One familiar narrative about China in the United States centers on its growing power and influence, and warns that America remains ill-prepared for the long-term competition it poses. This story is true but incomplete. China is indeed a formidable rival, but its Communist Party faces deep problems and possibly even decay. And it is precisely because of its weakness that China presents so complex a challenge. Even as it has become more influential on the international stage, political and economic problems have festered at home.
Xi Jinping’s China is an infirm colossus that will be frustrated by unmet ambitions. A strong but frustrated country poses a special kind of danger. This is the China Nightmare.
Xi maintained a low-key persona as he rose to power. Few knew what type of leader he would prove to be when he took over in 2012 from his predecessor Hu Jintao. Unlike Hu, Xi exudes confidence and charisma. And, unlike Hu, Xi has been unabashed in giving voice to his grand ambitions. Xi, it turns out, is a radically different breed of Chinese Communist Party leader, a ruthless strongman.
Although China was ruled by a dictatorship before Xi’s ascent, he has made a radical bid to obtain almost total authority over his country’s affairs. In doing so, he has paralyzed the normal functioning of the state’s bureaucracy. In the case of COVID-19, for example, his centralization of control hobbled the activities of officials closest to the epicenter of the pandemic in Wuhan. The “Beijing model” was supposed to be an efficient alternative to democracy, which was supposedly more sclerotic and incompetent. Instead, the Beijing model has now inflicted untold misery on its own people and the rest of the world.