The Rise of Xi Jinping and
China as a Global Power

Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
June 26, 2018

 Program Transcript •  Video


This report is based on the views expressed during a workshop on June 26, 2018 organized by the Richard Nixon Foundation as part of its mission to create and contribute to actionable information for use by policy makers across the globe.

Offered as a means to support ongoing discussion, the report does not constitute an analytical document, nor does it represent any formal position of the organizations involved.


Elizabeth Economy is the C. V. Starr senior fellow and director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an acclaimed author and expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy, writing on topics ranging from China’s environmental challenges to its resource quest. She has published articles in foreign policy and scholarly journals including Foreign Affairs, Harvard Business Review, Foreign Policy, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. She is the author of “By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World,” the award wining “The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future,” and “The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State,” which analyzes the contradictory nature of reform under President Xi Jinping.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine.  His most recent book, coauthored with Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, is the third edition of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” published by Oxford.  His other books include, as author, “Eight Juxtapositions: China through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo,” and, as editor, “The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China.”  An Associate Fellow of the Asia Society, he has served on the Board of Directors of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, is Editor of The Journal of Asian Studies, Advising Editor for Asia for The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a member of Dissent magazine’s Editorial Board. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in many general interest periodicals, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Internazionale, Time, Slate, The American Scholar, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Nation, and The Times Literary Supplement.

Jonathan Movroydis (moderator) is director of research at the Richard Nixon Foundation.

Issues Discussed

After being inaugurated as president of the People’s Republic of China five years ago, no single leader in modern Chinese history since Mao Zedong has assumed more power, or sizably projected his personal influence both domestically and internationally, than Xi Jinping.

Calling for a national rejuvenation, President Xi has pledged to expand the middle class, and make more reforms for increased foreign investment. In foreign policy, Xi’s China has become more assertive. China has deployed its military overseas for the first time since 1950, and made claims to territory in the East and South China Seas. It’s also committed to billions of dollars in foreign aide for developing nations.

In October 2017, the Chinese Communist Party abolished five year term limits, paving the way for Xi to rule beyond 2022.

What does his leadership mean for the political and economic future of China, and superpower relations with the United States?

Key Definitions of Importance and Historical Context

In October 2012, Xi Jinping was named as secretary general of the Communist People’s Republic of China, and chairman of China’s military commission. In March 2013, the National Party Congress voted 2,955 to one to make him president of China. Holding the country’s three main power centers, he has become the country’s most singular leader since Mao Ze Dong, and has been able to amass an enormous of personal rule across China’s political, economic, and social institutions.

Born in Beijing to party elder Xi Zhongxun, he is the first leader to rise to power as a result of family connections. However, his rise didn’t come easy. His family suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. His sister is rumored to have committed suicide, and his father was jailed and transferred to the countryside.

Despite the injustice committed against his family by the Maoist regime, he was determined to join the ranks of the Communist party.

He studied at Tsinghua University, and has held a number of influential regional and national political offices including as member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and Communist Party Central Committee, Vice President of the People’s Republic of China, and Vice Chairman of the Communist Party.

During the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, term limits were abolished, opening up the possibility that Xi might stay in power beyond 2022, breaking from a tradition established by his most recent predecessors. The Communist Party’s charter was also revised to include “Xi Jinping Thought” on philosophy, politics, and economics.

The title of Council on Foreign Relations fellow Elizabeth Economy’s new book “The Third Revolution” refers to the third major stage of political life in the People’s Republic of China.

The “First Revolution” refers to the founding of the modern Communist State in 1949 following the Chinese Civil War.

“The Second Revolution” points to the reforms made by then leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. These included a loosening of censorship and other political restrictions, as well as a greater openness to the global economy.

“The Third Revolution” is the arrival of China as a major world superpower. “China has become strong, and has moved center stage,” Xi said in October 2017.

He stated that his two centenary goals were to wipe out poverty by 2021, and become a fully developed nation by 2049. By China’s second century, Xi’s aim is for the Chinese nation to “stand with a more high-spirited image in the family of nations.”

Xi has been more overt and active in extending China’s military influence than his predecessors. During his tenure, China has expanded its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea through the construction of man made islands.

Xi has outlined a grand scale infrastructure, trade and investment plan which aims for the cooperation of 68 other nations. The “Belt and Road Initiative” would include the construction of bridges, highways, pipelines, and ports; as well as connectivity via satelite systems, ecommerce, and fiberoptic cables spread from China though the rest of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

Domestically, Xi’s government has arrested several hundred thousands of party officials and civil service workers in an anti-corruption campaign.

