by Chris Buckley, New York Times

HONGKONG, Nov. 11, 2014 (TSR) – President Obama will sit down Wednesday with the kind of Chinese leader no American president has ever encountered: a strongman with bold ambitions at home and abroad who sees China as a great power peer of the United States.

President Xi Jinping has amassed power faster than any Chinese leader in decades, and his officials have cast his talks with Mr. Obama and other regional leaders this week in Beijing as another affirmation of the ascendance of China and of Mr. Xi.

For over 20 years, the Chinese Communist Party elite largely made decisions by consensus, seeking to avoid a repeat of the turbulence under Mao and Deng Xiaoping. But less than two years after assuming power, Mr. Xi has emerged as more than the “first among equals” in the ruling Politburo Standing Committee, shaking the longstanding assumption that China would be steered by steady, if often ponderous, collective leadership.

The implications of his rise for the United States, and for Mr. Obama, are two-sided. When the two leaders meet, Mr. Obama may have a surer sense that his counterpart has the power to make good on his promises. On Wednesday, they unveiled a deal on curbing greenhouse gases, including a landmark agreement by China to reach a peak in carbon dioxide emissions by about 2030. On Tuesday, China also said it would eliminate tariffs on many information technology products.

But so much now depends on Mr. Xi’s political calculations, and he has shown himself to be wary of the West and disinclined to make concessions under pressure.

“Xi portrays himself in some ways not unlike Putin,” said Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. “He’s basically saying that ‘I am here to defend the party, to defend the national interests in terms of national territorial sovereignty.’ ”

Signs of Mr. Xi’s ascendancy are everywhere, from the collections of his speeches selling in bookstores to the intense, often adulatory, news coverage of his busy routine. In lighter moments, the state-run news media have taken to calling him “Xi Dada”: roughly, Big Papa Xi.

Mr. Xi, 61, has shaken up party ranks with an extended campaign against official corruption and pursued a crackdown on dissent that has dismayed liberal intellectuals. Rather than distribute portfolios among his colleagues, he has hoarded control of the party’s most important policy committees, known as “leading small groups,” and established several new ones under his command: on national security, military overhauls, economic restructuring and control of the Internet.

“Xi has been more vigorous than anyone probably had imagined he would be,” Professor Yang said. “We did anticipate some strong moves on his part, but not the scale, the breadth and the scope of his initiatives.”

Mr. Xi has overseen a muscular foreign policy, pressing China’s claims to disputed seas and islands, deepening rifts with Japan and neighbors in Southeast Asia. Those tensions have been tempered, for now, by an agreement with Japan on Friday acknowledging their differences and a trade agreement with South Korea announced Monday.

He has said he wants to build a new “great power” relationship with Washington to avoid confrontation that could tip into armed conflict, but also to win greater recognition for China’s demands and interests. In June last year, he sought to build trust with Mr. Obama during two days of talks at the Sunnylands retreat in California.

At the same time, Mr. Xi’s administration has resurrected and amplified traditional party themes that China’s woes have been exacerbated, even instigated, by “hostile forces” controlled by Western governments. Chinese officials accuse the United States of seeking to topple Communist Party rule, most recently by supporting pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, a charge the United States government denies.

“There is this contradiction between this Cold War ideological thinking about hostile foreign forces and U.S. subversion, but at the same time saying that they want to have this new type of great power relationship,” said Susan L. Shirk, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who was a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. “It’s the domestic insecurity of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Gnawing fear and anxiety, Professor Shirk and other China experts say, are the flip side of China’s new strength and assertiveness, and may go a long way toward explaining what can appear to be dissonant positions.

The sources of China’s insecurities are many: public discontent over smog, graft and land seizures; a bureaucracy and military rotted by corruption; tumult in Hong Kong; ethnic strife in Tibet and Xinjiang; and the uncertain effects of slowing economic growth.

“The tasks our party faces in reform, development and stability are more onerous than ever,” Mr. Xi said in late October, “and the conflicts, dangers and challenges are more numerous than ever.”

That calculus applies to domestic policies as well. Mr. Xi has already overseen the most intense and extended crackdown on political dissent in China in years, as well as a sweeping campaign against corruption whose targets have included retired senior security and military officials once thought of as immune to scrutiny. He has also vowed to overhaul the economy and give businesses more room to grow, and party leaders at a meeting last month endorsed proposals to give citizens fairer treatment at the hands of the police and in court.

Several China scholars said Mr. Xi was likely to defy early expectations that he might shift to a more moderate course after consolidating power. Such a shift could be seen as a sign of dangerous weakness, they said.

“If over the next year or two, there is a significant slowdown in the Chinese economy, the air quality fails to improve in major cities such as Beijing, or the violence spreads from Xinjiang to other parts of the country, then Xi may well take a serious hit to his political authority,” Elizabeth C. Economy, director for Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in emailed answers to questions. “The motivation behind his tough approach may well include fear that it will all come crashing down otherwise.”

Echoing previous party leaders, Mr. Xi has said that China needs a stable and peaceful international neighborhood so that it can focus on its domestic needs, and analysts said that focus could encourage his government to contain tensions with Japan and neighbors in Southeast Asia. “It looks to me like there has been a recalibration, a kind of learning from the reaction of your neighbors” by China, Professor Shirk said.

But Ms. Economy said she was skeptical that the calm would last.

“There is certainly a foreign policy debate underway within China over whether China’s assertiveness in the region has been harmful to China’s broader foreign policy objectives,” she said. “But I don’t think that it has been resolved in a way that suggests this moderation is permanent.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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