“Xi needs the summit more than Biden does. He needs to show he’s respected, that he has stature,” said Minxin Pei, a political scientist focusing on China-U.S. ties at Claremont McKenna College. “He’s definitely in a worse position than in November of last year.”
When the two leaders met before the Group of 20 summit in Bali last November, Xi was riding high. Coronavirus rules were being loosened and the Chinese economy was expected to pick up. Xi finally returned to the world stage after staying in China during the pandemic, meeting with more than 20 heads of state. The East was rising and the West, namely the United States, was declining — or so the Chinese establishment thought.
What a difference a year makes.
While Xi’s position and hold on power within the opaque party system do not appear to be in question — in October he secured a third term and stacked the party’s top positions with loyalists — he is now in the most challenging moment yet of his tenure.
He experienced the largest street protests since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations that ended in the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, a response to his deeply unpopular “zero covid” policy. He then oversaw a chaotic U-turn, which resulted in an unknown number of deaths.
The expected post-covid economic bounce has not happened. Xi has also been plagued by declining confidence in the Chinese economy, hit by a property crisis and rising youth unemployment. Young people talk about “lying flat” or being the “last generation” as they refuse to marry or have children as an act of protest.
Foreign investment and business confidence have fallen because of increased government regulation on the private industry and crackdowns on foreign firms over alleged spying. China has witnessed the largest capital outflows in years.
Together, this means China may not meet its growth target of 5 percent this year, already the country’s lowest target in three decades.
The external environment has worsened too.
Tensions between the world’s two most powerful countries have reached a fever pitch in the past year, with economic confrontation rising amid a tech war over everything from semiconductors to rare metals needed for electric vehicles. The risk of outright military confrontation is growing.
Biden last month said the United States would defend the Philippines in the event of a Chinese attack after Chinese harassment of Philippine vessels in disputed parts of the South China Sea. There may be more Chinese military maneuvers around Taiwan in the lead up to the presidential election in January, while the U.S. presidential election could narrow the space for further rapprochement.
And Xi, best known for concentrating power in a way not seen since the days of Mao Zedong, who died in 1976, appears to not always be in control. A high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon that floated into U.S. airspace and set back U.S.-China talks by months happened without Xi’s knowledge, according to U.S. officials.
The disappearance and purges of officials who present China’s face to the world — first, the foreign minister and most recently the defense minister — have raised questions about turmoil within the Chinese Communist Party under Xi’s command and embarrassed the Chinese state.
“It’s literally been one disaster after another,” said Evan Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown who served as a national security official in the Obama administration, referring to Xi’s third term as head of the party and the military, which began in March this year. “His third term has been full of policy failures and challenges.”
Unexplained absences by Xi on the world stage have also triggered speculation about what he may be dealing with at home. In August, the 70-year-old missed a scheduled speech at the BRICS summit of emerging economies.
The stakes are high for Xi personally. By installing himself as leader indefinitely, he broke with his predecessors who set up a system of power sharing and succession to avoid the excesses of overly centralized control under Mao. Yet by consolidating power in himself, he has also become the central figure to blame for his country’s problems.
Last month, the sudden death of former Chinese premier Li Keqiang, an economist and free-market advocate, prompted an outpouring of grief that was seen as an implicit rebuttal of the more state-driven and ideological path Xi has taken. (In the days after Li’s death, Chinese outlets were told to limit “overly effusive” praise of Li, according to a leaked directive.)
“Praising Li Keqiang for caring about the people and telling the truth implies that Xi Jinping doesn’t care about the people and speaks only empty words,” said Zhang Lun, professor of Chinese studies at Université de Cergy-Pontoise in Paris.
“Discontent with Xi used to be concentrated at the top, but bit by bit it has reached the level of the public. This is the situation Xi Jinping faces today. The loathing of him has reached a critical point,” he said.
For Xi, improved ties with the United States will give him more space to focus on problems at home.
Beijing has made an effort to appear ready to engage, reciprocating the flurry of visits by U.S. officials to China since the summer in an effort to make this week’s meeting happen. This month, state media lauded a visit by former U.S. pilots who helped China resist the Japanese in the 1940s. Last week, state news agency Xinhua started running a series on the importance of repairing the U.S.-China relationship.
“The leaders meeting is a test of how responsive to costs Xi is and whether he will pragmatically adjust his policies to reduce these costs,” said Susan Shirk, a research professor at the University of California at San Diego and former senior State Department official.
While Xi may be more willing to engage to stabilize relations in the short term, fundamental differences between Washington and Beijing remain — and vulnerability could mean he takes an even harder line, analysts warn.
“Xi remains fiercely nationalistic and might even become more so in areas like Taiwan, both because of his personal ideological views and to deter rival powers that he fears will try to take advantage of China’s weaknesses,” said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
In a system such as the CCP’s, turmoil could actually strengthen rather than weaken his hand: External threats such as U.S. hostility and efforts to constrain Chinese technological advances give Xi additional grounds to say his vision is needed more than ever.
“When you face these kinds of challenges, in the past the reaction wasn’t we need to change the top leader. It’s that we need to rally to the top leader even more,” said Joseph Torigian, a China historian at American University.
The danger for Xi is how far and how long discontent spreads.
“This is like a chronic disease. It’s not a heart attack,” said Claremont McKenna’s Pei. “If things continue to go downhill, you will have a vicious cycle that is people start doubting his leadership more. His authority erodes even more, which means he will have even less influence over policy, and as a result he will become less secure.”