Behold, Emperor Xi

For China’s leader to rule indefinitely breaks Communist tradition—but returns to an imperial one.

A modified portrait of Chinese president Xi Jinping
Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty

Over more than two millennia, the emperors of imperial China were the focal points of the state and of the public’s veneration, and the central figures in a Sinocentric system of foreign affairs. As the Chinese empire is rising again, so too is a new emperor. China’s current ruler, Xi Jinping, will likely be elevated to similar stature at the 20th Communist Party Congress in Beijing, which begins next week. These political gatherings, held every five years, are used to finalize the lineup of the party’s senior leadership, revealing to the nation and to the world the victors of backroom wrangling and brass-knuckled competition. This time Xi, the Communist Party’s general secretary since 2012 and the country’s president since 2013, is widely expected to deviate from modern precedent and claim a third term. That would put him in charge until 2027, but he could very well rule indefinitely.

If events unfold as anticipated, Xi will emerge from the congress as the most commanding figure in Chinese politics since Mao Zedong, who ruled almost unchallenged from his founding of the People’s Republic, in 1949, to his death 27 years later. Yet the event will be more like a coronation than a party conference.

Although comparisons between Xi and Mao are inevitable, China’s leader today resembles, in many respects, more of an imperial emperor than a Marxist revolutionary. Mao wished to overturn the established order, both at home and abroad, and fomented political and social upheaval to achieve his goals. Xi’s agenda is much closer to imperial China’s. He intends to restore the nation as the dominant power in Asia at the core of a new Sinocentric system, similar in nature to the position it held in the region under the dynasties.

This older historical legacy may be the better guide to understanding Xi’s foreign-policy ambitions. For centuries, the Chinese dynasties formed the political, economic, and cultural center of East Asia. Their influence extended to the far horizons through trade. Xi is seeking to rebuild these ties of influence, and he’s adopting the tools of the emperors to achieve his aim. Even in antiquity, the emperors claimed that their writ embraced “all under heaven.” Using 21st-century technology, Xi has the opportunity to turn ancient rhetoric into modern reality.

Xi’s ambition may sound fantastical to Western ears—the equivalent of the new Italian prime minister aspiring to rebuild the Roman empire—but in China’s context, it doesn’t. A remarkable feature of Chinese history is how often the elite has managed to restore imperial power. On many occasions over millennia, China collapsed in political disarray or succumbed to foreign invasions. Yet, again and again, a leader emerged to found a new dynasty and rebuild the empire.

China’s current rise fits within this sweep of Chinese history. Xi himself sees it that way. He has placed what he calls the “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation within this epic. “China used to be a world economic power,” he once explained. “However, it missed its chance in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the consequent dramatic changes, and thus was left behind.” But in recent times, “China has won worldwide respect with its century-long efforts” to revive its strength, he went on. “Its prestige keeps rising, and its influence keeps expanding.”

And much like the emperors of old, Xi believes that China’s ancient civilization and modern achievements combine to give the current Communist dynasty the right to be a world power. He has argued that “the glorious 5,000-year history of the Chinese nation,” together with the “miracle” of rapid development achieved by the Communist Party, “have already declared to the world with indisputable facts that we are qualified to be a leader.”

This resurrected Chinese empire requires a new sovereign. In the old Confucian-tinged imperial system, the emperor stood above ordinary kings and chieftains as the Son of Heaven, who possessed a divine right to rule. In the ideal conception, the emperor should be wise, just, and virtuous, bringing harmony and prosperity to the realm and to the world.

Today, the state’s modern army of scribes presents Xi as just this type of benevolent ruler. In their telling, Xi’s selfless virtue, for instance, quelled the country’s coronavirus pandemic. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported that Xi “dedicated himself to leading epidemic control efforts” and “shouldered the heavy responsibility to fight the epidemic,” quoting him as saying that “life is of paramount importance.” Xi is also characterized as a sage of historic eminence, bringing peace to the world. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, claimed in April that Xi, in a recent diplomatic initiative, had offered “answers to questions of our times” that contributed “China’s wisdom to the efforts of mankind.”

Modern China, of course, is a Communist dictatorship, not a hereditary monarchy. In theory, the emperors had unlimited authority—the Kangxi emperor of the Qing Dynasty, who reigned from 1661 to 1722, described his powers as “giving life to people and killing people,” whereas Xi is hemmed in by the trappings of the Communist state, such as a constitution. In practice, Xi governs much like the old emperors. Under Xi, the government is taking on characteristics of the imperial courts. Xi has concentrated so much power in his person that he reigns not unlike an emperor. His statements instantaneously become policy, and state officials, the latter-day version of royal courtiers, jump to fulfill his wishes. If Xi is constrained by internal politics and competing factions, so, too, were the emperors, who were expected to govern in collaboration with their Confucian advisers. Earlier in his presidency, Xi in fact dabbled in Confucian ideas, littering his speeches with the philosophy’s teachings and even visiting Confucius’s hometown of Qufu, in Shandong province, although this leaning has lapsed in favor of socialist messaging.

