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Xi Jinping’s Rise Is No Historical Accident
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Xi Jinping’s Rise Is No Historical Accident

How 'The Longer Telegram' misunderstands the Chinese Communist Party's quest for power.

On January 28, the Atlantic Council published a lengthy paper titled “The Longer Telegram: Toward a new American China strategy.” The analysis is loosely modeled after the “Long Telegram” authored by George Kennan, a veteran American diplomat. Writing as “Mr. X” at the outset of the Cold War, Kennan offered his analysis of the ways in which America should seek to contain the Soviet Union. “The Longer Telegram,” written by an “anonymous former senior government official,” is intended to serve a similar purpose, albeit with some noteworthy differences.  

The author warns at the outset that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is “much more dexterous in survival than its Soviet counterpart.” Kennan’s analysis hinged on the “inherent structural weaknesses within the Soviet model itself,” which led him to conclude that the USSR “would ultimately collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.” 

The author of “The Longer Telegram” warns American strategists not to follow a similar line of thinking with respect to China, as the circumstances are drastically different. The CCP has also studied the Soviet Union’s collapse and taken steps to avoid a similar fate. Fair enough. But the author’s counterproposal is based on some large, unsupported assumptions. A careful reading reveals significant problems. The author’s central thesis is that Xi Jinping, the CCP’s current leader, is basically a historical anomaly. Yet, there are many reasons to think this isn’t true.   

Let us explore some of these problems.

“Full-blown regime change” isn’t on the table.

The author doesn’t define what “regime change” means in the Chinese context, but he asserts that it is one of the “articulated objectives” in American policy discourse. He doesn’t provide any specific citations to buttress this claim. No American officials or politicians are cited, and I’m not aware of anyone who has seriously advocated for an intervention, led by the U.S. military or otherwise, to topple the CCP. Of course, in the post-9/11 world, “regime change” has become associated with the unpopular decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and American military intervention in other countries. No one is proposing anything similar with respect to China.  

Consider a speech delivered in July 2020 by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. This was the most assertive address delivered by an American official on the China challenge to date. However, as the Wall Street Journalreported, Pompeo “stopped shy of explicitly calling for regime change, urging allied countries and the people of China to work with the U.S. to change the Communist Party’s behavior.” 

Perhaps other American officials and politicians have been more supportive, rhetorically speaking, of regime change. But such rhetoric is marginal and none of those comments add up to a serious policy position for addressing the CCP. Indeed, the Trump administration produced several written documents outlining America’s responses to China, including the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. Regime change isn’t mentioned as a possibility in any of them.

The Longer Telegram’s author warns that it would be “extremely hazardous for US strategists to accept that an effective future US China strategy should rest on an assumption that the Chinese system is destined to inevitably collapse from within—much less to make the ‘overthrow of the Communist Party’ the nation’s declared objective.” The Trump administration certainly didn’t make that its “declared objective,” and it is a safe bet the Biden team won’t either. 

It is curious, however, that the author himself entertains the possibility of long-term regime change in China. He or she points to a number of internal fissures and problematic trends within the country—from growing dissatisfaction among the youth, who yearn for political freedom, to the oppression of ethnic minorities, to purported tensions within the CCP caused by Xi’s power grab—and sees these as areas for policymakers to skillfully exploit. The author sensibly warns that it would be “foolhardy for US strategists to bet the bank on” an end to the CCP’s regime. It is “far better to analyze carefully those Chinese policy behaviors that the United States wants to see change and to apply whatever policy levers are available to help bring about those changes.” But the author then adds this: “Such leverage, intelligently applied, may also contribute to leadership change in China in a more pro-market, less authoritarian, and less nationalist direction. Over time it may also result in long-term regime change.”

This muddies the waters. In the near-term, the author wants America “to bring about measurable policy changes in Beijing that force the regime to conform to the principles of the current liberal international order.” But some of the pressure points he wants policymakers to press could also contribute to the CCP’s “collapse.”  

