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Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping
Photographer: Seong Joon Cho/Bloomberg
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There are many faces to Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades. There’s tough-guy Xi, cracking down on corruption and overhauling the world’s biggest military. There’s statesman Xi, speaking out for free trade and measures to fight climate change following Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president. There’s nationalist Xi, brushing aside international condemnation of China’s territorial claims and there’s ruthless Xi, coming down hard on dissent. There’s also Communist Xi, expanding the party’s reach over work and society. And there’s reformist Xi, advocating a decisive role for free markets in the world’s No. 2 economy. Now, the question is which of the faces will dominate — and whether Xi will succeed in making China a genuine rival to the U.S. as the world’s No. 1 power.

China’s Communist Party repealed the constitutional limit of two terms per president in March, a move that will allow Xi to rule indefinitely beyond 2023. It's the starkest illustration of the extent of his grip on power heading into the start of his second five-year term. Xi had his name enshrined in the party's charter in October, a rare honor that eluded his two predecessors, and has been steadily building his influence since coming to power in 2012. Challenging years of collective leadership in top Chinese politics, he has taken charge of numerous policy committees, some beyond a president’s usual remit. Internationally, his pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative, envisions a web of trade and infrastructure links along and beyond the ancient Silk Road routes, with China at its center. As commander-in-chief, Xi has demanded a force that’s “ready to win wars.” He has toughened China’s stance on Hong Kong, an autonomous territory, and Taiwan, over which it claims sovereignty. He has also expanded the country’s presence — and assertiveness — in Asia’s disputed waters. At home, Xi is pushing to transform a slowing, debt-ridden economy through pledges to tackle bloated state-owned enterprises and financial risk and a slew of other reforms. His anti-corruption drive has snared more than 1 million officials (including a star party leader who had been seen as a possible future chief). Trump has criticized Xi for being soft on North Korea and unfair on trade while also describing him as “a very good man.”