‘Butterfly effect’: Chinese President Xi Jinping warns top officials to contain political risks


Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned top cadres to get ahead of political risks, saying a “butterfly effect” could turn small threats into big dangers.

Xi conveyed the message to senior officials at an internal meeting in February, but the comments were only made public earlier this month in a book released by Central Party Literature Press.

“Now, various risks and dangers are highly correlated, strongly linked and rapidly transmitted. A little carelessness can cause a butterfly effect. Small risks will become big risks, risks will become general risks, and economic and social risks will become political risks,” Xi told hundreds of senior officials at the meeting on February 7.

In the speech, Xi also asked officials to “identify risks early, act quickly, take command at the front and make immediate judgments as soon as they arise”.

“Do not let small things be delayed to become big things, and big things be delayed until they explode,” Xi said.

While some parts of the speech had previously been made public, the butterfly effect comments have only just been revealed in Excerpts of Xi Jinping’s Discourse on Chinese Modernisation.


Xi Jinping, Joe Biden hold talks on sidelines of Apec summit to ease strained US-China ties

Xi Jinping, Joe Biden hold talks on sidelines of Apec summit to ease strained US-China ties

Xi’s February speech came a month before he began his record third term as China’s president in March. Officials across the country were asked to learn from the speech and put Xi’s mandates into practice, according to earlier reports in state media outlets.

In recent years, Xi has repeatedly stressed the need to be alert, urging officials to wage a “great struggle” and prepare for “worst-case” scenarios.

Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said Xi’s comments were tied into his all-encompassing approach to China’s security.

“Xi has been concerned about all kinds of risks for many years, and an important thing for him lately is to look at national security from a holistic perspective,” Yang said.

“I think when he talked about the butterfly effect, it was related to the protests last winter.”

A rare wave of protests against the strict zero-Covid policy erupted in a handful of Chinese cities in late November last year after a deadly fire killed 10 people in a residential building in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Protests against the strict zero-Covid policy erupted in Chinese cities, including Shanghai (pictured) after a fire in a residential building in Urumqi late last year. Photo: SCMP
China eased many of its controls in December, but risks that still regularly appear in Beijing’s talking points include a post-pandemic economic slowdown, demographic crisis and massive local government debt.

Abroad, major challenges include tight US restrictions on China’s technology sector and geopolitical tensions with Washington and its allies.

In May, Xi warned at a high-level meeting that the national security issues facing China were “much more complex and much more difficult”. He urged officials to prepare for the “worst and most extreme situations” so that they would be able to deal with “high winds and waves and even dangerous storms”.

Referring to Xi’s statement – “Big things cannot be delayed until they explode” – Yang said: “Xi has complaints about the initiative of officials in a system where everything has to be reported upwards.”

Yang added that Xi’s extra emphasis on controlling risks would affect the entire bureaucracy.

“Whether it’s the political and legal affairs departments or the propaganda agencies, they will all be tensing up in terms of maintaining stability,” he said.

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Under Xi’s leadership, the Communist Party has in recent years emphasised a holistic view of national security, prioritising regime and ideological security. Beijing has brought several areas under the purview of anti-spy agencies this year, including finance and technology.
The audience for the February speech included new members of the party’s Central Committee as well as provincial and ministry officials who hold key leadership positions in the party and the state. These senior officials were gathered at the Central Party School for a study session to follow up on key decisions taken at the party’s national congress last October.

In the parts of the speech that were released previously, Xi said China had “dispelled the myth that modernisation means westernisation” and hailed the Chinese model as an example for developing countries to follow.

Xi also urged officials to be fully aware of the risks and challenges facing China and to “dare to fight and fight well”, promising to “support and encourage” cadres who meet these requirements.


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