Few world leaders can claim to end 2021 stronger than they started it. Many of them, buffeted by the winds of rising inflation, spiralling energy costs, institutional gridlock and pandemic fatigue, must feel their incumbency is a curse.
Not Xi Jinping, who closes the year in what appears to be an unassailable position, having consolidated his authority over China's Communist Party – and his control over the country itself – and honed a personality cult now more pervasive than that of any leader since Mao Zedong.
At its annual meeting in November, the Communist Party’s central committee passed its first “historical resolution” in 40 years, declaring that Xi’s leadership was “the key to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
The party's two most revered leaders, Mao and Deng Xiaoping, used similar resolutions to tighten their hold on power in 1945 and 1981, respectively.
Xi has ensured that his critics within the Beijing elite are vanishingly rare, or at least know better than to open their mouths
In effectively declaring Xi as their equal, and having already abolished presidential term limits, the party was clearing a path for the 68-year-old to serve for life.
His intentions will become clearer at a party congress next year, where a new leadership is to be appointed for the period up to 2027. If he remains in office that long, he will become Communist China’s longest-serving leader.
“This is a man of determination and action, a man of profound thoughts and feelings, a man who inherited a legacy but dares to innovate, a man who has forward-looking vision and is committed to working tirelessly,” according to a profile of Xi in the Xinhua news agency in the days before the November meeting.
This type of thing is not written to be believed; it is itself an exercise in control – just like the newly-amended schoolbooks that teach children about Xi Jinping Thought or the instruction to Amazon to delete bad reviews of the president's book. Challenge him if you dare, it implies. But in today's China, there are very few who would.
Having sidelined potential rivals, Xi has ensured that his critics within the Beijing elite are vanishingly rare, or at least know better than to open their mouths. Purges have taken place in the police and the judiciary. Meanwhile, the dwindling camp of active dissidents who remain on Chinese soil are under close surveillance or serving time in jail.
Claims to competence
Xi’s legitimacy rests not only on control but also on his claims to competence. In the party’s view of the world, the political dysfunction in Washington, and resulting policy paralysis, contrast nicely with the order and managerial efficiency of one-party rule. China has fared comparatively well in the Covid-19 crisis.
Its official death toll from the virus is fewer than 5,000 people, compared with over 800,000 in the United States. In the last big country with a zero-Covid policy, a single positive case is enough to justify a targeted lockdown and mass testing.
While other countries have spent much of the past two years under severe restrictions, most people in China have been able to live their lives free of the virus.
Perhaps even more destabilising are the stark inequalities that become more apparent the richer China gets
Yet the pandemic has accelerated China’s drift into self-isolation under its leader-for-life. Xi Jinping has been invisible from the world stage – he has not left China in almost two years.
That is ostensibly due to the health crisis, but it also reflects a broader inward turn. Xi, responding to growing international hostility, emphasises self-reliance and the need to wean China off its dependence on foreign markets. Meanwhile, after almost two years of quarantine and strict visa rules, there has been an exodus of foreign residents.
The party has made it harder for western journalists to work in the country. Irritating the authorities – by reporting on the treatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang, for example – is enough to block a visa renewal. Underlying all of this is a general sense of Chinese self-confidence. While the US worries about its own decline, Beijing believes it is on the rise.
Neither national self-confidence nor Xi’s own grip on power will lessen China’s policy dilemmas in 2022, however.
It appears to have no exit strategy from its zero-Covid policy, and the relatively low effectiveness of home-grown vaccines against variants could leave it exposed if any new strains take hold.
China's increasingly aggressive stance towards countries that challenge its official line – whether on Taiwan, Hong Kong or Uighur repression – is damaging its international relationships, while on the home front the economy is left vulnerable by a property bubble, high debt levels and widespread corruption.
Perhaps even more destabilising are the stark inequalities that become more apparent the richer China gets. The World Bank says the income gap in China is now worse than in many other major economies, including France, Japan, India and the United Kingdom.
The assumption of the ruling elite has always been that people will accept a coercive state and limited political freedoms in exchange for stability and rising living standards. That means that, for Xi and his party, closing the income gap is not only an economic challenge but an existential one.