Xi’s Paradox: Flexible, Ideological or Both?


Dr. Kenneth Dekleva served as a Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist with the U.S. Dept. of State from 2002-2016, and is currently Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Psychiatry-Medicine Integration, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX; and a Senior Fellow at the George HW Bush Foundation for US-China Relations.  He is also the author of the novel The Negotiator's Cross.  The views expressed are entirely his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Dept. of State, or UT Southwestern Medical Center.

View all articles by Kenneth Dekleva

OPINION — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent highly provocative trip to Taiwan has placed China, Taiwan, and America front and center at the most dangerous flashpoint in international relations.  As third in line in presidential succession, Pelosi is the highest-ranking American politician to visit Taiwan since 1997.  And her trip, and China’s vigorous and intimidating (yet asymmetric) approach, involving cyber-attacks, economic pressure, diplomatic pressure, and extensive military exercises (including the firing of long-range missiles over Taiwan) highlight the importance of understanding President Xi’s motivations, strategy, and leadership style. 

Xi has remained an opaque figure to outsiders, with a lack of clarity as to his true political motives and strategy, as he prepares to assume an unprecedented third term as General Secretary and President following this year’s upcoming 20th Party Congress of the CCP.  Key to such understanding, lies in the question of whether Xi is purely ideological, flexible, or a mixture of both.

After 10 years in power as China’s President and General Secretary of the CCP, Xi holds a unique place in the pantheon of past Chinese and current world leaders.  It is not a stretch to call him the most powerful man in the world today, as The Economist did on a cover in 2017.  He has amassed incredible power, and has removed term limits, implying that he could rule for life, if his health and desire allow. 

He has also used the power of the state to purge his enemies, and to strengthen the role and power of the CCP in everyday life.  He’s gone beyond this in his crackdowns on freedom in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, his militarization of the South China Sea, and his embrace of ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy.  He has expanded China’s military, formidably so, to where it could conduct last week’s unprecedented military exercises without any interference from America or any of its Asian allies.  In building up his, China’s, and the CCP’s power, Xi has come to be seen as an ideological leader, whose paramount goal is to achieve the Great Chinese Dream of Rejuvenation by 2049 — a core element of this dream involving reunification with Taiwan.

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But Xi, as formidable as he is, has at times faltered.  His economic policies – both extreme COVID lockdowns and harsh crackdowns on China’s leading technology and real estate sectors – while emphasizing the increased role of state-owned enterprises, have led to a slowing in China’s growth and economic losses of several trillion USD in the past few years.  In this domain, Xi has not – to date – shown much flexibility.  This has furthered the view that he is a rigid CCP leader who prioritizes the role and power of the CCP above all.  And most of all, analysts have seen Xi’s actions as prima facie evidence that he cannot be flexible in his political decisions.  But such a view is dead wrong, and careful examination of Xi’s psychology suggests otherwise.

Xi gave a remarkable interview to an obscure Chinese journal in 2000, where he described his youth and its hardships, involving being threatened with death, purged, and spending eight years in a remote province, doing hard manual labor.  What is striking about this interview is Xi’s resilience, and that his experiences strengthened him internally and psychologically, without leaving him bitter or despairing.  Psychologists call such a phenomenon post-traumatic growth.  Xi used his narrative to humanize himself and showed a singular ability to wed this narrative with that of his signature objective, the Great Chinese Dream of Rejuvenation.  But besides resilience, his interview reveals hints of flexibility, of a leader able to shift course to serve his needs, the needs of the CCP, and the ambitions of a rising China.

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Xi’s response to Pelosi’s visit has been careful and measured, as he and his leadership realize that this said trip may indeed be Pelosi’s ‘swan song,’ although its precedence – and the risk that it will further inflame Taiwan’s desire for independence – is potentially explosive.  He had to send a message, both for his own domestic and international purposes.  He, and China, could not appear to show weakness or humiliation.  Xi had also warned President Biden in their video conference last week, “that those who play with fire will perish by it.”  But in embracing a nationalist, powerful narrative of a rising, dominant China – best articulated by former PLA Colonel Liu Mingfu in his 2010 book The China Dream – Xi has also played with fire.  He cannot put that genie back in the bottle easily.  So, Xi is likely to continue to pressure Taiwan, and to employ increasingly-severe asymmetric tactics and strategy over the next several years.  He, and China, will attempt to squeeze the oxygen out of the room with respect to Taiwan.  Xi’s successful third term will paradoxically offer him more time, for in Xi’s thinking, time is on his and China’s side, as he has said, “The East is rising, and the West is in decline.”  But Xi would do well to recall his words from that 2000 Interview, that one must “light the fire to warm up the water, keep the fire burning, and now and again pour more cold water in, so that the kettle does not boil over.”

In a world of multipolarity and growing complexity, not to mention the horrors of Ukraine war and Russian President Putin’s increasing pariah status, President Xi can paradoxically show more flexibility, and to emphasize China’s (and his) role as “a reasonable stakeholder” – to borrow Robert Zoellick’s famous 2005 phrase – in a multipolar, rules-based order, but one in which China’s role is both ascendant and recognized.  The fact that Ukraine’s President Zelensky would publicly reach out to President Xi, seeking “direct talks” to help end the Ukraine war, speaks for itself, and illuminates Xi’s role as a paramount world leader.  It also offers him possible entrée back into the good graces of the EU.  To succeed in such an endeavor, Xi will have to once again, as he first did decades ago in a remote village in Shaanxi, tap into his own flexibility, resilience, and ambition.  But today’s the stakes are higher — and both China, America, Europe, and rest of the world are watching.

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