BEIJING – As he hosts President Barack Obama and other world leaders, China's President Xi Jinping appears firmly in charge of a vast but stable communist state boasting the world's second-largest economy. Look closer, though, and things aren't so tidy: Growth is slowing, ethnic and political unrest persist — including an unprecedented protest movement in Hong Kong. And relations with China's neighbors are dogged by conflicts over territory and history.
— HOW WELL HAS XI CONSOLIDATED HIS POWER?
Two years after taking charge of the ruling Communist Party, Xi is considered the most commanding Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping at the height of his powers in the 1980s.
Unlike his predecessor Hu Jintao, Xi has taken firm control of the military and has wielded his authority over the vast bureaucracy with an anti-corruption campaign that already has netted a retired top general and a former member of the party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Xi also has set up a commission to oversee the various state security bodies, with him at its head.
Political dissent has been muzzled and relatively robust job creation and low inflation are keeping discontent in check for now. That's allowed him to push his notion of a "Chinese Dream" that envisions development and prosperity without democracy or Western-style freedoms.
Showing his confidence, Xi's smiling face beams from the cover of a newly published book of his collected speeches, entitled "The Governance of China," copies of which were laid out on a table at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit's media center. It's unusual to see such a publication issued for a Chinese leader still in office.
— WHAT ARE THE ECONOMIC CHALLENGES?
Over the past three decades, the party has maintained its authority largely on the back of ensuring economic growth and a better quality of life for China's 1.3 billion people. That's now starting to become more difficult, with the economy set to grow by about 7.5 percent this year, the slowest level in five years and well below the double-digit peaks of the last decade. It's not clear what effect that will have on employment and social unrest, although many wealthy Chinese have already taken up residency abroad in search of stronger legal protections and a better future for their children.
China is also shifting from a labor-intensive model to one based on services, and the government needs to generate enough high-quality jobs or risk losing support from the burgeoning ranks of college graduates. Urbanization and industrialization have meanwhile produced massive environmental woes, including choking air pollution in Beijing and other cities. Fixing the problem will take decades.
— WHAT ABOUT THE PARTY'S POLITICAL OPPONENTS?
Xi has significantly tightened the screws on China's embattled dissident community and on people and groups operating outside the party's control. Many leading dissenters, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, are in prison and others face intense police monitoring, including forms of unofficial house arrest. Yet many Chinese continue to speak out over social and political concerns, requiring the government to maintain a vast internal security apparatus.
The government's heavy censorship of online content puts it at odds with the expectations of a younger generation exposed to Western models of free expression.
More worryingly, unrest continues among the Tibetan and Uighur minority populations in western China, breaking out into sporadic acts of violence. Six years after anti-government riots, much of Tibet remains closed to outsiders and a string of self-immolations underscores the level of discontent. Despite a smothering security presence in the Uighur homeland of Xinjiang, scores have been killed in attacks by radicals inspired by global jihadi movements.
— HOW HAS XI REACTED TO HONG KONG'S PROTESTS?
The central government has repeatedly denounced the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong started by students in September following Beijing's refusal to allow open nominations for the territory's chief executive in 2017 elections. While Xi has been mostly silent about them, he told Hong Kong's leader that he expects the territory's government to maintain law and order.
The demonstrations have upended perceptions of the special administrative region's population as apolitical, and dented its image as a cozy place for doing business. So far, authorities are holding off on attempts to break up the protests, although that may change once APEC is over.
Xi's attitude toward Hong Kong is having knock-on effects in Taiwan, the self-governing island that China also claims as its territory. Xi appeared tone deaf when he met with pro-unification activists in Beijing at the height of the Hong Kong crisis, telling them the "One-China, Two-Systems" formula being applied to Hong Kong was also the best way to bring Taiwan into the fold.
— WHAT ARE THE FOREIGN POLICY CHALLENGES?
Xi inherited a China that is rapidly expanding its diplomatic and military reach abroad and is determined to play a bigger role in regional and global affairs commensurate with its economic clout.
Yet, his pledge never to back down over China's core interests has exacerbated long-standing tensions over claims to waters and island groups. China is locked in a dangerous standoff with Japan over a cluster of uninhabited East China Sea islands and relations with Vietnam nosedived this summer after a Chinese state oil company moved a giant drilling platform into waters claimed by both sides. Anti-Chinese riots broke out and tensions continued until China removed the rig.
Beijing's assertive behavior is also driving the redeployment of U.S. Navy vessels to the region, along with strengthened American military ties with the Philippines, Australia and even former foe Vietnam.
— HOW WELL IS XI COPING?
Xi gravitates toward hard-line positions and his attempted fixes have produced mixed results.
While corruption is a major source of public anger and cynicism, the secretive nature of Xi's campaign is fueling impressions that the targets are being chosen for political reasons. Meanwhile, the structural reforms needed to curb graft, such as requiring officials to publicly declare their assets public or appointing independent investigators outside party control, have been left undone or discouraged.
However, Xi has tried to dial down some of China's tensions with its neighbors, particularly Vietnam. He's expected to use the APEC summit on Monday and Tuesday to further soothe some of those hard feelings. He met Monday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is despised in China for his right-wing views, after more than two years of tension over the disputed East China Sea islands called Daiyou in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese.