Xi's No Good, Very Bad Summer

Xi's No Good, Very Bad Summer

Back in March, Xi Jinping was riding high. Wielding more power than any Chinese leader since Mao, he was feeling good about China’s handle on North Korea and ready to stand toe to toe with Donald Trump on trade. One long, hot summer later, and Xi faces a reality check, with growing pressures on three fronts:


First, there’s the US-China trade fight. On Thursday, the Trump administration plans to slap tariffs on $16 billion worth of Chinese goods, the latest twist in the trade spat between the world’s two biggest economies. Beijing has promised to respond in kind, but the weakness of its tit-for-tat approach is starting to show. China only imported about $130 billion worth of goods from the US last year, so it will struggle to match the US dollar for dollar if Trump follows through on a threat to impose tariffs on an additional $200 billion of its goods. A mid-level Chinese trade delegation due in Washington this week is unlikely to come away with a deal – Trump believes his confrontational strategy is working and is unlikely to back down. It’s clear that this conflict isn’t playing out as Xi had hoped.

The second problem is Xi’s emboldened domestic critics. This summer the Chinese leader faced unusually public grumbling about his leadership style, including concerns about the return of a Mao-like personality cult. Some critics also fear that Xi misstepped by openly stating the country’s ambitions for global leadership, inviting a backlash that could ultimately hurt China.

Finally, there’s growing pushback against China’s aggressive plans for overseas investment, including Xi’s signature Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. During a state visit to Beijing this week, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed said he would cancel over $20 billion of Chinese infrastructure deals struck by his predecessor amid fears they would saddle his country with too much debt. Belt and Road projects may also face fresh scrutiny in Pakistan, where borrowing to fund a massive Chinese road and rail buildout has contributed to the substantial economic woes facing newly installed Prime Minister Imran Khan.

None of this will threaten Xi’s grip on power, but his no good, very bad summer has exposed a gap between the Chinese leader’s seemingly all-powerful public persona and the messy reality of managing a would-be superpower. In a top-down system like China’s, a leader’s perceived weakness can make it easier for rivals to obstruct his plans or ignore orders that threaten their interests. Heading into the autumn, Xi needs some wins to shore up and justify all the power he’s taken so much time and trouble to amass.

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They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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