October 2, 2022

Xi’s speech betrayed an unconfident Chinese leadership

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a giant screen as he delivers a speech at the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China. Credit: Reuters File Photo

He declared from the rostrum of Tiananmen Square that the party “never represented any individual interest group, power group, or privileged stratum!”

By Srikanth Kondapalli

Xi Jinping — China’s President, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chairman of the Central Military Commission— sounded the battle cry for the party and country to prepare for the centennial celebrations of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2049 through his speech on the centennial of the CCP on July 1. The tone and tenor on the grand occasion were shrill at times, catering to the domestic audience, perhaps also designed to enhance the hold of his political faction on the party in the run-up to the 20th party congress next year.

Xi Jinping’s speech came at a time when the world is witnessing an unprecedented pandemic that originated in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, causing millions of deaths and the destruction of economies across the world. Combined with what China views as a United States in decline, Xi saw these developments as a “once in a century opportunity” for China. We should then expect more fireworks from Beijing in different directions.

A similar “once in a century opportunity” in the 1940s catapulted the CCP to capture State power in 1949 as the two World Wars sapped the strength of the old powers of the world and the nationalists in China, even as a retreating Japan left vast swathes of rich Manchurian lands for Lin Biao’s Communist forces. Today, a United States retreating from Afghanistan and other places provides strategic opportunities for China internationally in the coming months and years.

Some of these opportunities, according to Xi’s speech, are expected to come from a “patriotic united front” with Chinese people abroad, but also with those countries that have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This suggests that China will further activate influence operations abroad in the near future. But with some of the 500-odd Confucius Institutes shut down in western countries for their alleged interference in the campuses and the general global backlash over the origins of the coronavirus, the going will be tough for Beijing.

Some of these opportunities, according to Xi’s speech, are expected to come from a “patriotic united front” with Chinese people abroad, but also with those countries that have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This suggests that China will further activate influence operations abroad in the near future. But with some of the 500-odd Confucius Institutes shut down in western countries for their alleged interference in the campuses and the general global backlash over the origins of the coronavirus, the going will be tough for Beijing.

Xi repeated his pet themes of China’s national rejuvenation (mentioned as many as 26 times in the speech), the making of a well-off society, elimination of extreme poverty (a debatable claim), upholding unabashedly his own “core” position in the party, converting the armed forces into a “world-class” military to also protect “developmental interests” and “never seeking hegemony.” These are politically loaded terms that are intended to not only consolidate the Party-State hold over Chinese society but also a propaganda tool to approach the international community.

Xi’s revisionism is reflected in his placing the Communist Party at the centre of Chinese politics and society by suggesting for the first time that the party “has no special interests of its own”— that is, not even the workers, peasants and soldiers that brought it to power—but that it “represented the fundamental interests of all Chinese people.”

He further declared from the rostrum of Tiananmen Square that the party “never represented any individual interest group, power group, or privileged stratum!” In other words, Xi turned the legacy of the Communist Party topsy-turvy, in a bid to position it above societal, factional, corporate groups and thus make it immune from any future criticism.

As millions of Chinese protest in what successive premiers of the State Council have mentioned as “mass incidents” every year, the issue of the political legitimacy of the party is increasingly under scrutiny, specifically as China has entered a low economic growth era. The 1989 Tiananmen Square promise of the Communist Party to maintain economic growth rates in exchange for Chinese people not demanding political reform has thus come under strain.

Forty years of reforms and growth have brought over 60% of the Chinese population into the urban areas, triggering changes to the CCP’s ethos from being a rural-based “worker-peasant-soldier” alliance to one banking on the urban middle class. The change was noticeable even during Jiang Zemin’s (1989-2002) “three represents” phenomenon of the party representing “majority of the people”, “productive forces” (capitalists) and “advanced culture” (neo-Confucianism). But Xi has gone even beyond these.

Another highly nationalist streak in Xi’s speech is denial, nay rejection, of any advice from outside. This, despite the fact that China’s rise in the past four decades has been based on external advice and technical and financial assistance. Xi declared his unwillingness to “accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have a right to lecture us”— clearly in the light of a spate of international sanctions over its record in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and other aggressive moves on Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

Another highly nationalist streak in Xi’s speech is denial, nay rejection, of any advice from outside. This, despite the fact that China’s rise in the past four decades has been based on external advice and technical and financial assistance. Xi declared his unwillingness to “accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have a right to lecture us”— clearly in the light of a spate of international sanctions over its record in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and other aggressive moves on Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

This suggests that China is likely to put out highly nationalistic rhetoric in the near future, consolidating the domestic audience behind the Communist Party, and also attempt to divide international opinion.

While official English translations omitted Xi’s more aggressive talk of “breaking heads” — language he used last during his visit to Nepal in October 2019 soon after the “Chennai Connect” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi — it is clear that legitimacy was sought to be provided for the growing “wolf warrior” diplomacy of China. In doing so, however, Xi betrayed a shaky— not a confident— putative superpower, one that is expecting a “foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate” it, despite being the world’s second-largest economy and a growing military power.

Xi most immediate battle cry was, of course, reserved for the Taiwan issue, for which he suggested a “resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward Taiwan independence.” Of late, China has ratcheted up tension in the Taiwan Straits, with unusually intense sabrerattling by its naval and air forces, crossing the median line at will and threatening the 27 million people on the island and their recent democratic experiments. But any military aggression on Taiwan would also have ramifications for China’s own rise as Taiwan contributes substantially to China’s foreign direct investment and IT hardware competence.

The centenary speech was meant to prepare China for future endeavours laid out by Xi and the CCP, although in the din of current events, many significant historical and ideological debates of the Communist Party were either ignored or omitted for political convenience.

The centenary speech was meant to prepare China for future endeavours laid out by Xi and the CCP, although in the din of current events, many significant historical and ideological debates of the Communist Party were either ignored or omitted for political convenience.

For instance, the Communist Party is credited with having ushered in modernisation with marriage laws, land reforms, transforming agriculture, industry, science and technology and defence sectors, although it has all come at a very high cost to society in terms of State-driven mass death, destruction and distress.

Despite the launch of the “dual circulation” strategy recently— of internal consumption and external export to keep up economic growth— China is a more vulnerable society today, with the ageing of the population despite relaxation of the disastrous one-child policy, at a stage of comparatively low per-capita income and in danger of being caught in the “middle-income trap”, high debt to GDP ratio, rising urban-rural divide indicators, dependence on energy and food grain imports, ethnic unrest, lack of independent technology innovation (despite all the hype) and other issues.

To be sure, while Communist parties around the world have disintegrated, the Chinese Communist Party, on the other hand, has grown in strength by numbers from 50 members at its inception to over 92 million now, is in control of vast human and financial resources of the country, and engaged in a “united front” with political dispensations across the world. But it is still vulnerable as an ideological battle against Western democracies intensifies, even as it loses international legitimacy and credibility due to the rise of jingoism, wolf warrior diplomacy and grave human rights abuses.

(This article was originally published on Deccan Herald news portal with the link: https://www.deccanherald.com/opinion/panorama/xi-s-speech-betrayed-an-unconfident-chinese-leadership-1009161.html, and republished with the permission of the author)

-Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow us on Social Media