They are fighting desperately on separate fronts, Vladimir Putin on the smoking western front and Xi Jinping on the vast, unclear eastern front.
Both have seen their best days.
Putin has ruled Russia alternately as prime minister and president since 1999, the last ten years as president. Now he has turned 70. Xi Jinping has been the party leader since 2012 and president since 2013. He is one year younger than Putin and dreams of ruling China for as long as possible.
But how long is that? Is it ever going to stop?
Maybe the ongoing demographic shifts can sink both Putin and Xi’s boat in the political shore.
The Chinese Grumble
Dark clouds have gathered over the vast realm. The Chinese grumble and many hold Xi and the party responsible for the misfortune that has befallen them.
Covid-19. Closed towns and villages. Thousands of silent companies. Closed schools. Inner life and mental disorders. Climate crisis with prolonged drought and acute water shortages. Bankruptcies in the property sector, empty skyscrapers, and debt crises for millions of people. Rich people fleeing the country, and investors pulling out.
On 16 October, the curtain rises on the 20th Congress of the Communist Party. The setting is bleak, but the outcome is a given. When the last speech has been given and everyone has expressed their love for the party and the people, a narrower circle of party leaders will re-elect ” Xi Jinping” for another five years as general secretary.
This allows him to start his third five-year term as the party’s leading man. It bodes poorly for both China and the world – if he stays in office until the end of the term. But will he be?
Cai Xia: A Pessimistic Professor
“Seen from the outside, Xi still conveys self-confidence”, writes the Chinese researcher Cai Xia in the latest issue of the magazine Foreign Affairs. “In a speech in January 2021, she declared China ‘invincible.’ But behind the scenes, his rule is being questioned like never before.”
China is, to say the least, a little transparent country. Censorship is strict, and the maneuvers of the power elite take place in secret. Therefore, Cai Xia is a particularly interesting person. For many years she was a professor at the Central Party School, where she taught thousands of high-ranking party officials about communist ideology. She was an adviser in “party building” at the highest level, yes, even after she retired in 2012.
Over the years, she became dangerously free-thinking, and when she took to criticizing Xi, she was expelled from the party.
Today, Cai lives in the United States. The news flow from home and the messages from old acquaintances make her pessimistic. She believes that with a renewed mandate, Xi will tighten his grip even more. Internationally, he will become more dangerous and at worst attack Taiwan.
“As his rule becomes more extreme, the internal strife that he has fueled will grow stronger,” she writes. “The rivalry between the various factions in the party will become more intense, complicated, and brutal than ever.”
Rich Chinese Are Leaving the Country
The Chinese Communist Party has 97 million members. Although everyone officially swears by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Xi, the membership is highly heterogeneous. Especially after the party in the 1980s decided to let private traders into the fold. Even Jack Ma, the founder of the Ali Baba empire, was found worthy. It is better to have them inside than outside, thought the party leadership.
But now the alliance between Marx and Mammon is cracking.
According to a recent report by Henley and Partners, a company in Hong Kong, thousands of wealthy Chinese plan to leave the country this year. The company estimates that they take with them values worth almost 50 billion US dollars. Many lefts before the pandemic hit, and others will break up until next year. So, this is one of demographic shifts that may hit the countries economy very quickly.
The only thing that can stop them is a radical restructuring of the party’s policy, i.e. less dictation and more freedom. The “small capitalists” are also dissatisfied, but few of them have the resources to pack up and leave.
Xi’s answer to the challenges of the new era is an even stronger Communist Party, more state, and more ideology, and the ideology will be called “Xi Jinping’s thoughts”.
Chairman Mao came across as infallible, and Xi goes far in the same direction. The “works” he supposedly wrote are distributed in millions of copies and are studied with “great diligence”. That is why he is reluctant to admit mistakes and change course even if the facts should dictate it. The regime’s fixed covid-19 policy is a glaring example.
Putin is in the same situation on the battlefield in Ukraine. The brutal images of war suggest that he should withdraw his forces. Instead, he does the opposite and brings in even more soldiers. Putin reveals his inflated ego all time the Kremlin’s gilded doors open and he arrives in the stronghold’s most beautiful hall. The threshold for contradicting him is still high, but if things go really badly with the Russian winter warriors, it could become dangerously low.
Meanwhile, the women refuse to give birth. Not only the Russian ones but also the Chinese ones.
The Demographic Shifts
Demographic shifts are Russia and China’s worst enemy. War breeds pessimism and Russian women’s desire to give birth to more children is unlikely to be stimulated by Putin’s dangerous war campaign.
Russia’s population has been falling steadily for decades. According to the central statistical agency Rosstat, the country had 145.1 million inhabitants on 1 July this year, a reduction of 430,000 in just one year. The agency believes that the decline will continue and that Russia will have between 130 and 140 million inhabitants in 2050.
China’s situation is even worse.
The country has passed 1.4 billion inhabitants, but now it has come to an abrupt halt. The UN Population Fund operates with three different forecasts for future development, and the arrows point down to each of them.
At best, the country will have well over 1.1 billion inhabitants in 2100, and at worst fewer than 800 million. At the same time, the proportion of elderly people will increase dramatically. Today, 18 percent of the Chinese are aged 60 or over, in 2060 the proportion will be twice as high.
The demographic shifts will have serious consequences for China’s vitality and global competitiveness. Thus, rival India gets a golden chance to rise. This year, the emerging superpower expects economic growth of almost 6 percent.
However, China should not be underestimated.
Despite the demographic shifts, as a political power, the country is here to stay, write the authors Hal Brands and Michael Beckley in their recent book, “Danger Zone. The Coming Conflict with China“. The country will still be powerful enough to be able to intervene large and small all over the world, and if it feels threatened, it can become even more aggressive, primarily in its immediate surroundings. A weakened Russia will also be able to trigger unrest and war.
Putin and Xi, is their sun going down to the horizon soon?
Probably, but they can also be dangerous during that time! However, nothing comes close to the dangers the US may impose on the world