The CCP’s moderates vs. Xi Jinping?

If “regime change” shouldn’t be America’s goal (and again, it isn’t), then how should the U.S. and its allies counter the Chinese regime? For the author, Xi Jinping is the key. The U.S. “must remain laser focused on Xi, his inner circle, and the Chinese political context in which they rule.”

The anonymous former official accuses unnamed others of pursuing an “unsophisticated strategy” that treats “the entire Communist Party as a single target when such internal fault lines should be clear to the analyst’s eye—and in the intelligent policy maker’s penning.” Those “fault lines” supposedly emanate from Xi himself, as he amassed power and a personal fortune that have caused the CCP to become “significantly divided.” “Senior party members have been greatly troubled by Xi’s policy direction and angered by his endless demands for absolute loyalty,” the author asserts. 

This may be true. But as is often the case in “The Longer Telegram,” these claims are not buttressed by evidence. A standard motif in American foreign policy wonkery is to pretend that there is some easily discernible dividing line between the “hardliners” and the “moderates” within authoritarian regimes. If only America could empower the latter, this type of thinking goes, then the former will lose their capacity to do harm. U.S. policymakers rarely have the type of intelligence on closed political systems that would allow them to make such judgments. Nevertheless, this line of analysis—really, wishful thinking—has guided the discourse on occasion. For instance, it has been used to assess (inaccurately) the clerical regime in Iran. A similar framework has been applied to the Taliban, with American policymakers pretending that diplomacy can undermine the real extremists. There is no good reason to believe this is true—not with respect to Iran, nor the Taliban, nor the CCP.     

Nevertheless, the central working assumption in “The Longer Telegram” is that if only Xi can be marginalized, then the CCP could be a neutral actor on the world stage once again. Put another way, the author does envision a regime change of sorts, only within the CCP. The author imagines that the U.S. can help steer the CCP back to its “pre-2013 path”—that is, to a time before Xi’s rise—when China’s rulers were “able to work with the United States.” 

In my view, “The Longer Telegram” is especially weak on this very point—the main thesis of the 85-page work. For instance, the author does not offer a balance of power assessment for the CCP. He does not demonstrate that Xi’s internal critics (and Xi undoubtedly has some) can topple him, let alone that they would reform the CCP’s direction. The author concedes, in fact, that he does not know “what exactly would follow the replacement of Xi: a return to a more moderate Dengist past, or a plunge into an even more stridently nationalist future.” He asserts that the CCP’s leadership is “more likely to move in the direction of a more moderate collective leadership.” But this is an assumption—and a massive one at that. It is also based on a sanitized vision of China’s pre-Xi past. 

The not-so-moderate CCP 

The supposedly “moderate Dengist past” is a reference to the tenure of Deng Xiaoping, who ruled China for more than a decade beginning in the late 1970s. It was under Deng’s authority that Chinese forces carried out the infamous Tiananmen massacre in June 1989. As all China watchers know, Deng determined that China’s central guiding strategy should be to “hide its strength and bide its time.” That is, Deng wanted China to become more powerful in economic and military terms before challenging America, or any other nation, for global supremacy. 

Deng did not want the U.S. to think of China as a potential challenger, especially before Beijing grew strong enough to really assert itself. It is true that Deng oversaw economic reforms and that his China was basically a “status quo power,” but this doesn’t mean that he—or any other senior CCP leader—wanted the world order to stay that way. A rising nation bides its time in anticipation of one day being able to exercise its newfound power—not to maintain the “status quo.” 

Xi’s China has evolved from Deng’s days. Xi has consolidated power in his own hands, promoting a personality cult that is intended to elevate him even further. And Xi has been more aggressive on the world stage than his predecessors. But is this a great leap, as the author of “The Longer Telegram” argues? Or did Xi simply extend China’s power by building on the work of his predecessors, at least some of whom pined for a day when Beijing would no longer have to “hide” its strength?

