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China’s mediocre Mao

Xi Jinping: ruthless but inept. Feng Li/Getty

Chinese President Xi Jinping really isn’t as “competent of a helmsman as he’s made out to be”, says Noah Smith in his Substack newsletter. Economic growth, already slowing before the pandemic, has now “basically halted”, in large part because of Xi’s “stubborn insistence” on Zero Covid. China’s reputation abroad has been torn apart by his aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, the crackdown on Hong Kong and the concentration camps in Xinjiang. And his nationalised industrial policy has prompted the US and others to “switch from engagement to outright economic warfare”.

Ironically, these failures stem from the one area in which Xi has proven “incredibly adept”: seizing control of the Chinese Communist Party. The 69-year-old has ruthlessly taken down rivals, crafted the country’s “first cult of personality since Mao”, and successfully changed the rules to make him de facto leader for life. But this centralisation of power has caused deep damage: loyalty is favoured over competence; the absence of competing factions “robs decisions of needed criticism and consensus”. With no one brave or foolish enough to act against him, the CCP is stuck with a “mediocre” leader until he retires or dies. “It’s almost as if democracy has something to recommend it after all.”