Xi’s foreign policy has also become more like that of the emperors. The imperial courts perceived the world as a hierarchy of peoples, with China at the top as a great civilization. Relationships between the Son of Heaven and foreign rulers could never be equal: The emperors considered other monarchs “vassals” who were expected to send tribute missions acknowledging China’s superior status. Any who defied these ceremonial rules could find themselves cut off from trade and imperial largesse.

Xi’s modern diplomacy is taking on aspects of this system. Nations that don’t play by the rules, as Beijing defines them, face economic sanctions that deny their businesses access to the Chinese market. China’s authorities have barred certain goods or harassed companies from Australia, South Korea, Lithuania, and Canada in recent years to compel their politicians to align their policies with Beijing’s interests. China’s diplomats have presented lists of demands to the U.S. and Australia, expecting them to submit to Beijing’s wishes in order to improve relations. Xi is trying to assert his own rules and norms of diplomacy to refashion the global order and place China at its center.

One of Xi’s pet programs, the Belt and Road Initiative, looks much like the old imperial system of tribute and trade. Other countries that participate in the program gain access to Chinese munificence to help them build infrastructure; those that don’t are denied Beijing’s bounty. Xi has held two Belt and Road forums for which foreign leaders and their representatives were expected to travel to Beijing and acknowledge Xi’s generosity, much like the old tribute missions. Michael Sobolik, a fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and the author of an upcoming book on the Belt and Road, told me that the program “is China’s latest gambit to do what it’s been seeking to do for thousands of years: align its geopolitical status with its civilizational greatness.”

In economic policy as well, Xi’s program echoes those of the later dynasties. The emperors were happy to export prized Chinese products, luxuries such as porcelain and tea, but had scant interest in importing foreign-made goods and usually demanded hard currency in exchange. “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders,” a Qing emperor wrote to Britain’s King George III in the late 18th century. “There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians.” Xi seems to feel the same way. Although he has continued to promote Chinese high-tech exports, such as electric vehicles and smartphones, he has intensified a campaign for “self-sufficiency” to substitute foreign imports with homemade alternatives. “As a large country with a population of 1.4 billion, China must be basically self-sufficient in food production and industrial development. We must never forget this,” he once said.

Confucian scholars have mused on good government for 2,500 years but have never figured out what to do with a bad emperor. Confucius spent much of his life trying to win over barons to his ideas about benevolent rule through education and exhortation. When he failed with someone, he withdrew to look for another more worthy. “Show yourself when the moral way is evident,” he advises in the Analects. “Seek reclusion when it is not.” His followers chose to believe that heaven would withdraw favor from the cruel or greedy leader and bestow its mandate on a new, more enlightened one.

At present, only divine intervention seems likely to prevent Xi’s coronation. Although China is in miserable condition, with the economy slumping under Xi’s anti-COVID controls, his minions are still acting like imperial courtiers. This congress may well pack the party’s top ranks even more densely with Xi loyalists. The Communist government’s leadership compound in Beijing, Zhongnanhai, more and more resembles an imperial palace where royal favorites jockey for preferment and titles.

The political changes wrought by Xi’s anointment will have lasting implications for China’s future. Xi is an emperor without an heir. As with any monarchy, this could prove a recipe for intrigue and dissension. Communist politics have always lacked transparency and fed violence. Xi may be ushering in an even more contentious and uncertain era in which various cadres vie to become the emperor’s rightful successor. Policy making is also becoming more unpredictable, as the new emperor, like the old, insists that his every utterance has the force of law. That has altered the direction of Chinese government in ways that are making it less likely that Xi will successfully resurrect the Chinese empire he desires.

Xi, though, will continue his pursuit of a new order in which China’s neighbors in Asia again become Beijing’s vassals and China dictates the terms of its interactions with the rest of the world. According to the neo-imperial dream, the glory of this new Son of Heaven will radiate around the world, pushing back the influence of the Western barbarians. “Wherever the footprints of human beings may reach,” wrote a Han Dynasty statesman in the second century B.C., “what is there that is not the seat of the Son of Heaven?” The world may have to supply an answer.