Ian Johnson

One of the key reasons China could reach its current status, was because it has been reinventing itself continuously, says political analyst Ian Johnson to Aljazeera. But Johnson is not sure the country can do the same under Xi Jinping’s rule, he adds.


Ian Johnson, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), … noted the economic and foreign policy challenges ahead for Xi, who during his tenure had nurtured the rise of a “wolf warrior” diplomacy that did not shy away from stating China’s explicit competition with the West.

Describing such policies as “clumsy”, Johnson said that China’s aggressive approach in the South China Sea had alienated its nearest neighbours while its “wolf warrior” diplomats had nudged countries that once saw China’s rise as benign and welcome to recalibrate their perceptions of Beijing…

One of the reasons the party has been able to remain in power for so long is its ability to change course radically, said Johnson, offering Deng introducing market liberalisation and foreign trade after the chaos of the Mao years as an example.

But Johnson does not see that flexibility in the party under Xi.

China’s inability to progress from its initially highly-successful zero-Covid strategy is a case in point. The party, he said, appears content to lock down cities despite the huge disruptions to people’s lives and the economy, and regardless of what the best science says about dealing with the pandemic.

“Ploughing on” with zero-Covid could indicate an “information deficit“, Johnson said. “Where nobody really dares to tell Xi Jinping things because he’s so powerful.”

Researching the CCP’s use of history to legitimise its rule, Johnson told how Xi has sought to link the Mao era with his own period of leadership.

“So basically there are two giants in the history of the People’s Republic of China. There is Mao and there is Xi. This is the way Xi is presenting it now,” Johnson said.

The danger with any project of self-constructed greatness is that there is little place for critical reflection. Johnson describes a potential to “lose touch with reality”.

More in Aljazeera.

Ian Johnson is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your (online) meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

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