At the Brics summit in South Africa in August, Xi Jinping made headlines when he failed to appear at a leaders’ meeting to deliver a scheduled speech.
Another scene also did the rounds: a Chinese aide hurrying to catch up with Xi, only to be body slammed by security guards and held back, flailing, as the president cruised on through the closing doors, not bothered by the chaos behind him.
The first incident prompted rampant speculation about Xi’s health, a political crisis or conspiracy. The second, mostly memes. But it perhaps served as a metaphor.
Xi has had a rough few months, with natural disasters, economic headwinds, disappearing ministers, community dissent and international spats. But he sails on regardless, even as experts say it’s likely to get worse.
“It’s obvious he’s had a bad summer,” says New York University professor Jerome Cohen, a leading expert on Chinese law and human rights. From the international community to academia, Chinese people and the political elite, Cohen says “there’s a lot of signs of dissatisfaction”.
Xi has had “bad summers” before – 2018 was noted for its economic troubles, a trade war with the US and a vaccine corruption scandal, while 2022 saw the disastrous zero-Covid exit and “white paper” protests. But experts say the issues that have plagued him this year are at least partly because he has centralised so much power around himself.
“The major challenges Xi is facing seem to be the ones created by his iron grip on power,” says Rorry Daniels, managing director of the Asia Society Policy Institute. “When you make your circle of trusted advisers smaller and smaller, it’s hard to get good [intel].”
Domestically, the economy continues to falter, the housing market crisis has extended with another major development company, Country Garden Holdings, threatening to collapse. There have been factory protests over wages and conditions, and young people are probably still suffering record high unemployment rates – although it’s hard to know for sure because the government stopped publishing the negative data in August.
Xi’s plan for young graduates – facing fewer and fewer opportunities – to “eat bitterness” for the country and toil in the countryside was unpopular. “Some hardships have meaning … while others lead to nothing but despair,” said one young person.
Record-breaking rains brought flooding to regions across China twice in July and again last month, killing dozens and sparking the evacuation of about a million people.
Residents in Hebei province protested after authorities appeared to sacrifice rural areas to save Beijing in the August floods, with one local official promising to be the “moat for the capital”.
“My home, it’s in a pitiful state,” wrote one resident of Zhouzhou in the aftermath. “The roads are covered in mud and garbage, and the air is filled with a putrid stench.”
The zero-Covid policy showed that local officials will do almost anything to follow Xi’s orders without question, and to avoid being punished for their failures.
“Was there a policy in place to sacrifice these places? That seems ludicrous, but it’s significant the officials thought they should say it,” Daniels says. “It’s getting harder to parse what’s a good idea and what’s driven by political patronage and fear of being purged.”
After Xi emerged from the annual Beihdaie leader’s retreat he chose to visit flood-affected areas far away in north-east Heilongjiang.
“He’s facing distrust among the public in China’s ultimate direction, or at least China’s ability to surmount some of its mounting problems and challenges,” says Daniels.
There were other signs of turmoil. Nikkei Asia reported Xi faced criticism from party elders at Beidaihe. Citizens and legal academics openly accused the party of overreach with its draft law proposing to detain people without trial for clothing, symbols or comments that “harm the feelings” of China.
In July, the foreign minister, Qin Gang, was removed from his role after not being seen for weeks. On Friday, the defence minister, Li Shangfu, was reported to be under investigation after also vanishing. Li’s apparent removal followed the shock reshuffle of senior leaders in the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force. The disappearance of Qin and Li, two “gateway” officials for the world, is a sign of Xi turning China inwards, says Drew Thompson, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Under Xi, China has grown increasingly isolated from global interactions with the US and other liberal democracies. Ties with the US improved after February’s balloongate saga, but then in June the US president, Joe Biden, called Xi a dictator, and in August he signed a historic security agreement with South Korea and Japan in direct response to “dangerous and aggressive behaviour” by China, infuriating Beijing.
In August Xi snubbed the G20, a decision that observers worried would limit what the bloc could achieve, given his subordinates have so little decision-making power left.
The G20 would have also put Xi in a room with world leaders very unhappy about recent Chinese acts, including an updated national map that unilaterally claimed several disputed areas, aggressive manoeuvres in the South China Sea, ongoing military intimidation of Taiwan, and China’s continued support of Russia. But China’s shifting international ties are also by design, as Xi seeks to shift power away from western-dominated blocs like the G20.
Aside from missing his speech, Brics was largely a success for Xi as it expanded its membership. And the inaugural China-Central Asia summit in May produced several trade agreements and stronger support for domestic policies like the Xinjiang crackdown on Uyghurs, says Niva Yau, non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s global China hub.
“China rewards countries willing to be on Beijing’s side,” says Yau. But she says people in China are noticing the big financial outlays when they’re suffering economic troubles back home.
Whether Xi heeds the lessons of the summer and hears the grumblings of his people is the key question, says Cohen. “He is capable of changing his course. The instinctive initial reaction seems to be to crack down harder. But he may be reaching the limit.
“You can’t put everybody in prison. I think there is going to be a reversal of policy eventually, even if Xi is still in office, this too shall pass. I don’t think this can go on indefinitely but we haven’t seen the worst yet.”
Additional research by Tzu-wei Liu and Tau Yang