Has Xi Jinping Derailed China's Path to Global Power?

October 3, 2023 Topic: China Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaChinese Communist PartyXi JinpingGreat Power Competition

Has Xi Jinping Derailed China's Path to Global Power?

In Overreach: how China derailed its peaceful rise, Susan Shirk seeks a novel explanation.


How did Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping in just a decade manage to dismantle the collective leadership system carefully crafted by Deng Xiaoping, sour China’s relations with most of its neighbours and set China on a collision course with the United States? Western analysts generally focus on the authoritarian policies put in place by Xi since his rise to power in 2012, while Chinese scholars blame Western overreaction, starting in 2017 with US President Donald Trump, who made it clear that he wanted to prevent China from replacing the US as the global hegemon.

In Overreach: how China derailed its peaceful rise, Susan Shirk seeks explanations more widely. She focuses in particular on the era of Xi’s predecessor, CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao, who in her view set the stage for much of what has happened under Xi. Shirk has been following Chinese politics for decades, has published extensively on China and currently chairs the 21st Century China Center of the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego. She has also served as US deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for East Asia and the Pacific.


Hu Jintao is generally seen as a weak leader who failed to build on the reforms initiated by his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. His term in office (2002–2012) is usually considered a ‘lost decade’. However, Shirk reminds us that much of China’s current overreach started under Hu. China’s fortification of rocks and shoals in the South China Sea gained pace in the early 2000s, its coastguard began to harass other countries’ ships in 2006, and the global financial crisis of 2008–09 boosted Beijing’s confidence and marked the start of a more openly assertive foreign policy.

Shirk ascribes this early overreach to Hu’s inability to manage the politburo standing committee, China’s top decision-making body. When Hu took over from Jiang, he increased the size of the standing committee from seven to nine, elevating the bosses responsible for internal security and propaganda to the committee.

However, in contrast to his strong-willed predecessors, the low-key Hu viewed himself simply as the first among equals. This left the expanded standing committee unwieldy and rudderless. As a result, the committee’s powerful members, often referred to as the ‘nine dragons’, each acted independently to expand their fiefdoms and resources, with Hu unable to control them. Instead of the collective leadership intended by Deng, the standing committee was sometimes referred to as simply a collection of leaders.

Shirk cites numerous examples of poor coordination. In 2007, the People’s Liberation Army tested an anti-satellite weapon by shooting down one of its own satellites, in the process spreading debris and endangering the satellites of other countries. When questioned by the US, China’s Foreign Ministry said it was unaware of the test. Coordination was particularly weak in the South China Sea, with the Foreign Ministry, navy, coastguard and fishing groups led by provincial governments all independently stirring up disputes in the name of the national interest.

As Deng’s policy of ‘hiding one’s strength and biding one’s time’ started to unravel, Hu ‘sent the pendulum swinging back to Xi’s Mao-style overconcentration of power’, Shirk writes. Xi inherited a governance system that was poorly coordinated and deeply corrupt, but with the foundations for overreach already firmly in place. As one Chinese entrepreneur described it, ‘Deng Xiaoping unplugged the Party’s Leninist machine, but Xi just put in the plug and it started up right away.’

Overreach is thoroughly researched and brims with information on events during the Hu and Xi eras obtained from interviews with well-informed insiders. A particularly useful chapter titled ‘Inside the black box’ outlines the workings of a political system ‘almost as opaque as North Korea’s’.

Under Xi, foreign policy went to extremes, security and anti-corruption measures were tightened and paranoia grew, with cadres at all levels scrambling to please the leader. As Xi continued to rein in the private sector and the economy faltered, dissatisfaction within the CCP also deepened. This reportedly came to a head at the party’s informal gathering in Beidahe last August.

Shirk’s book is a pleasure to read, but would have benefited from a final round of fact-checking. Her assertion that ‘Chinese diplomats now lead more than fifteen UN agencies’ is an exaggeration. And Shirk claims that APEC was ‘founded by the United States’, without any reference to the pivotal role played by Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

These minor errors notwithstanding, Shirk makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of how relations between China and the West have deteriorated, noting that China went into overdrive well before Xi came to power.

Shirk concludes with recommendations for China and the US to bring their relationship onto a more even keel. Some are practical, while others, in the current inflamed environment, are unrealistic. But it’s hard to disagree with Shirk that re-establishing consultations and getting the two countries’ leaders to meet regularly would be a good place to start.

Robert Wihtol is an adjunct faculty member at the Asian Institute of Management and former Asian Development Bank country director for China and director general for East Asia.

This article was first published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Image: Gil Corzo / Shutterstock.com