To eliminate potential confusions right from the beginning and gradually present arguments, the answer is simple: extremely powerful, possibly the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. It should therefore come as no surprise that for the year 2018, he was considered the most powerful leader in the world by Forbes, dethroning Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
It is noteworthy that after becoming China’s “paramount leader” following the death of Mao Zedong (leaving the brief term of Huo Guafeng aside), Deng Xiaoping was anything but eager to surround himself with many official titles and firmly hang on to power. Jiang Zemin, the leader who followed Deng Xiaoping, did indeed manifest tendencies in that respect and actually did hang on to his military power after letting Hu Jintao take over but still, he didn’t manage to actually remain the paramount leader indefinitely. Hu Jintao, on the contrary, facilitated a hassle-free transition to power for Xi Jinping.
However, things seem to be different when it comes to the current paramount leader. Perhaps the most revealing example to that effect is represented by the fact that as of March 2018, term limits for the president and vice president were removed. As such, Xi Jinping could technically go after three or more presidential mandates, something one can definitely consider relevant to this discussion.
We’ve already established that Xi Jinping can be considered a (very) strong leader, but what kind of a leader is he from an ideological perspective? As you know if you’ve read our previous articles on Chinese leaders, it is customary for them to want to leave an ideological legacy behind. To refer to the two prior paramount leaders, Jiang Zemin had his “Three Represents” and as for Hu Jintao, his “Scientific Outlook on Development” illustrated his ideological views. In contrast, Xi Jinping articulated his “Chinese Dream” back in November of 2012 and as of 2013, it represents the de facto ideological framework of his party.
While there have been publications that have been tempted to compare it to the “American Dream” due to name similarities, it is worth noting that while the American Dream is centered around the individual and his desire to succeed, the Chinese Dream revolves around the goals and aspirations of a nation, China. As of 2017, his philosophical/ideological contributions, commonly referred to as “Xi Jinping Thought” were added to the Party Constitution. For the most part, it can be considered a continuation of the “socialism with Chinese characteristics” framework.
As far as China’s foreign policy is concerned, let’s just say the nation is becoming more and more assertive. Whether we’re talking about China doing its best to continuously strengthen its domination in Africa or being vocal when it comes to the South China Sea tensions with Japan, it is obvious that Xi Jinping has a clear nationalist agenda on his mind. A nationalist agenda China is trying to work toward despite the trillions of dollars involved in projects such as the infrastructure spending-led Belt and Road Initiative, the environmental projects China is adhering to (especially relevant in light of the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement) and so on.
Economically speaking, Xi Jinping has the difficult challenge of managing China’s growth as the country’s economy is maturing. With the days of 10%+ YOY growth being over and China needing to nurture domestic consumption due to the lack of sustainability associated with overly export-driven growth, it’s ultimately all a matter of setting and working toward realistic expectations.
It’s easy to experience tremendous growth when you have a lot of catching up with the West to do and there’s no way to go but up, whereas managing a maturing economy is multiple orders of magnitude more difficult. Going from simply being a wage arbitrage destination to having domestic companies dominate cutting-edge fields such as solar/wind energy, artificial intelligence, robotics and the list could go on and on. Or from being a relatively poor nation that more developed countries are willing to tolerate or even help to being perceived as the #1 economic thread by many of those countries. Or, finally, from being a nation that can grow despite many inefficiencies taking place (from incompetence at various levels of the administration to downright corruption) to now having to tackle the inefficiencies in question, something your predecessors haven’t exactly been unbelievably successful at doing.
For now, this is the portrait of President Xi Jinping: arguably the strongest leader in the world, a person with nationalist views and little appetite for tolerating corruption. Someone put in charge of managing a maturing economy, with the many challenges this new status brings about. With goals more in line with the idea of becoming dominant (economically, geopolitically and so on) rather than catching up and other economic superpowers being less than thrilled with this new status quo, it will without a doubt be interesting to observe what the future has in store for China under Xi Jinping.