What Next for China now Xi Jinping is ‘Ruler for Life?’

Last month brought us the Communist Party Congress in China. It is held every five years and confirms the leader of the world’s most populous country and second-largest economy.

It was previously the rule that a Chinese leader could only serve two five-year terms. However, that rule was recently scrapped, and the Congress confirmed Xi Jinping as President for another five-year term. In effect, Xi – who was born in June 1953, making him 70 next year – is now ‘ruler for life’ and the most powerful Chinese politician since Mao Zedong.

What does this mean for China? What changes can we expect to see? And what are the implications for the West?

What was noticeable at the Congress was the make-up of the Politburo Standing Committee. The ‘seven men who rule China’ are all loyal to Xi – as he has shown on previous occasions, he favours loyalty much more than ability.

Xi’s effective second-in command is Li Qiang, the Shanghai party chief, who oversaw the ‘zero Covid’ lockdown in Shanghai which did so much damage to the Chinese economy – and was so ruthlessly enforced.

This is one of the big concerns. Both Chinese stock markets – in Shanghai and Hong Kong – fell on the confirmation of Xi’s third term. At the end of October, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index was down 37% for the year as a whole. Li Qiang will be in charge of the economy, and there is a very real fear that China will now prioritise ideology – and zero Covid – over economic growth.

What else can we expect to see in Xi’s third term as President? The Congress passed a resolution to increase military spending and speed up the ‘reunification’ with Taiwan. The commitment to the ‘one-China’ policy may well gather pace. Do not expect to see any lessening of military manoeuvres in the area, or lessening of tensions with the United States.

Xi is also likely to strengthen his ties with Russia and India. The sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of the Ukraine invasion have seen raw materials that would have come to Europe go to China and India. The three countries have long been working on an alternative to the SWIFT system for international trade. Couple that with Xi’s longstanding commitment to his belt and road policy and the influence of the US – and the dollar – in some of the world’s biggest markets could decline sharply.

Over the next five years, China’s decisions will be Xi Jinping’s decisions. There is now no effective opposition to him: as his apocryphal nickname has it, he is ‘Chairman of Everything.’ He may well make decisions which are in his own interests – zero Covid lockdowns, for example – but not necessarily in the interests of China, or the Chinese economy.

At the same time, Chinese nationalism will increase. ‘Let China sleep, for when she wakes the world will tremble,’ as Napoleon is supposed to have said. With Xi Jinping in power until ill health or death removes him from office, there are going to be some nervous moments…

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