He has also advanced the party into more aspects of Chinese life, including commerce and telecommunications. He’s pursued top down government initiatives to advance industry, and be a world leader in technological innovation.

  • President Xi Jinping wants to be revered, and has developed a cult personality.
  • Xi seeks stable growth, and doesn’t want to shake China up with mass movements like the Cultural Revolution.
  • Xi has used his anti-corruption campaign to selectively target political opponents.
  • Xi’s personal rule is based on the various seats he holds, and consequentially he’s able to direct the path of China.
  • No discernible successor means that Xi will likely serve a long tenure as China’s leader. However, there will eventually be a succession plan, because chaos is not in Xi’s DNA.
  • Xi’s vision is for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and power of the political system.
  • Xi wants to transform China from a manufacturing nation to an innovation nation. He is protecting 10 industries in cutting edge technology, including intelligence and robotics, new materials, and new energy vehicles.
  • The Communist party has become increasingly more confident in suppressing individual freedoms and controlling people’s lives.
  • Technology (artificial intelligence, voice and facial recognition) and social media has enhanced the ability for the Chinese government to conduct widespread surveillance.
  • Despite pronouncements of greater economic reform, President Xi very much likes to keep his fingers on the levers of economic control — through a greater role of the party in state owned and private enterprises, and in joint ventures.
  • There are many contradictions in Xi’s rule. He talks about openness to the world, yet China exerts censorship over its population; he talks about globalization, but has tightened up economic controls; he hasn’t pulled out of the Paris Accord, but China remains a major polluter; he talks against the imposition of Western ideas, but sends his daughter to Harvard University.
  • China possibly aspires to be like Singapore (they have long been Singapore watchers), with its mix of a modern command economy, and strong man rule.
  • As Chinese people become wealthier, and the middle class bigger and stronger, they will demand the same rights of middle class people everywhere. Despite censorship and constraints, they have already been pushing back against the government.
  • As a top priority, President Xi wants to reduce debt and de-leverage the economy.
  • Xi wants to address the environmental challenge in China, specifically air and water pollution, and soil contamination.
  • China has a demographic issue it needs to fix. Thirty percent of its population is going to be 65 or older by 2050. Their population of 0 to 25 year-olds hit its peak in 2050, and has been decreasing ever since.
  • China aspires for regional hegemony, but hasn’t yet attained it. Its most concrete aim is to stake claims to territorial sovereignty, and be “reunified” by 2049 — including areas of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and the South China Sea.
  • The “Belt and Road Initiative” would inevitably extend to the area of global governance because in protecting its interests, China has to bring its own values, priorities and policies into the international system.
  • Xi is a lot more subtle than Trump in his language, but he doesn’t like be to taken advantage of. He will respond to tariffs commensurate with the Trump administration’s actions, and nothing more.
  • Improving U.S.-China relations means working together on opportunities and challenges like “Belt and Road” and the environment. The U.S. could work with the P.R.C. to better China’s business practices, which in the long term would be advantageous for U.S. businesses.
  • The U.S. and China should reclaim an ability to have clear eyed engagement, and acknowledge and express fundamental differences.
  • President Trump should stop his sometimes contradictory approach to China — praising and vilifying. This makes Xi even more popular domestically, allowing him to argue simultaneously that China is both respected and abused by the world’s leading power.
Sources and Further Reading

Albert, Eleanor. “Making Sense of China’s Nineteenth Party Congress.” Council on Foreign Relations. 12 October 2017.

Albert, Eleanor and Xu, Beina. “Making Sense of China’s Nineteenth Party Congress.” Council on Foreign Relations. 14 October 2018.

Economy, Elizabeth. “President Xi’s Superpower Plans.” The Wall Street Journal. 19 July 2018.

Economy, Elizabeth. The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. Oxford University Press. 3 May 2018.

Hunt, Katie. “China’s 19th party congress: What you need to know.” CNN. 17 October 2017.

Lindsay, James. “Hello Xi Jinping. President of China.” Council on Foreign Relations. 9 March 2013.

Wasserstrom, Jeffrey and Cunningham, Maura Elizabeth. China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 3rd Edition. 9 April 2018.

Photo (left to right): Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Elizabeth Economy and Jonathan Movroydis (Richard Nixon Foundation).