Reform Cold, Politics Hot: President Xi Jinping at Mid-Term

Around the turn of this century, analysts of Sino-Japanese relations began characterizing the relationship between east Asia’s two biggest powers with the simple shorthand “politics cold, economics hot” to explain the awkward circumstances in which issues related to Japan’s wartime history strained the two countries’ political ties while substantial Japanese investment in China’s booming economy kept bilateral trade humming along. Although the description did not fully capture the complexities of the China-Japan relationship, it provided a framework for explaining the seemingly contradictory impulses underpinning the interactions between Tokyo and Beijing during that period. As President and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping passes the effective midpoint in his first five-year term in office, a similar juxtaposition may offer some explanatory power in thinking about the equally incongruous relationship between the ostensible slowdown in momentum behind Xi’s bold reform vision unveiled at the watershed Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee in November 2013, and what appears to be his political resilience in the face of passive resistance to his agenda from CCP elites, economic volatility at home, and an increasingly complex geopolitical landscape abroad. In a phrase, then, China’s current domestic political dynamic can perhaps best be described as “Reform Cold, Politics Hot.”