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New year, new Xi

Feng Li/Getty

When Xi Jinping used his country’s five-yearly congress in October to “consolidate his hold on China’s communist party”, says Ruchir Sharma in the FT, “the world cringed”. The hardline president seemed determined to push his country back to the age of his role model Mao Zedong, with “dire implications” for the rest of us. The last thing anyone expected from a “strongman president entering his 11th year in power” was an about-face. But that’s exactly what he has done – reversing his efforts to control Covid, Big Tech and the property market, all within a few weeks. Not only that, he has also shown signs of reducing support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and easing tensions in the South China Sea.

These changes of heart are so uncharacteristic of the Xi we China-watchers thought we knew that some have speculated he no longer holds the reins in Beijing. “That’s unlikely.” At the congress he “purged enemies and installed allies throughout the party”. It probably just became impossible to ignore the fact that his policies had “brought the economy to a standstill in 2022”, with GDP even contracting at the end of the year. A performance that weak is a “serious threat to an authoritarian state”. The Chinese premier’s harsher impulses may return when things recover. “Still, we should celebrate this new Xi, if he lasts – he’s a lot better for the world than the old one.”

🐺🇨🇳 Xi also seems to be tempering his aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, says Clara Ferreira Marques in Bloomberg. Beijing’s representatives used to be full of bluster – in 2019 its ambassador to Sweden said, “we treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns”. Earlier this month, however, its departing US ambassador said, “the world is wide enough” for both superpowers to “develop and prosper”. Zhao Lijian, the most famous of all China’s “ultra-patriotic hawks”, has been moved from a high-profile Foreign Ministry post to a more mundane role at the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs.