The Rise of China Under President Xi Jinping: U.S. Challenger, Potential Ally, or Both?

Photo Credit: UN Geneva

By Merry Jiao
Staff Writer

The Chinese Communist party recently held its annual Central Committee Meeting, bringing together the elite officials of China’s Communist Party (CCP) to determine the future of the country. Behind closed doors, officials formally agreed upon a revisionist history of the CCP. President Xi Jinping is now being credited with the “tremendous transformation” of China’s economy and geopolitical status. He is being hailed by CCP members and supporters as an era-defining leader, directing China towards a new period of prosperity and elevating him to a political reverence akin to Mao Zedong. By emphasizing his ability to direct the country towards a new era of growth and prosperity, he is actively cementing his place in the history of the People’s Republic of China as one of its greatest leaders. As such, President Xi has effectively shaped a narrative that posits him as the only person capable of steering the country towards its next step: attaining global superpower status. After eliminating term limits on the presidency, Xi is on track to secure his third term next year, prompting discussion about the possibility of maintaining power indefinitely

President Xi’s command over his party has grown in proportional relation to its centralized control of the country, achieved largely through extensive political oppression. Under an autocracy, led by President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party, centralized rule has allowed China to expeditiously and fiercely accelerate towards its hegemonic goals. President Xi has steadily led the country through a period of surging private capital, yet continues to emphasize the need for an equal distribution of wealth. Now, with the growing importance of technological behemoths such as Alibaba and Tencent to China’s economic aspirations, the CCP has shifted its attention towards the control of individual wealth and the reining in of capitalism. Favoring a state controlled economy with limited private property, President Xi has called for the implementation of a government-steered economy with common prosperity.

Furthermore, the Chinese government’s omnipotent control of the country’s media allows it to advance narratives favorable to the government; chiefly, that it is on track to become the most powerful and prosperous country in the world. Chinese citizens are fed a barrage of nationalistic content, while dissenting perspectives and opinions are stifled and omitted. Online comments that challenge or question state-supplied narratives or attempts to whistleblow on corrupt activity are swiftly stamped out. Growing propaganda in film and other mediums also portrays China’s military as superior to any enemy and triumphant in any battle. Even present day advertisements feature messages about patriotic strength and unbreakable unity under the CCP. China’s attempts to convince its domestic and foreign audiences of its unstoppable rise pervades all facets of daily life, and aims to convince the Chinese people that they will benefit from a new era of prosperity as a result.

Without a doubt, the biggest challenge to China’s hegemonic rise will be the United States’ goal of hegemonic preservation. Current and future leaders of the two countries will need to continually address their disputes without undermining the other’s authority. For instance, on November 15, 2021, President Biden and President Xi met at a virtual summit, agreeing to manage disagreements between the two countries peacefully and avoid conflicts through de-escalation. However, China’s continuous refusal to back down from issues such as Taiwanese autonomy, the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang, and the imprisonment of Zhang Zhan—a journalist who covered the chaotic first weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan—has made the situation increasingly difficult to navigate for the United States. China’s increasingly consistent willingness to challenge the United States on contentious issues such as these demonstrates China’s burgeoning emboldened nature as its international status grows and the United States’ is tested. 

The relationship between China and the United States today draws Cold War parallels, with striking similarities in competition and dependency. Although both sides deny their relations are incrementally escalating into Cold war era-esque confrontation, China’s rise to superpower status and the emergence of a new bipolar environment in which these two powers compete for dominance seems all but inevitable. Their economic and political interdependence will greatly affect how this period of brinkmanship plays out. As the world’s two largest economies, both the United States and China are very sensitive to abrupt bilateral trade and policy changes. Any economic disruptions resulting from confrontation will reverberate internationally. In addition, the increased competition for valuable resources such as oil, coal, and rare earth minerals such as cobalt will only accelerate and intensify in the coming decades. 

Both the United States and China recognize that a degree of mutual cooperation will be required to maximize their respective power shares in a transformed international environment. Just as COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in early November, was coming to a close, China and the United States surprised the world with a joint agreement to lower emissions and actively address the threat of climate change in conjunction with other global issues as part of a cooperative effort. This signals that China views cooperation on climate change as necessary to its growth and rise, and leaves the door open for strategic cooperation with the United States. As U.S. Special Envoy John Kerry noted, “cooperation is the only way to get this job done.” 

As China grows more powerful and influential, the nature of global power politics will inevitably change. As polarity begins to shift and concentrate in a bipolar fashion, both China and the United States will face the growing need to collaborate while simultaneously outcompeting the other for scarce and valuable resources. With Xi at the helm, China’s strategy to walk this line will likely be both aggressive and tactful in nature, but rather predictable nonetheless. 

As history has shown, the destabilizing nature of a rising hegemon leaves the prevailing hegemon more fragile and guarded. U.S. hegemony will increasingly experience this as China continues its ascendency. The United States will also face immense pressure to challenge China strategically while maintaining peaceful relations. Issues such as China’s human rights abuses and pernicious economic lending practices will continue to be contentious points which the United States can challenge, and where it can push for concessions and behavior change. In the coming decades, competition between these two powers is inevitable. However, conflict is not, and whether the United States and China find in each other an amenable ally or contentious adversary will depend largely on whether the two can distill a partial, yet shared vision for mutual dominance, and will undoubtedly have significant ramifications for the international community.

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