China Xi, who is going to meet with Biden this week, was close to him

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China’s most powerful leader for decades is perhaps at his most vulnerable since coming to power 11 years ago. That could affect how Xi Jinping approaches President Biden on Wednesday in their first meeting in a year.

For Xi, the meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco is a much-needed opportunity for him to show his country – and the world – that he is a leader who can China’s most important relationship to manage effectively. . And maybe he will be willing to be easier tensions, which are at their worst since the two countries normalized ties in 1979.

“Xi needs the summit more than Biden does. He has to show that he has respect, that he has status,” said Minxin Pei, a political scientist focusing on China-US ties at Claremont McKenna College. “He’s certainly in a worse position than he was last November.”

When the two leaders met before the Group of 20 summit in Bali last November, Xi was riding high. The coronavirus regulations were being eased and China’s economy was expected to pick up. Xi finally returned to the world stage after staying in China during the pandemic, meeting with more than 20 heads of state. The east was rising and the west, namely the United States, was declining – or so the Chinese establishment thought.

What a difference a year makes.

While Xi’s position and grip on power within an opaque party system does not appear to be in question – in October he won a third term and packed key party positions with loyalists – he is now at the most challenging time yet in his tenure.

He experienced the largest street protests since the 1989 anti-democracy demonstrations that culminated in the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, a response to his highly unpopular “zero covid” policy. He then oversaw a chaotic U-turn, which resulted in an unknown number of deaths.

The expected post-covid economic bounce has not happened. Xi has also been frustrated by declining confidence in China’s economy, hit by a property crisis and rising youth unemployment. Young people talk about “laying flat” or being the “last generation” and refusing to marry or have children in protest.

Foreign investment and business confidence have fallen due to increased government regulation of private business and a crackdown on foreign companies over alleged exploitation. China has seen the largest capital outflow in years.

Together, this means that China may not meet its growth target of 5 percent this year, already the country’s lowest target in three decades.

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The outdoor environment has also worsened.

Tensions between the world’s two most powerful countries have reached a fever pitch in the past year, with economic conflict escalating amid a tech war over everything from semiconductors to rare metals. required for electric vehicles. The threat of actual armed conflict is growing.

Biden said last month that the United States would defend the Philippines in the event of a Chinese attack following Chinese harassment of Philippine ships in disputed parts of the South China Sea. There may be more Chinese military maneuvers around Taiwan before the presidential election in January, while the US presidential election could reduce the space for further rapprochement.

And Xi, who is known for concentrating power in a way not seen since the days of Mao Zedong, who died in 1976, is likely not always in control. A high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon that entered US airspace and set back US-China talks for months happened without Xi’s knowledge, according to US officials.

The disappearance of officials who are cleaning up China’s face has been presented to the world – first, the foreign minister and most recently the defense minister – has raised questions about turmoil within the Chinese Communist Party under Xi led and embarrassed the Chinese state.

“It’s been one disaster after another,” said Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown professor who served as a national security official in the Obama administration, referring to Xi’s third term as head of the party and the army, which started in March this year. . “His third term has been full of policy failures and challenges.”

Xi’s unexplained absence from the world stage has also fueled speculation about what he might be dealing with at home. In August, the 70-year-old missed a scheduled speech at the BRICS summit of emerging economies.

The stakes are high for Xi personally. By positioning himself as an unlimited leader, he broke with his predecessors who established a system of power-sharing and succession to avoid excessive control under Mao. But by consolidating power in himself, he has also become the main person to blame for his country’s problems.

Last month, the sudden death of former Chinese premier Li Keqiang, an economist and free market advocate, caused an outpouring of grief that was seen as a clear reconfirmation of the more ideological path he has taken. by the state that Xi has taken. (In the days after Li’s death, Chinese institutions were told to limit “too heavy” praise of Li, according to a leaked directive.)

“Praising Li Keqiang for caring about the people and telling the truth means that Xi Jinping does not care about the people and only speaks empty words,” said Zhang Lun, a senior -professor of Chinese studies at Université de Cergy-Pontoise in Paris.

“Dissatisfaction with Xi used to be at the top, but gradually it has reached the level of the public. This is the situation facing Xi Jinping today. The hatred has reached a critical level,” he said.

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For Xi, improved ties with the United States will give him more room to focus on problems at home.

Beijing has tried to appear ready to engage, repeating the number of visits by US officials to China since the summer in an attempt to make this week’s meeting happen. This month, state media praised a visit by former US pilots who helped China fight the Japanese in the 1940s. Last week, the state news agency Xinhua began running a series on the importance of repairing the relationship between the US and China.

“The leaders’ meeting is a test of how responsive Xi is to the costs and whether he will pragmatically change his policies to reduce those costs,” said Susan Shirk, a research professor at the University of California at San Diego and a former senior -official at the State Department.

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While Xi may be more willing to intervene to stabilize relations in the short term, there are fundamental differences between Washington and Beijing – and vulnerability could mean he takes even more difficult line, analysts warn.

“Xi remains very nationalistic and may be even more so in areas such as Taiwan, both because of his personal ideological views and to deter rival powers that he fears will try to take advantage of China’s weaknesses,” said Jacob Stokes, a senior at the team. Center for a New American Security in Washington.

In a system like the CCPs, turbulence could actually strengthen rather than weaken its hand: External threats such as US hostility and attempts to block Chinese technological advances give reasons to more for Xi to say that his vision is needed more than ever.

“When you face these challenges, in the past the answer has not been that we have to change the main leader. It is that we must rally to the central leader even more,” said Joseph Torigian, a historian of China at American University.

The danger for Xi is how far and how far discontent spreads.

“This is like a chronic disease. It’s not a heart attack,” said Pei Claremont McKenna. “If things continue to go downhill, you’ll have a vicious cycle where people start to question his leadership more. his authority erodes even more, which means he will have even less influence on policy, and as a result he will be less secure.”

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