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The Most Powerful Person in the World Is China’s President

6 minute read
Stefan Aust is the former editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel. Adrian Geiges is the long-standing Beijing correspondent for the weekly news magazine Stern. They are authors of the new book, Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World.

Many people still assume the U.S. President is the most powerful person in the world. But times have changed. In recent years we have observed two parallel developments: the President of the United States has lost power while the President of China has gained it.

Ironically, it is capitalists who have made the Communist Party of China strong. From Apple to Microsoft, Siemens to Volkswagen, companies eager to profit from lower wages and China’s 1.4 billion customers have all shifted key elements of production from the heartlands of America and Europe to China. In 2014, China surpassed the U.S. in gross domestic product adjusted for purchasing power, putting it ahead of all other world economies. As Americans have been number one since 1872, this represents a tectonic shift, the magnitude of which most in the West have yet to grasp.

Xi Jinping did not initiate this transformation, but since becoming China’s president in 2013 he has made the country his own. Xi’s transformation of China began with a campaign against corruption, punishing 1.5 million officials after coming to power, including seven from the top leadership ranks (i.e., the Politburo and ministers) as well as two dozen senior generals. Two leading officials were sentenced to death. The purges and show trials served to eliminate any actual or potential opponents and to concentrate power in Xi’s own hands. They also popularized him among the Chinese people as a strongman.

Today, Xi has surpassed his goal of becoming the new Mao. In November 2021, the Communist Party’s Central Committee passed a resolution “resolutely upholding Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole.” It was only the third time that the Party’s Central Committee had passed a resolution about the Party’s own history. The document mentions Xi’s predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao once; the great reformer Deng Xiaoping, who was responsible for the economic transformation of China and made it a rich country, six times; and Mao Zedong eighteen times. And Xi Jinping? Twenty-four times. The resolution does not put Xi on a par with Chairman Mao—he’s elevated above him.

But while Mao ruled over a poor developing country, Xi Jinping now leads an economic superpower. And while Mao relied mainly on communist doctrine, Xi wields a more resonant ideological weapon: nationalism. He positions himself alongside Confucius and the Chinese emperors as the executor of a historic mission: to overcome the humiliation of the Chinese people by the former colonial powers and to end centuries of Western dominance over the world. To fulfill his mission, Xi has lifted the term limit that applied to his predecessors as President, allowing him to rule until death.

Nationalist rhetoric justifies Xi efforts to expand China’s current territory. He has already successfully brought Hong Kong into line and jailed the democrats, without triggering any major international reactions, and he wants to bring Taiwan back home to the empire while he is still alive. By asserting sovereignty over the South China Sea, he lays claim to resource-rich areas of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

When Donald Trump became president of the U.S. in 2017, it was like a gift for Xi Jinping. In Europe, many mistakenly took Trump’s “America First” foreign policy strategy as an attempt to defend and expand the U.S.’s influence in the world. In reality, of course, Trump thought the U.S. should scale back its international commitments and concentrate more on domestic problems; his doctrine aimed to confine America to itself. While Joe Biden takes a different approach to foreign policy, he presides over a deeply divided country. Some even talk about the threat of civil war. The Chinese people, in contrast, accept Xi Jinping far more wholeheartedly than the American public accepts Biden or than they accepted Trump.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes clear how the international balance of power has shifted. Biden can threaten Putin or beg him; he cannot stop him. Xi Jinping could stop Putin if he wanted to—but he doesn’t want to, because everything is going his way. Putin invaded Ukraine after Xi hosted him at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, where the two issued a joint statement reaffirming their shared worldview. At the time, Putin rightly understood that Western sanctions would not hurt him in the long run, since China would be happy to buy Russia’s gas and oil.

With his plans for a “New Silk Road” (officially called the “Belt and Road Initiative”), Xi Jinping is buying himself a great deal of influence around the world. The new Silk Road covers the same area that the old one did—that is, Asia, Africa and Europe—and more, extending to Latin America. Everywhere it touches, infrastructure will be developed, trade expanded and investments made in means of transport. Xi Jinping intends to spend more than a $1 trillion dollars on it over a decade. The principle is comparable to that behind the Marshall Plan after World War II, but on a much larger scale. The U.S. Congress approved only $12.4 billion for the Marshall Plan—$139 billion in today’s dollars, or little more than a tenth of what China plans to invest.

What’s even more astonishing is that, although Xi Jinping has so much power, people in the West know almost nothing about him: how he was born into the family of one of the highest leaders of the People’s Republic—and then experienced a terrible crash. How he was tortured and exiled during Mao’s Cultural Revolution—and still became a staunch Mao supporter. That his wife Peng Liyuan is a highly talented singer, as famous in China as Jennifer Lopez or Beyoncé is in the U.S. The amazing fact is that his father was a friend of the Dalai Lama and the Uyghurs while Xi Jinping oppresses non-Chinese ethnic groups. He is the first among 1.4 billion people. If not among 7.7 billion.

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