, could be modified to suppress or amplify content according to the CCP’s preferences, which would give China the ability to influence the views of tens of millions of Americans. Zhang Fuping, who serves as editor in chief of ByteDance, is also the secretary of the company’s Communist Party Committee, tasked with ensuring the company’s alignment with the CCP’s interests. According to a report in Sina Finance, at a meeting in 2018, Zhang declared that the company should “‘take the lead’ across ‘all product lines and business lines’ to ensure that the algorithm is informed by the ‘correct political direction’ and ‘values.’” And according to a report in Taiwan News, in 2019, ByteDance signed an agreement with the Ministry of Public Security’s Press and Publicity Bureau pledging to boost “network influence and online discourse power” and enhance “public security propaganda, guidance, influence, and credibility.”
TikTok and other content apps based in China or owned by Chinese firms represent potentially powerful instruments for censorship and mass manipulation; Washington should ban their use, just as India’s government has wisely done. If the CCP wants to influence international audiences, it should have to depend on digital platforms domiciled in, regulated by, and accountable to democracies.
The contest between democracies and China will increasingly turn on the balance of dependence; whichever side depends least on the other will have the advantage. Reducing Washington’s dependence, and increasing Beijing’s, can help constrain Xi’s appetite for risk. When coupled with U.S. cooperation with Australia, Japan, and Taiwan to field an unmistakably superior and well-coordinated military presence in the western Pacific, constrainment offers the best way to prevent the “stormy seas of a major test” that Xi seems tempted to undertake as he begins his second decade as China’s dictator.