BEIJING—In the two years before Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012, U.S. officials tried to size him up through a series of face-to-face meetings.
During talks in China in 2011, Mr. Xi, then vice president, asked about civilian control of the U.S. military, shared his thoughts on uprisings in the Middle East and spoke, unprompted, about his father, a renowned revolutionary. When he visited the U.S. in 2012, he was relaxed and affable, chatting with students and posing for pictures with Magic Johnson at a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game.
The U.S. officials’ conclusion: Although Mr. Xi was far more confident and forthright than Hu Jintao, the stiff and scripted leader he would succeed, he likely shared his commitment to stable ties with Washington and closer integration with the U.S-led global order. Some even hoped Mr. Xi would kick-start stalled economic reforms.
It was one of the biggest strategic miscalculations of the post-Cold War era.
In the eight subsequent years, Mr. Xi has pursued an expansive, hypernationalistic vision of China’s future, displaying a desire for control and a talent for political maneuvering. Drawing comparisons to Mao Zedong, he has crushed critics and potential rivals, revitalized the Communist Party and even scrapped presidential term limits so he can, if he chooses, rule for life.
Promising a “China Dream” of national renewal, he has mobilized China’s military to enforce territorial claims, forced up to a million Chinese Muslims into internment camps and curbed political freedoms in Hong Kong.
Now, with Covid-19 under control in China but still widespread across the U.S., he is promoting his self-styled, tech-enhanced update of Marxism as a superior alternative to free-market democracy—a “China solution” to global problems.
“It was clear he was not going to be a second Hu Jintao,” said Danny Russel, who as a senior Obama administration official attended several meetings with Mr. Xi, including in 2011 and 2012. “What I underestimated about Xi Jinping was his tolerance for risk.”
Mr. Xi’s swift reversal of more than three decades of apparent movement toward collective leadership and a less intrusive party has surprised both U.S. officials and much of the Chinese elite. In hindsight, though, the roots of his approach are visible in key episodes of his life.
They include his father’s purge from the top party leadership, his teenage years in a Chinese village, his induction into the military and his exposure to nationalist and “new left” undercurrents in the party elite.
Mr. Xi’s autocratic turn also was catalyzed by a 2012 political scandal that upset the balance of power among the party elite and emboldened advocates of stronger, centralized leadership. It gave Mr. Xi the justification he needed to sideline rivals, rebuild the party and revamp its ideology.
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