What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

What Xi Jinping’s power play means for U.S.-China relations

The Communist Party congress ended with the anticipated reveal of China's new leadership, but no clear successor to President Xi Jinping was named. With his ideology now enshrined in the party's constitution, Xi is solidifying his grip on power. John Yang speaks with Christopher Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies about what this means for China.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Over the past week, China's Communist Party has gathered for its once-every-five-year Congress in Beijing, usually focused on policy. It also chooses both the country's leader and his successor.

    But, this year, there was a twist.

    John Yang has the story.

  • John Yang:

    Thanks, Judy.

    Chinese President Xi Jinping is solidifying his grip on power. Today, when he introduced new members of the so-called Standing Committee, the most powerful group in the country, there was no successor to Xi identified.

    Yesterday, Xi's doctrine was enshrined in the constitution. That elevates him to the same status as modern China's founding communist leader, Mao Zedong.

    For a look at what this means for China, the United States, and beyond, we're joined by Christopher Johnson, who served for almost two decades as a China analyst at the CIA. He's now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

    Mr. Johnson, welcome.

  • Christopher Johnson:

    Thank you.

  • John Yang:

    This all happens, of course, just two weeks before President Trump will be in China to meet with President Xi.

    What are the implications for U.S.-China relations in all of this?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    I think the most important development is now Xi Jinping has demonstrated that he is the unquestioned ruler in China.

    And what has been striking about the bilateral relationship really since President Trump came into power is the two men have been actually running the relationship. The U.S. government is not fully staffed yet, as we have seen, and the president has occasionally undermined his own secretary of state and other officials through tweeting and so on.

    And so we see the two presidents, largely running the relationship. Xi is now ready to welcome President Trump all the more powerful.

  • John Yang:

    And in his 3.5-hour speech to the Party Congress last week, President Xi talked about the great rejuvenation. He wants to make China a global power…

  • Christopher Johnson:


  • John Yang:

    … at a time when President Trump is pulling away the U.S. influence on the global stage. How is that going to play?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    Well, it will be interesting to watch.

    There's no doubt that President Xi sees opportunity in President Trump's isolationism, as some would put it. Right from the beginning, when the president was elected, there's a reason why Xi Jinping went to the Davos summit and talked about China's role increasingly as a defender of global rules and norms and multinationalism and climate change and global agenda.

    This doesn't ring true when you look at it on the surface, but if the U.S. is pulling back, and China sees an opportunity, they are stepping into that vacuum. And Xi Jinping is telling us, China not only expects to be a global power. They are already one and will start acting like one.

  • John Yang:

    Is there anything that happened in the Party Congress that concerns you about U.S.-China relations?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    You know, one of the things I think is potentially important is, Xi Jinping made a point of talking about this island building that they have doing in the South China Sea.

    Now, this is typically something where China has conducted this activity, but not wanted to draw attention to it. Xi Jinping talked proudly about it in his speech. This can be a dog whistle, if you will, for conservative elements here in the United States who believe that China is eagerly trying to push the United States out of the region.

  • John Yang:

    And you mentioned that the — that President Xi talks about multinational trading systems. And he also talks about climate change, both areas where President Trump is pulling away.

    Are there areas of possible cooperation between the United States and China?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    I think the main area to look at is the economic relationship. President Trump is sure to tell President Xi, I need more help on the trade balance issue, and if you don't help me, I'm going to come after you through trade penalties and remedies.

    Xi Jinping has an opportunity. He's signaling a desire to slow down China's economy. This will be good for the United States and the globe, in that concerns about a Chinese financial crisis that could cause us all a lot of trouble could be modified.

  • John Yang:

    Will this have any impact on Mr. Trump's desire to get China to help him with North Korea?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    I think he will seek to indicate to Xi Jinping, OK, you have all the power now. Why don't you help me more on this issue?

    There's been a sort of narrative in the past that Xi Jinping or any other Chinese leader on North Korea has been constrained by hard-line influences in the military who remember fondly China's support for North Korea and in the Korean war.

    If Xi Jinping is really as powerful as he says, there should be nothing standing in his way of being more supportive on the North Korea issue. So, the real question is, does Xi Jinping himself want to help the United States on the issue?

  • John Yang:

    Briefly, as Xi consolidates his power, as he did at the Party Congress, are we moving toward sort of a cult of personality like Mao?

  • Christopher Johnson:

    I don't think so.

    There's been a lot of debate about this, whether Xi Jinping is a power-mad megalomaniac like Mao Zedong. I think he's a pragmatist, and he has demonstrated that several times. He doesn't look like someone who wants to cling on to power forever, and he's not been someone who has acted in a whimsical way, like Mao.

    Xi Jinping has a plan, and we have been watching him steadily execute it over the last five years, and he will continue to do so going forward.

  • John Yang:

    Christopher Johnson, thanks for joining us to help us understand all of this.

  • Christopher Johnson:

    My pleasure.

Listen to this Segment