Yet the more the Chinese economy slows down, the more Xi feels the need to project a strongman image both abroad and, especially, at home. As Wang Gungwu and Zheng Yongnian, two Chinese scholars, wrote in China and the New International Order, this dynamic has deep roots in Chinese history: “China’s internal order was so closely related to her international order that one could not long survive without the other; when the barbarians were not submissive abroad, rebels might more easily arise within. Most dynasties collapsed under the twin blows of inside disorder and outside calamity, nei luan wai huang, that is, domestic rebellion and foreign invasion.”

Xi is keenly aware that he is vulnerable to internal rebellion. He has purged more than 1.5 million government officials, military leaders, and party elites. His trade war with the U.S. is deeply unpopular inside China because it has caused economic pains such as rising unemployment, closing of factories, and the shifting of the global supply chain out of China. Xi knows very well that if he shows any signs of weakness, he may end up like his political rival, Bo Xilai — a princeling who is currently languishing in a notorious Chinese prison for high-level party officials…

But even the most powerful emperor can fly too close to the sun. The dissenting voices inside China are getting louder, while global backlash against China reached new heights in 2019. Then the 2020 coronavirus outbreak stripped the facade of Xi’s powerful image, revealed deep flaws within the CCP’s dictatorial political system, caused immense anger and frustration among Chinese people, brought serious detriments to China’s prestigious international image, and brought China’s seemingly unstoppable rise to a halt.