For answers, let us turn to some passages within “The Longer Telegram.” 

In one section, the author presents “Xi’s top ten priorities in ascending order of importance,” but notes that “each of these ten, in various forms, predate Xi’s appointment to the leadership in 2012.” In other words, these were already the CCP’s priorities prior to Xi’s rise, even if Xi has given them “new urgency.” The very first priority on the list is keeping the CCP “in power, including by drawing on all the nationalist, economic, and ideological tools available to the leadership to build political legitimacy over time, together with the full coercive powers of the party, state, military, and intelligence and security apparatus to sustain the CCP’s position as China’s ruling party in perpetuity.” Of course, this cuts against the author’s argument that Xi’s leadership has been markedly different from his predecessors’—they all wanted to keep the party in power and were willing to use authoritarian tools to do so. 

In another passage we read that around the year 2000—a dozen years prior to Xi’s ascent—the CCP began “calculating” a measure of China’s “comprehensive national power,” as compared to other nations. Beijing used this measure to gauge its relative strengths and weaknesses, especially with respect to the U.S. 

“The fundamental determinant of Chinese strategy toward the United States has long been Beijing’s rolling calculation of the relative bilateral balance of military, economic, and technological power,” the author writes. “The foundation of Deng’s revolution was that until it modernized its economy, China could never compete with the United States in any domain—hence the subordination of all other Chinese policy objectives to this one overriding national purpose over the three decades before Xi took control.” 

About a “decade ago,” however, the CCP stopped circulating its calculations of “comprehensive national power” because it didn’t want to “alarm” other nations, or cause them to question China’s “peaceful rise.” Once the “balance of power” shifted, with Beijing and Washington brought into competitive parity, China “felt greater latitude in exercising more assertive and even aggressive leverage across all of its international relations.” 

Simply put, Xi’s more aggressive behavior wouldn’t have been possible if China hadn’t caught up to America. That was the explicit goal of Xi’s predecessors and the reason Deng concluded China needed to “bide” its time. 

In fact, according to the author, the CCP’s leadership concluded “around 2002”—again, a decade prior to Xi’s rise—that China was entering “an unprecedented twenty-year ‘period of strategic opportunity.’” China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), followed by the devastation wrought by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the costly conflicts that followed, presented an opportunity for Beijing to hasten the pace of its gains. The 2008 financial crisis only added to Beijing’s sense that America was in relative decline. 

All of this, and more, undermines the author’s thesis that Xi Jinping has been acting in a way that is inconsistent with the CCP’s long-term aims. He may very well be worse than his immediate predecessors, but he would not be able to wield the power he has accumulated if it weren’t for them. Indeed, the author writes that China has a “bad emperor” problem, as essentially the CCP’s political system is good at generating tyrants. This may be a liability, but it also means, in the author’s words, that a “political and bureaucratic culture of frightened sycophants” surrounds Xi. If that’s true, then what hope is there for a truly moderate Chinese ruler to rise in Xi’s place—as opposed to just another tyrant?

In sum, the author of “The Longer Telegram” chastises American officials for failing to see Xi Jinping as a unique evil within the CCP. But a careful reading of his own document reveals something else—that Xi’s rise and tyrannical goals are not surprising. 

Appease Putin?

There are other aspects of “The Longer Telegram” that deserve closer scrutiny. The author asserts that the “United States must rebalance its relationship with Russia whether it likes it or not.” He sees Russia’s embrace of China (and vice versa) as a result of American mistakes, calling it the “single greatest geostrategic error of successive US administrations.” His reasoning is unconvincing. Vladimir Putin’s Russia may not be a “strategic” adversary the way Xi’s China is, but it is a problematic, revanchist actor in its own right. 

The idea that all Washington needs to do is placate Putin, such that he refrains from being Xi’s close ally, is a monumental assumption. It is one in a series of assumptions that the author of “The Longer Telegram” passes off as strategic wisdom.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.