Xi Jinping, One Year Later: Will He Be the 'Chinese Gorbachev'?

New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos suggests the concept of the "Chinese Dream" could backfire against President Xi Jinping, while former U.S. Ambassador to China J. Stapleton Roy explains why Xi doesn't want to become a "Chinese Gorbachev." (3 min.)

On Wednesday, November 13, at 10 a.m., join Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, for the inaugural AsiaConnect Briefing teleconference from the Asia Society Policy Institute. Schell will discuss the outcomes of the Chinese Communist Party's Third Plenum. For details on how to join the call, click here.

NEW YORK — After one year in power, Chinese president Xi Jinping has largely consolidated his power, but he still faces "perilous" challenges, according to a panel Thursday night at Asia Society in New York.

New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, UC San Diego professor Susan Shirk, former U.S. Ambassador to China J. Stapleton Roy, and Asia Society's Orville Schell agreed Xi must deal with difficult and contradictory demands as he attempts to guide China through what Shirk called a "third wave" of economic reform while maintaining firm one-party rule.

"What he's concerned about is becoming a Chinese Gorbachev," Roy said. "Namely, pushing ahead reforms in a way that loses control of the process. When you try to retain party control over a system that has generated hundreds of millions of middle class people with middle class mentalities ... it is not easy."

Osnos said Chinese people "now have a thicker conception of the good life," and are demanding much more from leaders like Xi.

"He recognizes that his single biggest threat is not from overseas ... His biggest threat is at home," he said. "He has to build the legitimacy of the Communist Party in an age when communism doesn't exist, and the party has been dishonored by its own actions. That's a heavy lift, and he has to figure out how to do it.

"Prosperity, which was the way his predecessors did it for 30 years, is not as available for him. It's not as easy for him to guarantee that everybody's lives will be better than five years before."

Shirk said that environmental problems threaten China's stability. Citing people's fears of deadly air pollution, tainted baby formula, and hazardous wall paint, Shirk said quality of life concerns have created a "corrosive" lack of trust among ordinary Chinese people.

"I don't know how you restore confidence in your own system, and I don't see Xi Jinping, anything he's doing today, addressing those sorts of concerns," she said.

According to Shirk, problems such as these could dramatically destabilize China's leadership.

"When there is a lot of unrest, maybe an environmental disaster or something, then a leader could basically step out, post a manifesto on the internet and see what happens," she said. "If we were discussing the Soviet Union back in the 1980s, we would not be able to imagine that the whole country would disintegrate. Things can happen."

But Roy expressed confidence in Xi's administration to steer the country through its upcoming hurdles.

"China runs itself like a large corporation," he said. "It pays careful attention to succession issues, it's highly competitive to move into the top levels of government, and everyone in China literally has decades of experience dealing with the problem of running China."

Running with the metaphor, he added, "I think that if you invested in China 30 years ago, you would be wealthy." 

About the Author

Profile picture for user Wilfred Chan
Wilfred Chan is a contributor to Asia Blog. He is a senior majoring in international relations at Columbia University.