AS CHINA’S POLITICAL LEADERS PREPARE for next month’s 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, all eyes are turning to General Secretary Xi Jinping, as he sets the stage for his second five-year term as China’s top leader. Anthony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs, and faculty director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, delves into this important juncture in Xi’s political ambitions in his new paper, “What Does General Secretary Xi Jinping Dream About?,” published as part of the Ash Center’s Occasional Papers Series.

In the paper, Saich argues that China is encountering a moment in its contemporary history when the reforms of earlier generations have largely run their course—and that future reforms from Beijing will likely touch on the country’s core political interests.

“Domestically, China needs reform to ensure that it can avoid falling into the ‘middle-income trap,’” writes Saich. “China’s own leaders admit that the economic development model that has proved successful in the past is no longer suitable as the nation attempts to shift to consumer-led growth and higher-quality production.”

Xi has spent much of his first term halting what had been the steady erosion of power among China’s past general secretaries over the last two decades. Saich argues that, “as the preeminent ‘princeling,’ [Xi] now dominates the party and the central decision-making apparatus to an extent unprecedented since Mao Zedong.” With this accumulated power, Saich tries to answer the fundamental question of what Xi plans to do with it during his next five-year term.

China’s leadership has articulated a set of economic, political, and international affairs priorities that comprise what Xi has labeled the “China Dream.” The party’s leadership, says Saich, “felt that Xi was a trustworthy pair of hands who would ensure continued party rule and maintain its preeminent position, while restoring its credibility and support among the population at large.”

On the political front, this includes strengthening obedience to the party, promoting traditional Chinese culture as well as a resurgent Chinese nationalism, combatting corruption, and exerting greater societal control. On economic matters, Saich writes that “there is no doubt that gradually there has been greater recognition of the role of the market in producing efficiency gains and more effective use of investment funds,” but that China’s leaders will continue to see “state guidance over economic development as crucial.”

When it comes to its growing role in the world, China is also at a crossroads.

“With U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and from economic leadership within the Asia region, the question arises as to whether China will take on the mantle” of global leadership, says Saich. The declining role of the U.S. in Asia does not mean that China will automatically fill the gap, as it lacks the strong network of regional partners that Washington enjoys, and its territorial assertiveness has raised concerns about Beijing’s intentions throughout the region. The biggest test for Xi and China’s capacity for leadership, however, remains the nuclear belligerence of its North Korean ally.

Xi, Saich argues, has his work cut out for him in managing the multitude of challenges across the political, economic, and global spheres.

“The outcome,” he says, “is uncertain, and we need to prepare for a range of possible scenarios.” In the absence of bold reforms touching on the core of party power, Saich offers the possibility that over the medium to short term, China would “continue the fluctuation of soft and harder authoritarianism that would make bold initiatives unlikely.” Simply put, says Saich, “it will be difficult to push through the kind of reforms that will dislodge the current beneficiaries.” An outcome, Saich concludes that would not be encouraging, but “quite likely.”

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Anthony Saich

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Daewoo Professor of International Affairs
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