China & Post-COVID World: Worries Facing Xi Jinping as He Turns 67

The COVID-19 pandemic may have given Xi some time to reflect on his own signature policies.

5 min read
Chinese President Xi Jinping

Last year, China President Xi Jinping got surprise gifts on his birthday. Russia President Vladimir Putin presented him a cake, a box full of ice cream and a vase, at the hotel they were staying in at Dushanbe, for a summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). This was clearly a return gesture as Putin revealed that he had spent his 61st birthday in 2013 drinking vodka shots and eating sandwiches with Xi.

It is unlikely that on Monday, 15 June, when Xi celebrates his 67th, his friend Putin will be around. These are hard times for all, and friendship is a scarce commodity.

Xi has just about managed to turn the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic, but is still caught in the vortex of the consequences of shutting down the Chinese economy, albeit for a while. As for Putin, COVID-19 rages in Russia and having taken a heavy toll, it may only now be on a downward course.

‘COVID-19 One of the Biggest Tests in Xi’s 8 Years of Governance’

A year ago, China amended its Constitution to remove term limits on its Presidency. But Xi is not just the President of the People’s Republic of China, he is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, as well as the supreme commander of the People’s Liberation Army, offices that have not had any term limits anyway.

Not for nothing is he called “the Chairman of everything.” In fact, another amendment to the Constitution has added “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a New Era” into its preamble.

In the nascent stages of COVID-19, in January 2020, the political situation in China was not the greatest, but it was not too bad, despite the ongoing strife in Hong Kong. Japan had come around, Xi was planning a visit, his first, to his neighbour, marking a possible entente. He had managed to strike a Phase I trade deal with the United States, which would not have ended the confrontation, but certainly moderated it. As for India, the Chennai summit of 2019 had confirmed the détente struck at Wuhan the year before.

Within the country, the modernisation of the military was continuing apace and the government was moving, although slowly, to reform its economic structure. Hong Kong was the one visible mess and the Party had finally decided to act on it. But this has not been known till recently.

Suddenly, COVID-19 hit, and for a while, the Chinese ship began to list. As a Xinhua commentary acknowledged on the day Xi visited Wuhan for the first time after the pandemic on 10 March, this was “one of the biggest tests in his eight years of governance.”

The visit marked the turning point of the COVID-19 crisis for China, a period that led to shuttered businesses and factories and even the postponement of the National People’s Congress. After initial mis-steps, Xi gambled by taking unprecedented measures that curbed the virus’ spread in China, though it continued to ravage Europe and the US, and has yet to stop its deadly course around the world.

Changing Global Equations Amid the Pandemic

Today, the whole world has changed. In China COVID-19 brought huge job losses in its wake. Besides the formal unemployment of largely urban workers, migrants who are registered as living in rural areas lost their jobs.

According to the Wall Street Journal, as many as 80 million people were out of work during the lockdown, this is more than the 26 million stated in government figures. Recovery has begun, but the path to the future is uncertain, especially because of the breakdown with the US.

As COVID-19 hit, Xi worked the phones with world leaders, first the Americans, Russians and the British, mainly to gather support. He also spoke to others such as Moon Jae-in, King Salman, and leaders of various other countries, but there was no conversation with Shinzo Abe or Narendra Modi. There were clearly faultlines that became more visible in the succeeding months.

With the US, relations were on the verge of beginning to mend following the Phase 1 trade deal in January, but the pandemic has taken them several notches lower. The two countries are now on the verge of a New Cold War, with Washington stepping up restrictions against Chinese companies and talking of a larger process of decoupling.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, relations with Japan were doing well. Xi had been scheduled to make his first visit to the country as the leader of China in April. But the pandemic led to its postponement and now it is not clear whether it will take place this year. The issue is no longer about timing, but a deterioration of the relationship, triggered by the Chinese decision to pass a new security law in Hong Kong. But it has definitely been affected by the tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Tensions with India are so far manifested by the give-and-take along the Line of Actual Control. In that sense they do not bring Xi directly into the equation. Ties with India are, no doubt, a function of its relationship with the US.

With the torrent of bad news, Xi has also had to confront the damage to his cherished Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Across the developing world, China is facing calls for forgiveness of some, and possibly even all, loans they have given. Having somewhat recklessly loaned money on a scheme that had the imprimatur of the President himself, the Chinese banks are now in trouble.

Following the G20, China agreed to freeze all debt repayments for the poorest countries till the end of 2020. But it has said nothing about forgiveness. You can’t blame them, considering the total amount is to the tune of $0.6 trillion. But since it is Xi’s signature initiative, we are likely to see a retrenchment of the plan, rather than its collapse. As for now, China has kept the BRI active as the “Health Silk Road,” which is seeking to provide medical supplies to the COVID-19-hit countries.

Time to Reflect on His Signature Policies?

The COVID-19 pandemic, the lockdown and the freeze of normal governance activity and travel may have given Xi some time to reflect on his own signature policies, whether they are the China Dream of strong military power, economic reform in China, or of the BRI.

Xi must be wondering whether it was a good idea to, at least theoretically, be able to extend his tenure as President indefinitely. Any way you look at it, China now faces a sea of troubles and uncertainty for the rest of his second term till 2023. He can be pardoned for wondering if it may not be a bad idea to join his predecessors in working on gardening and grandchildren thereafter.

Speaking of birthdays, Xi’s American bete noire Donald Trump continues to haunt him, having celebrated his the day before, on Sunday, 14 June.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)

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