In the poker match between President Donald Trump and China’s new all-but-emperor, Xi Jinping, it’s widely assumed that Xi holds the best hand. Yet President Xi’s hand may not be as awesome as it appears, while the United States, even under this very flawed president, may hold some fine cards.
Of course, Xi wields power in a way that Trump could only dream about. He has close to total control over the media, academia and the business community. In a way not seen in my over three decades of travel to China, Xi has fostered a cult of personality that looms over that vast country, and even has developed a strong cheering section among western business and intellectual leaders.
Yet Xi’s position is not as strong as it seems. His country, which has enjoyed one of the greatest booms in human history, is clearly losing its economic momentum. Its once all-powerful industrial sector has begun to wobble and now Trump’s tariffs, coupled with competition from other countries, threatens the principal driver of China’s economic ascendency.
This decline could exacerbate what is a growing class chasm in the country. A large portion of China’s population remains very poor, and the prospects for moving up even for the educated middle class have diminished. China now suffers a surplus of college-educated people for whom the economy has little place, a potential threat to the Mandarin elite that runs the country.
More serious still is unrest among China’s lower classes, particularly the over 200 million migrant laborers who drove much of the country’s remarkable growth. There have been mounting protests from this constituency, some supported by new Marxist clubs on university campuses. Detestation for the crony regime — 90 percent of China’s millionaires, notes Australian political scientist David Goodman, are the offspring of high-ranking officials — is already widespread .This is forcing Xi to focus more on economic inequality when he might rather be conquering the planet.
Dissatisfaction with corrupt, nest-feathering elites seems to be a global phenomenon.