Leadership Changes Reveal China’s Grand Strategy for 2024

January 25, 2024 Topic: China Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaXi JinpingCCPCOVID-19Chinese Economy

Leadership Changes Reveal China’s Grand Strategy for 2024

The life of a Chinese leader is never a straightforward one. 2023 offered plenty of evidence for why, on the economic, geopolitical, and domestic fronts. 


China entered 2023 emerging from one sea of troubles, only to find itself embroiled in another. The lifting of COVID-19-related restrictions in November 2022 as a result of widespread protests saw the country largely return to normal by January 2023. 

Against the expectations of many, the draconian lockdowns of the previous two years were quickly lifted. Despite almost 100 million confirmed cases and 121,000 deaths by December 2023, China avoided a huge surge that threatened to overwhelm its health system by delivering over three billion vaccinations. 


Still, China experienced long-term problems with its economy which went through a harsh period of trying to return to post-pandemic normality. Though the International Monetary Fund estimated a 5.4 percent GDP growth for 2023, its 2024 predictions are gloomier. 

Youth unemployment stood at over 20 percent, double the rate of five previous years. The housing market continued to cause worry, with the developer Evergrande carrying over US$300 billion in debt. Plenty of smaller companies found themselves in the same position. 

Politically, 2023 was dominated by one event and two disappearances. The event was the National People’s Congress in March, which saw the long-expected retirement of Li Keqiang as premier and his replacement by Li Qiang, former party secretary of Shanghai and a long-term associate of President Xi Jinping. What was not expected was the former premier’s sudden death on 27 October. He had been a competent and popular figure and his death prompted vigils in some parts of the country. 

In late June 2023, then-foreign minister Qin Gang disappeared and was removed from office in July. No formal explanation was given, though rumors of him having a child with a Chinese journalist working in the United States spread, along with darker claims that he had leaked information about the Russia-China relationship to Washington. He was replaced by the man he had once succeeded in 2022, veteran diplomat Wang Yi. 

Former defense minister Li Shangfu’s period in office was even shorter. He disappeared only weeks after his March appointment, though he was not formally removed from office until October. At the same time, several other officials involved with China’s nuclear weapons program were also charged with corruption. Li’s technocratic background — with expertise in ballistics and as the head of procurement for the People’s Liberation Army — aroused suspicions that corruption had underpinned his removal. A further 11 leading military personnel were removed at the end of December. 

Both Qin and Li had been appointed with Xi’s full support, causing some to wonder if China’s leader is becoming less adept in his political instincts — though the positions of defense and foreign minister have a lesser status in the Chinese power hierarchy as they do in the US, Australian and UK systems. 

China’s international relations were dominated throughout 2023 by the continuing war by Russia against Ukraine, tensions with the United States, the Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel, and Israel’s response. 

China continued its rhetorical support for Russia but avoided practical involvement, after issuing a relatively bland peace proposal in February. Xi visited Moscow in March, where he commented that China and Russia were seeing ‘changes not witnessed for a hundred years’. Despite this closeness with Putin, he also spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in April by phone.

With the United States, initial warm feelings after the 2022 G20 bilateral in Bali turned icy after the sighting of a large balloon linked to China, hovering over the United States. US officials viewed this as a spy operation and the balloon was shot down. This situation postponed Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit to China, but when he did visit in June, he was promptly followed by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in July, along with other high-level officials. 

At the APEC meeting in November 2023, President Biden and President Xi met once more and agreed to restart military-to-military dialogues, deepen environmental collaboration, and cooperate in economic areas. Though Biden labeled Xi a ‘dictator’ at a news conference after the meeting, the Chinese side largely ignored the comment. 

The Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel on 7 October raised another set of diplomatic issues with China, adding pressure on Beijing to commit to a bigger role in the Middle East because of its economic links to the region. China has maintained a reasonable relationship with both Israel and the Palestinian authorities and as Israel’s attacks on Gaza commenced, China issued statements expressing support for the two-state solution, as well as proposing a peace plan at the end of November 2023. Though it sought a back-row seat, China voted for a ceasefire in the region at the United Nations in early December. 

2023 ended with questions over how Xi’s leadership is developing into its third term. Xi surprisingly did not make a speech at the BRICS summit in South Africa in August and was notably absent from the G20 summit in India a few weeks later. 

Domestically, Li Qiang appears to have more work delegated to him, though it is impossible to say whether this is a sign of deeper issues, or perhaps the start of an eventual succession plan. The main challenges for China going into 2024 will be the election in Taiwan in January and the US presidential election in November. 

The life of a Chinese leader is never a straightforward one. 2023 offered plenty of evidence for why, on the economic, geopolitical, and domestic fronts. 

About the Author 

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London.

This article was first published at the East Asia Forum and is part of an EAF special feature series on 2023 in review and the year ahead.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.