BEIJING—In the two years before Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012, U.S. officials tried to size him up through a series of face-to-face meetings.
During talks in China in 2011, Mr. Xi, then vice president, asked about civilian control of the U.S. military, shared his thoughts on uprisings in the Middle East and spoke, unprompted, about his father, a renowned revolutionary. When he visited the U.S. in 2012, he was relaxed and affable, chatting with students and posing for pictures with Magic Johnson at a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game.
The U.S. officials’ conclusion: Although Mr. Xi was far more confident and forthright than Hu Jintao, the stiff and scripted leader he would succeed, he likely shared his commitment to stable ties with Washington and closer integration with the U.S-led global order. Some even hoped Mr. Xi would kick-start stalled economic reforms.
It was one of the biggest strategic miscalculations of the post-Cold War era.
In the eight subsequent years, Mr. Xi has pursued an expansive, hypernationalistic vision of China’s future, displaying a desire for control and a talent for political maneuvering. Drawing comparisons to Mao Zedong, he has crushed critics and potential rivals, revitalized the Communist Party and even scrapped presidential term limits so he can, if he chooses, rule for life.