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OPINION: Xi’s aggressive, autocratic rule challenges the U.S.

By Lee Hamilton


It’s good to be the king, as a popular song has it in China these days. It’s good to be Xi Jinping.

Xi was just chosen to lead the nation for a third consecutive five-year term. That’s not entirely unprecedented — Mao Zedong led the People’s Republic of China from 1949-1976. But it is a break from recent tradition, in which China’s leaders have stepped down after two terms.

Xi, 69, made an exception for himself, and the party’s National Congress endorsed it. There’s speculation that Xi can rule for as long as he wants, maybe for life. He is being compared with Mao, and not just for longevity. Like Mao, he has consolidated power, sidelined rivals, and run the country with a heavy hand.

Some call Xi the most powerful person in the world. It’s a persuasive claim. The United States is stronger than China, but no one in the U.S. has unlimited power. President Joe Biden has to work with Congress and is constrained by the courts. The will of the people is a strong check on American leaders.

Not so in China, which is no democracy. By controlling the Communist Party, Xi controls the government and exerts great influence on society.

Xi’s personal story is compelling. The child of Communist Party insiders, he was one of the nation’s “princelings,” young people who were considered spoiled and soft. But when he was a teenager, his father fell out with Mao. At 15, Xi was sent off to “toil among the people” on a farm. The hardship transformed him into a strong and disciplined party loyalist with a deep understanding of China’s rural poor, according to official biographies.

When Xi rose to be China’s leader in 2012, his image was “Uncle Xi,” a genial man with a hard-earned affinity for the common people. International observers hoped he would continue the trend toward free markets, a more open society, and greater engagement with the world.

But Xi has taken his country in the opposite direction. He has established rigid policies conforming to “Xi Jinping Thought,” including state control of the economy, an obsession with domestic stability and fervent competition with the West. Xi defiantly presents China’s model as an alternative to liberal democracy.

China has built up state-owned enterprises and made it harder for international companies to do business there. The government has cracked down on domestic critics, restricted social media, and disregarded human rights. China has been accused of genocide against the Muslim Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region.

In international affairs, China has become increasingly combative. It has provoked disputes with its neighbors over the South China Sea and used its Belt and Road initiative to curry favor and debt in Africa and Asia. Xi has hinted that China could use military force to secure its claim to Taiwan.

Competition and tension with the U.S. — over Taiwan, technology, and other matters — are high.

China faces internal problems, however. Xi’s insistence on shutting down commerce to block the spread of COVID-19 has strained the economy. Unemployment among the young has reached 20 percent. Many Chinese people are educated, cosmopolitan, and tech-savvy. They have traveled and studied abroad. Some of them surely aren’t happy to be denied the freedom that they see elsewhere.

But for now, Xi is firmly in control, and Xi’s China is unquestionably one of the most formidable challenges facing American foreign policy. We need to continue to engage with China and look for areas where we can work together, but we must be firm in resisting China’s aggression and threats to our allies.

The U.S.-China relationship has always been difficult to get right. With Xi in charge for at least the next five years, it won’t get any easier.        

Lee Hamilton, 91, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.