Will Xi Jinping Continue to Rule China?

Foreign Affairs

On the brink of demographic collapse, a third term for the CCP leader may be the country’s best chance at superpower status.

The Chinese Communist Party is preparing to make a pivotal decision next month: whether to give a third term to President Xi Jinping. If the CCP breaks precedent, as expected, and votes for him yet again come October’s twice-a-decade Communist Party congress, Xi will become the longest serving head of state in the history of the People’s Republic. 

At 69 years old, a year beyond the CCP’s customary age for retirement, it seemed Xi might decide to ride off into the sunset. But that will not be the case, given that Indonesian President Joko Widodo said Xi plans on attending the Group of 20 summit in Bali come November. 

It may be true that the last few years of Xi’s second term have not gone according to plan. China continues to struggle in vain for Covid-zero, and new lockdowns in Chengdu amidst a new viral outbreak suggest China does not have plans to abandon the strategy. The economy’s growth rate was slowing before Covid, but has further declined because of the pandemic. And a Western pivot toward Taiwan is ratcheting up tensions in China’s backyard, increasing pressure on Xi from within the party to take the island by force if necessary.

Nevertheless, Xi has much to boast about. He has been able to capitalize on a strong national identity rigorously enforced by the Communist Party and the country’s newfound wealth thanks to liberal economic reforms, wielding both hard and soft power to make China the foremost power in Asia. The Belt and Road Initiative, which Xi started rolling out in speeches in 2013 with the vision of restoring the Silk Road, has extended Chinese investment in nearly 150 countries. Investments throughout the global south and Middle East have made beneficiaries increasingly beholden to China and its economy, something the CCP exploits for its benefit in diplomacy. While these infrastructure projects have been riddled with problems, such as construction delays and excessive costs, China-dependent countries left discontent with the Belt and Road can ill afford to scrap their parts of the effort entirely.

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One of President Richard Nixon’s key foreign policy insights was that Washington should maintain better relations with both Moscow and Beijing than the two have with one another. In Nixon’s time, the challenge of that was reversed, given the USSR was America’s main geopolitical adversary, while today, the main rival is China. Nixon’s insight has been lost on policymakers in Washington, but it seems it has not been lost on President Xi.

Under Xi, China has continued to improve its relationship with Russia. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an agreement that pledged mutual support in key areas of foreign policy. Russia promised to support the One China principle, and China promised to support calls to end NATO enlargement; though, China may not be as resolute in defending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as Putin might have hoped when signing the deal. The two nations also pledged cooperation on artificial intelligence and energy, among other things. A joint statement from the signatories said, “friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”

And, of course, Xi’s China has drastically expanded the nation’s navy and fortified its presence in the South China Sea by creating new islands and contesting claims other countries make on islands that China claims as its own.

This is all part of Xi’s “wolf warrior diplomacy,” an aggressive diplomatic strategy that uses China’s economic influence to maintain a level of codependence that prevents the West from more forceful opposition to China’s efforts. China has not forgotten the period of “national humiliation” it suffered under Western powers that established colonial holdings, and is done apologizing for a system that the CCP views as an unquestionable success.

I remember a conversation with TAC contributing editor Curt Mills from a while back. Paraphrasing a headline from a CCP outlet, he told me, “Mao made China one, Deng made China rich, and Xi made China strong.” At this moment in time, it’s hard to suggest this isn’t the case.

Which means we will likely be talking about President Xi at least until 2027—and possibly beyond, in light of the ages of our current set of world leaders and the Chinese president’s refusal to appoint a successor at the 2017 congress. China can ill-afford to take a risk on an inexperienced, unprepared, and unproven successor to Xi given the challenges the country is set to face in the next decade.

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The root of most of these problems is China’s precarious demographic situation, the most pressing issue for Xi and the CCP. China’s population, currently 1.4 billion, is expected to peak in the next decade if it has not already peaked. The size of China’s population undergirds the size and strength of its economy—especially since China’s newfound wealth has transitioned it into an interstitial phase of development, a production-based economy with strong consumerist tendencies. When it comes to military conflict, any country is forced to think twice about fighting a war against a country that boasts a population over 1 billion.

This demographic peak helps explain the torrent of activity we’ve seen from China on the world stage under Xi. Xi knows that if China does not act now to solidify its position as a superpower—economically, militarily, and otherwise—it might not have another chance for the rest of the century. It adds a new sense of urgency to the ongoing situation in Taiwan. If China acts too quickly, its military may not be fully equipped to take the island—an operation that would likely be the largest amphibious assault in history—leading to a protracted conflict that would very likely spill over into a hot war with the United States and its allies in the region. Act too slowly, and China could miss the window where it feels confident that it can outlast any defense Taiwan, the U.S., and other allies could muster.

China’s one-child policy, which lasted for nearly four decades from the late ‘70s to 2016, led to massive numbers of sex-selective abortions. Many Chinese families refused to bring a pregnancy to term if the child was not a boy. The result: from the millennial generation onward, China’s population has skewed heavily male, with 120 boys for every 100 girls. But as the children born under the one-child policy age into adulthood, the number of men in China in their late 30s who have never been married is expected to quintuple by 2030. Regimes that preside over a population with an excess of single, never-married men have a problem.

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The sex imbalance also bodes poorly for China’s fertility rate, which has predictably declined since the one-child policy was enacted. Last year, it was 1.16—one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, and far below the 2.1 OCED standard for ensuring a stable population. The Chinese government has attempted to rectify its fertility crisis by first incentivizing families to have two children, and then adding more incentives for families to have three children last year, including additional tax deductions, better medical insurance, and longer maternity leave. But the projections for 2022 remain bleak, as new births are expected to fall below 10 million—600,000 fewer than 2021’s total, which was more than 10 percent lower than 2020’s. Even with the CCP’s efforts to increase the number of births per woman, decades of the one-child policy have predictably made the population of child-bearing-aged women much smaller.

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If current trends hold, China’s population will become increasingly geriatric. Somewhere around the year 2080, China’s elderly population (those 65 and up) will outnumber China’s total of working-age adults. By 2100, China’s working-age population is expected to sit at just one-third of its 2014 peak. In just an 80 year span, China’s population could go from 1.4 billion to just under 600 million. That’s still almost twice the size of the United States, but represents a nearly 60 percent drop. The Chinese population would be the smallest it’s been since Mao Zedong was named chairman of the People’s Republic.

With China’s future in the balance, an abrupt changing of the guard now would be an unnecessary risk. In the face of such immense challenges, what the CCP wants more than anything is strength and stability. The hard truth is that President Xi Jinping, up until this point, has given China exactly that.

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