China’s president cast a long shadow over world affairs in 2021, even if he didn’t leave the country once – in keeping with his personal approach to the pandemic since it began. He was a no-show at October’s G20 summit in Rome and at the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow the following month.
Yet Xi was never far from other world leaders’ minds. At June’s G7 summit in Cornwall, Western leaders called on China to “respect human rights” in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
A few months later, the UK, US and Australia announced a surprise pact – the inelegantly named Aukus – which was intended to contain a rising China. The new agreement blindsided France, which lost a valuable contract to provide diesel submarines to Australia. The secret negotiations that led to the Aukus pact are widely viewed as a recognition that Australia believes it needs superior nuclear submarines to counter Xi’s increasingly assertive policy in the Indo-Pacific.
Similarly, dozens of countries participated in a US-convened “Summit of Democracy” in December, an initiative intended to present democracy as resilient and adaptable in the face of China’s attempts to rewrite the rules of the international order to suit its own authoritarian model. (In response, China launched an unconvincing media blitz to argue that its system represents “democracy that works”.)
In 2021, its leader is at the peak of his powers. Xi’s authority is widely viewed as unchallenged. In November, he wrote himself into the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a resolution approved by elite party cadres. It was a demonstration of his authority. The resolution places him on a par with his most notable predecessors: Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, and Deng Xiaoping, the economic reformist credited with laying the foundations of China’s rise.
Next year, Xi will almost certainly claim a third five-year term in power, breaking with CCP rules imposed in the post-Mao era to limit the return of one-man rule.
Under Xi, China continued to brush off Western criticisms of its policies, including repression of mainly Muslim minorities in its western provinces, entrenched control over the city of Hong Kong, which should be largely autonomous until 2047, and promised to “reunify” the de facto independent island of Taiwan with the mainland, by force if necessary.
Xi’s handling of the pandemic has also boosted his authority. His country has largely succeeded in containing Covid-19, recording just 4,600 deaths in total (800,000 have died in the US, China’s principal rival, the population of which is under a quarter of China’s). That, state media claims, illustrates the strength of China’s system compared with the chaos and weakness of liberal democracy.
In 2021, the centenary year of the CCP, Xi had one point to prove: that, as it enters its second century, the party is as strong as ever, and is leading China to its rightful global pre-eminence.