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Eurasia Group releases its forecast of the top political risks for 2023

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The year begins with even less doubt who's in charge in China. Xi Jinping installed himself for a third term as leader, dismissing a system of slowly rotating presidents. But analyst Ian Bremmer argues this seeming stability makes China more hazardous. His Eurasia Group put China's leader on their list of global risks in the new year.

IAN BREMMER: China is not only the most powerful it has been in modern history, but it is also now run in an incredibly consolidated way by one man. So it's as consolidated a dictatorship as we've seen since the days of Mao. But back in the Mao days, horrible things that happened in China or deeply suddenly surprising things didn't have much of an impact on the global economy, on global health, on global security. That's not true anymore. So you put those two things together - maximum Xi together with maximum China - and China is suddenly at the top of the list.

INSKEEP: Let's talk through why consolidated leadership would go wrong, because in theory, that sounds stable.

BREMMER: You know, it's funny. Almost all of the major risks on our list today are around this issue - the idea that when you have really powerful people that don't have the benefit of significant expert inputs around them, they're making decisions in ways that don't have checks and balances internally. And as a consequence, they surprise everyone with great suddenness, right? I mean, when - in the United States, a lot of people were very concerned that Trump was the end of democracy. And yet we saw that when there were things that he tried to do that were really beyond the pale, he was prevented to do them by people around him that could stop him, by expert opinions that would stop him, by checks and balances.

INSKEEP: Or just the democratic system and lawsuits and that sort of thing.

BREMMER: Exactly. None of that exists in China. And by the way, a fair amount of it did exist at the beginning of Xi Jinping's rule 10 years ago. But he has systematically taken that system apart and now everything runs up to him.

INSKEEP: How does that sudden change on zero-COVID, going from that policy of trying to crack down to loosening things dramatically in a very short period of time, change the risks that you see for 2023?

BREMMER: Well, first of all, it's going to lead to well over a million Chinese likely dying. Now, that's frankly, believe it or not, not much of a risk because the dead don't protest, and the Chinese government isn't going to admit to these people dying. They're not going to provide data. But for example, one major risk directly that stems from this is we're just not going to have information on these new cases and therefore on any potential new variants and any potentially dangerous new variants. The hospitals are going to be overwhelmed, and they're not going to be working closely with the World Health Organization, just as it's been for the last three years, or with organizations like the CDC around the world. Given that the epicenter for COVID is once again, as it was in 2020, in China, and China is the least transparent and cooperative with the rest of the world on that health data, that's a pretty big problem.

INSKEEP: Would we not assume that Xi Jinping, if he has nothing else, has competent economic managers around him who would know how to keep China's economy on course?

BREMMER: Yes. Yes, we would assume that. But also the priority in China of ensuring that the politics are stable irrespective of the economic hits that they take has been a defining piece of Xi Jinping's rule for the last 10 years. So, no, he doesn't have the same level of technocrats around him that he did five years ago, 10 years ago. He's not getting the same level of economic data that he used to, nor is China publishing it. And it's not clear he's listening to the few competent people he has around him. And that's - in other words, the same kind of challenges that we have now seen on zero-COVID, we should expect to start seeing in the Chinese economy.

INSKEEP: A few days ago on this program, we spoke with Mike Gallagher. He's a Republican representative, head of a new House committee focused on China. And he asserted that we're entering the, quote, "window of maximum danger" of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, specifically because Xi is so much more extremely in charge.

BREMMER: He's a friend. I've spoken with him about this. We disagree on this specific issue. I agree that there is a growing danger on Taiwan, but I don't think it's near-term. It's not in the next 12 months. Part of that is because the Chinese have seen how just how well the Americans and allies have responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And so they need to sharpen their pencils - the Chinese do - on their own military capabilities.

Part of it is because the Chinese really need access to TSMC, the world's most strategically important company. They provide the most important semiconductors for a Chinese government and economy that can't yet produce them themselves. They are going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in the coming years to try to make up that gap with the United States. But they're not there yet. And as a consequence, a sudden military strike against Taiwan would do incredible damage to the Chinese economy, at a time that they really can't afford it.

INSKEEP: Ian Bremmer is the president of the Eurasia Group. And maximum Xi, as he puts it, is one of the items on his list of risks for 2023. Thanks so much.

BREMMER: Steve, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.