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What Biden, Putin and Xi must worry about most

Presidents Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have a great deal to worry about at home, abroad and regarding each other. Remarkably, however, the most dangerous threat facing each leader is similar. And it is probably not what you the reader would have expected. This and the next two columns will explain why.  

Other threats, such as the war in Ukraine escalating to include use of nuclear weapons; environmental catastrophe; a Taiwan crisis;  another pandemic; large-scale global starvation; and an economic recession, are present. But for each leader, the greatest threat lies inside his country. Let’s begin with President Xi.    

Xi has inadvertently ignited a ticking time bomb in his pursuit of near absolute power.  Winning an unprecedented third term at the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress earlier this month, Xi is a virtual president for life, emerging as the most dominant Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. While China is still battling COVID-19 and has myriad domestic issues of great concern, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under President Xi is in near total command of China.

The fundamental role of the CCP and the government is and always has been to maintain “stability.” In plain English that means no peasant revolutions, massive riots or major protests to the regime. This is why increases in standards of living were crucial to assuring stability by containing economic unrest. Against that background, sustaining economic growth; Taiwan; a declining and aging population; massive debt and real estate bubbles are among Xi’s major problems and challenges.

Internationally, China is in an advantaged position. China supports its close friend Russia in Ukraine but not to the point of tolerating Putin using nuclear weapons. China is challenging U.S. leadership around the globe. And China can balance its influence with Russia on Ukraine to advantage with Washington because, at some stage, negotiations will occur. Beijing can assist or retard that process.

What then is arguably the gravest threat facing China to which China’s leadership is currently blind? The threat is a “Reverse Gorbachev.” After assuming leadership of the USSR in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev recognized that the irrationality of the Soviet system was no longer tolerable if the USSR was to survive as a superpower. Perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) were imposed.

The rigid and brittle Soviet system, tightly controlled from the top with an otherwise inflexible management scheme, could not tolerate rationality, sunshine and truth. In essence, the Soviet Union was run by orders from the top, setting unachievable goals met by equally absurd responses from the bottom assuring complete compliance. 

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Two years later, the Soviet Union imploded. In its stead, a vastly smaller Russian Federation emerged.

Xi has taken the exact opposite course. Instead of encouraging Western-style entrepreneurism and capitalism, as Deng Xiaoping initiated, Xi using Marxist-Leninist ideology,  has increased the authority and power of the CCP to impose discipline and direction on Chinese society — entirely contrary to what Gorbachev attempted and failed. China is returning to a closed political, social, cultural and economic autocratic society reminiscent of the bad old days of Mao and the Cultural Revolution but organized for the 21st century.

As examples, about 700-1,000 Chinese billionaires are being cut down to size, losing influence and, in many cases, status and wealth. More state owned enterprises (SOE) are being created to replace private sector companies.

Entrepreneurism and capitalism are being restricted. That will be the 21st century equivalent of killing China’s golden goose. History is almost absolute in its verdict that SOE’s are never competitive with the private sector. One consequence is that economic growth, essential for increasing living standards and hence political stability, will stall. Many of the elite will attempt to leave China, further limiting economic potential.

Xi seems oblivious to the negative consequences of this brave new world he is attempting to create. If this analysis is correct, China may well not be the “pacing threat” that the U.S. argues it is because of the inherent constraints Xi is (inadvertently) causing for the long term. That possibility alone should at least lead to a review of U.S. China policy.

As the U.S. “lost” China after World War II, will we refuse to consider that perhaps we have misunderstood China again? The answer, tragically, is yes.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.