China: Xi Jinping’s big ambitions

Beijing sees chance to press its claim for global leadership as US retreats

'Hide our strength, bide our time." For a quarter-century, China's approach to the outside world has generally adhered to Deng Xiaoping's foreign policy maxim. With its attention focused on poverty alleviation, economic expansion and an ideological experiment that marries capitalism with authoritarian social controls – "socialism with Chinese characteristics", to adopt Beijing's nomenclature – it suited the Communist Party to take a minimalist approach to international issues where they didn't impinge directly on its own interests. But this week, at the party's national congress in Beijing – the most important global political event of the year – delegates laid the ground for a more ambitious role on the world stage.

This was the congress of Xi Jinping, who was installed for a second five-year term as president while imposing himself as arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. An era of collective leadership begun under the reform-minded Deng in the 1980s has given way to a structure that concentrates power around Xi and his allies. Having amassed a series of new titles that give him oversight over every major policy area, Xi this week secured approval for a new seven-man Politburo Standing Committee – the pinnacle of power in China – that includes no rivals or potential successors to the president.

That break with convention is seen by some as a sign that Xi may seek to remain in power beyond 2022. At the congress, delegates also enshrined in the constitution “Xi Jinping Thought”, a name-check that elevates Xi to the same exalted status as Mao and Deng – the transformational leaders in whose company he believes he belongs.

At Davos Xi positioned himself as a champion of global trade and the Paris accord. He did not mention Donald Trump, but the message was clear

Mao established the communist state, while Deng (in the party view) set it on course for an economic miracle. Xi’s aim, as set out at the congress, is to put China centre-stage in global affairs. “By 2050, two centuries after the opium wars, which plunged the ‘Middle Kingdom’ into a period of hurt and shame, China is set to regain its might and reascend to the top of the world,” the official Xinhua news agency announced.


The quest for global stature commensurate with the country's economic might has been a theme of Xi's rule. His ambitious Belt and Road Initiative would strengthen Chinese influence by spending hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure in around 60 countries in Asia and Europe. On Xi's watch, China opened its first overseas military base, in Djibouti, and has become more assertive in the South China Sea.

At Davos in January, Xi positioned himself as a champion of global trade and the Paris accord on climate change. He did not mention Donald Trump, then president-elect of the United States, but the message was clear. As the US retreats into isolationism, Xi's China sees a chance to press its claim for global leadership.