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Divining Xi Jinping's Behavior: It's All About Power

As Xi Jinping consolidates his power and lays the groundwork for regional domination, the US seems intent on simply talking things out — much to Xi's delight.



Xi Jinping china
China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in March 2023.(©NOEL CELIS/Pool via REUTERS)

In China, espionage laws are being tightened and senior officials are "disappearing" — most recently the defense minister. Meanwhile, the People's Liberation Army is throwing its weight around in the region. First, the thing to remember when considering Communist China: It's all about power and control for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and especially for whoever is at the top. Xi Jinping also has to control the CCP. And that's still a work in progress. It always is.

Regarding the "disappearing officials" and the defense minister in particular, one hopes the CIA and the rest of the Intelligence Community with their $80 billion USD budget know the answer and aren't just speculating like the rest of us.

But here's how I see it.

There probably isn't a single Chinese official at these levels who isn't guilty of corruption. And even if there are a few "clean" ones, as Lavrentiy Beria (the Soviet secret police chief) said: "Show me the man and I'll show you the crime."

So it is unlikely that he got caught because of "corruption" and Xi is just cleaning out a corrupt official or three. "Corruption" seems to be the modern version of the Maoist era's "counter-revolutionary activities." It's the go-to, catch-all charge for getting rid of people and making it look like they were guilty of something.

So why is Xi doing it?

Defense Minister Li Shangfu at the Asian Security Conference in Singapore on June 4. (©Kyodo)

Possible Motives

It could be the officials' poor performance ー and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has flubbed some exercises. And it's exhibited some serious failings. Or maybe they just weren't taking things seriously enough and Xi didn't think he's got their attention or can count on them.

Maybe. But the PLA has had problems for years and the Chinese talk about it all the time. Note frequent complaints about the PLA's "peace disease" and other military shortcomings.

I suspect Xi is worried about something internally. He might see opposition forming in certain quarters. He's no doubt got plenty of enemies after purging his rivals over the years. This is the nature of dictatorships and regimes that rule by force and intimidation. All opposition is rooted out — even preemptively, and even where it does not exist. 

Instill enough fear and it's less likely anyone will take down the "boss." Or so the theory goes.


Or perhaps Xi wants to get "his team" of totally pliant toadies and incompetents in place. Men who pose no threat to him and will follow orders — when he makes a move somewhere? Say, against Taiwan, India, Mongolia, or Japan?

Tightening Up Control of the Economy and Business

Xi has clearly been trying to get control of the economy as well. Particularly the more "productive" parts that aren't under tight enough state control. It seems like Xi is purposely tanking the economy and in fact, doesn't mind making the middle class and the more prosperous coastal provinces "toughen up."

Maybe this is Xi's version of "draining the swamp."

Harassing foreign firms in China seems like an act of self-harm. But think about it in terms of consolidating power and control and there's a logic. However, it's only doable if Xi thinks he can get away with it.  

And that suggests contempt for foreign businessmen who Xi must reckon will put up with any amount of abuse — if they think they can make money in China. 

But to do that, Xi's got to have confidence that China can withstand any pressure or backlash that comes from this clampdown.  

Xi also seems to have been "sanction-proofing" China for a while now. It's not "sanction-proofed" just yet, but if he's willing to have his own citizens "eat bitterness" it may not matter so much.

What's Xi's End-Game and Why Is This Happening Now?

End game?  

Regional domination and control. Teach the Japanese a lesson. Drive the Americans out of Asia. And ultimately — have global dominance.

Why go on the offensive now?  


Perhaps Xi reckons the timing is right in terms of China's military capability, economic power, demographics, and the PRC's overseas foreign influence.  

For all the news about the United States kind of waking up to the China threat, and the Europeans as well, there are plenty of other countries that are aligning with the PRC. Latin America and Africa almost seem like "clean sweeps" for Beijing at the moment. Parts of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands are either on China's side or wavering. And the Persian Gulf and Middle East have seen recent Chinese inroads as well.

No more following Deng Xiaoping's admonition about biding one's time and hiding capabilities. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping at a press conference during the BRICS summit on August 24 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (©TASS via Kyodo

Team Biden

Xi must also like what he sees the United States doing to itself. He may doubt the US capability to restore its economic independence and clout. And to get its military where it needs to be within the next 5-10 years, if that.  

Indeed, the PRC knows many of the people on Team Joe Biden from way back. It could be counting on their proclivity to back down and "talk," while offering concessions to ensure the Chinese don't walk away from the table.

One fairly imagines Beijing won't mind getting another four years of this crowd.

US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi shake hands before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China July 18, 2023. (©REUTERS//Florence Lo/Pool)

Is Xi Going to Roll the Dice and Start a Fight?  

I don't know. But he might be sorely tempted.  

What a fight would look like and where it would happen is up for debate. But Taiwan and the South China Sea seem likely.  

Even if there's no shooting yet, Xi is pushing if you look at Chinese moves around Taiwan, the Philippines, and Japan. The PLA is doing more things, more often, in more places, and sometimes it’s even bringing its friends in the form of Russia.  

And the Chinese military keeps improving its capabilities. All this PLA activity influences and wears out the opponent. It also lets the PLA and Beijing size up their target's military responses and capabilities as well as their political backbone to stand up to Chinese pressure.

Of course, it can also have the opposite effect. It could motivate these nations to strengthen defenses and alliances. And to some extent, it is.

Regardless, Xi is doubling down.

Xi Jinping Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 21, 2023. (© Sputnik/Vladimir Astapkovich /Kremlin via REUTERS)

How About the US?

And it's almost as if Xi is daring the Americans to "do something." It's a miracle that Chinese naval and air interdictions of US and allied aircraft and ships haven't killed somebody yet.

The China-Philippines dispute at Second Thomas Shoal will come to a head sooner or later. And the Americans will either get directly involved or else leave the Filipinos in the lurch again. The latter would shake the US-Philippines alliance, to say the least.

Yet, Team Biden still seems to prioritize more discussions over strengthening America's defense. Where's the plan for rebuilding US shipbuilding or the US Navy?

Instead, as one acquaintance put it: "It would seem that the American leadership is firmly trying to walk back confronting China."

The US leadership talks (over and over) about the need to "stabilize" and "responsibly manage" the US-PRC relationship through "intensive diplomacy" and talking things out with Beijing.

As if US administrations (bar one) haven't tried this over the last 50 years.

Beijing is glad to have Team Biden think that's still possible. 

And Xi Jinping is acting accordingly. He is getting ready.


Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. See his recent comments on FOX News and find his articles on JAPAN Forward.


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