The Succession: Deng Xiaoping (the guy in charge of China, 1978-1989); Jiang Zemin (the guy in charge of China, 1989-2003; president of China, 1993-2003); Hu Jintao (president of China, 2003-2013); Xi Jinping (president of China, 2013—2028 at least).
Deng reoriented China away from Maoism and its catastrophes. He launched China on the road toward achieving its immense national potential. It wasn’t then exactly clear what that potential might be. It did rest on economic and intellectual engagement with the capitalist, democratic world. Not the least of his achievements came in the orderly transfer of power. To his successors fell the duty of bringing greater clarity to China’s future.
Under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao (1989-2013) that meant several things. One was keeping a loose rein on the great entrepreneurs who would develop the industries that would make China strong. Another theme appeared in the more-or-less private admission that China had embarked on a long-term competition with the United States and the international system America had created after 1945. Following on this second theme came the need to—eventually—exclude the Americans from their dominant position in the Western Pacific. That goal would be linked to regaining possession of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. In turn, achieving these goals would require building the military power to run with China’s economic power. Still, there seems to have been no specific timeline urging on Chinese leaders.
That emphasis upon economic development over politico-military goals allowed Western leaders to see China not as an opponent or rival, but rather as a partner in expanding the American-created system. For example, a series of American presidents used stock phrases about desiring a “strong, peaceful, and prosperous” China. Other capitalist democracies eagerly joined the hunt for their share of the China Market.
Not everyone expected this era of relatively tranquil cooperation to last. In the United States there were “China hawks.” People as varied as Michael Pillsbury (a deeply influential person during the Trump administration) and Rush Doshi (currently serving on President Biden’s National Security Council) argued that China had started a “long game” against the United States. The United States, they urged, should start playing.
In China, there was Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2013. Xi has started using the power built by his predecessors and himself in pursuit of goals shared by his predecessors and himself. Thus, Hong Kong, Taiwan, a cautious endorsement of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and border troubles with India “among many, many other departures from our normative behavior.”
One open question is what triggered Xi’s decision that the hour for action was at hand?
 Greg Ip, “In Economic Race, U.S. Benefits From Xi’s Rule,” WSJ, 20 October 2022.
 Deng accumulated multiple powerful offices in the same fashion as did the Roman Emperor Octavian.
 For one introduction to the subject, see the critical evaluation by “China Doves,” “The Overreach of the China Hawks,” Foreign Affairs, 23 October 2020, with a response by Aaron Friedberg. The Overreach of the China Hawks | Foreign Affairs