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Xi Jinping’s grip on power has never looked so uncertain

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CJ Werleman explores how a zero-COVID policy, economic problems and war in Ukraine have fundamentally destabilized China

Soldiers dressed in hazmat to glide residents from their homes to waiting vans, while others leap to their deaths from the balconies of high-rise buildings. Dogs beaten to death on the sidewalk, as house cats are smothered in plastic bags, while loudspeakers attached to drones order residents to shut up and obey restrictions.

This is not an excerpt from a dystopian novel, this is Shanghai today, where 25 million Chinese residents are barred from leaving their homes under the government’s “zero COVID” strategy. A staggering 373 million Chinese citizens in 45 cities are living in some form of lockdown, leaving them dependent on food rations for survival.

While these repressive measures have done little to prevent new coronavirus cases from reaching their highest levels since the pandemic began more than two years ago, the Chinese government has trapped itself in a double dead end. He has recognized that lifting its zero COVID policy will result in 1.5 million additional deaths and a 15-fold increase in demand for intensive care beds.

The government has been embarrassed by the failure of its locally produced vaccines to provide protection against the Omicron variant, causing Sinopharm, Sinovac and CanSino Biologics exports drop 97%. This is happening at the same time as the production of Chinese factories has fallen to its lowest level in two years.

China’s economic woes have been exacerbated by Beijing’s war on the private sector, which President Xi Jinping sees as subservient to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), prompting many Western companies to pack up and leave.

But his inability to foresee and ward off a unprecedented The crash of the real estate market, which represents 25% of the country’s gross domestic product and 40% of banking assets, constitutes a monumental and potential end-of-regime failure.

The West is playing chess,While Russia and Chinaplay checkers

C. J. Werleman

Foreign investors have taken note, dumping $18 billion in Chinese bonds and over $7 billion in Chinese stocks in March alone. The International Monetary Fund has reduced its provide for China’s economic growth from 4.8% to 4.4% and down from last year’s 8.1%.

The IMF partly blames the lockdowns, but, worryingly for the Chinese economy, there is no indication that Beijing will abandon its zero COVID strategy anytime soon, presenting the CCP with new political risks in a politically sensitive year for Xi. Jinping.

He has staked his “re-election” at the 20th CPC National Congress, due later this year, on robust economic growth and social stability, as evidenced by his speech to the National Congress in 2017, when he promised that China would have a prosperous society in all respects by 2021.

Just a few months ago, everything was going according to plan for Xi Jinping. It was the West that has been plagued by soaring coronavirus-related hospitalizations, deaths and lockdowns, not China, which was proud to host the Winter Olympics and forge new alliances diplomatic and military.

But, from the moment when Russia invaded Ukraine, nothing is going well for China or its president, who now reigns over a country visibly tearing itself apart.

For all Western visions of an unstoppable juggernaut, the Chinese economy is stuck in a series of systemic traps from which there is no easy exit, warned political scientist David Shambaugh in 2015 an analysis that seems increasingly relevant today.

Hal Brands, Henry A Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins Universitys School of Advanced International Studies, agrees, saying the engines of China’s rise have either stalled or turned completely. and that, at the same time, its depletion of resources such as food and water.

The tax and economic consequences will be devastating, according to Brands.

China is also sitting on a demographic time bomb with birth rates hitting historic lows, while the number of people reaching retirement age is hitting historic highs. Over the next three decades, China will lose 200 million working-age adults and gain 200 million more retirees.

The year 2021 will go down in Chinese history as the year China last experienced population growth in its long history, said Wang Feng, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, in a recent interview.

Xi Jinping is responding to these growing pressures by exerting an increasingly tight grip on the country’s political, civic and cultural institutions. But cracks in the country’s leadership are beginning to appear.

This has been illustrated in recent weeks revelations by Australia’s main spy agency, ASIS, which claimed Chinese government officials were passing information to Australia.

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Paul Symon, chief executive of ASIS, said his organization has benefited from the espionage opportunities that emerge from suppressed dissent within authoritarian states… [which] gives us an advantage.

Increasingly, officials [and] individuals unhappy with the trajectory of closed societies are willing to speak out and take risks, he said. In China, we have an ancient culture, but monoculture is imposed. What we are seeing are more and more signs of officials and individuals interested in a relationship [with ASIS].

None of this makes China any less of a threat to its Western Pacific and South Asian neighbors because, even as China is in economic decline, its ambition for regional hegemony and superpower status is accelerating. Its state media apparatus floods the airwaves with complaints that China will rise to the top of the world.

The United States must prepare for a major war, not because its rival is rising, but because of the opposite, Hal Brands believes.

Against this backdrop of accelerating geopolitical ambitions and declining economic growth, the 20th CPC National Congress is expected to be the most important political event in recent memory. This will not only determine the extent of Xi Jinping’s power, but also the trajectory of the country for years to come.

Xi Jinping may yet emerge more powerful than ever but, for now, his grip on China has never seemed more uncertain.

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