President For Life: What Xi Jinping's Tenure May Look Like From Now

by Tushar Gupta - Nov 12, 2021 07:53 AM
President For Life: What Xi Jinping's Tenure May Look Like From NowChinese President Xi Jinping.
Snapshot
  • Xi has centralised all the power, and while it has more or less worked in his favour in the first 10 years of the reign, it would be the succeeding 10 years that would define his legacy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has become the third leader to deliver a resolution on the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the first leader to do so in more than four decades.

The resolution will not only ensure a third-term for him, extending his rule to a complete lifetime, but also set the agenda for the decade of 2020s, one expected to be followed by the members of the CCP, both in China and overseas. Previously, only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have made such resolutions to further their political agendas.

Gathered in a military hotel in Beijing for the last four days, these 400-odd members of the CCP which include the top brass of the military, provincial leaders, academicians and influencers, and several other top political leaders will then go on to advocate the goals and vision announced by Xi in the resolution. As of now, the wordy document stating the resolution has not been released.

This closed-door meet is critical for Xi as it is the penultimate meeting of the current Central Committee which will next meet in 2022 for the leadership congress where Xi’s continuation as the President will be announced. Thus, for Xi, this annual meeting, also known as ‘plenum’ was the final opportunity to earn the trust and confidence of the highest members within the CCP, and he has not failed.

Xi’s resolution is expected to focus on the achievements of the CCP, on account of its hundred-year celebrations, his political pursuits in the last 10 years including a mass anti-corruption campaign against his party workers, from top to bottom, decoupling from the United States of America in the long run. The timing of the resolution is important too. A prolonged trade war with two different regimes in the Oval Office have ushered an urgency for decoupling of supply chains and technology.

It would also stress on the goals for the domestic economy, and his vision for the goal of ‘common prosperity’, one he has been hinting at since the crackdown spree began almost a year ago, targeting several sectors, beginning with technology, tutoring, and real estate.

The lens of the observers and media from the West has also been focussed on the atrocities against the minorities in Xinjiang, the rapidly disappearing freedom of speech and expression within the mainland, attacks on journalists, academicians, artists, and even businessmen voicing their concerns against the CCP, and the increased surveillance.

However, there is a lot that has worked for Xi too since he took over almost 10 years ago.

China, under Xi, has gone from a country seen as a factory of cheap goods and labour in the West to one that is now looking to outshine the US in defence, diplomacy, and economy.

Firstly, it is economic progress. From a gross domestic product (GDP) of around $300 billion in 1980, China today has a GDP of more than $14 trillion, second to the US. China’s trade with the outside world amounted to $40 billion in 1980. Today, it has increased to $4 trillion. It’s the largest producer of ships, steel, aluminium, furniture, clothing, textiles, computers, and is now challenging the US in a tech war with separate funding of $1.4 trillion from Beijing itself.

China is displacing the US, once the hub for auto engineering and consumption. Today, with a population four times that of the US, China is the largest manufacturer and consumer of automobiles. This has a direct impact on its oil consumption, and its investment in renewable energy sources. Already, China has installed more solar energy plants than any other country.

In 1960, the per capita GDP in China was around $89.5. By 2011, it increased to $5,600, with the majority increase coming after the 1990s once the fruits of Deng’s opening up of the economy were realised. By 2020, the per capita GDP, after almost 10 years of Xi, had almost doubled since 2010, at around $10,500.

The reflection of the economic successes can be seen in the public satisfaction with the governance, as per data compiled by Bloomberg. While any data pertaining to public sentiment in China must be taken with a big sack of salt, given the surveillance and lack of freedom of speech, the data compiled by experts suggests that Xi enjoyed considerable support of the public for a majority of his reign.

Two, on the diplomacy front, China’s image has suffered across the globe, especially since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, as evident by the fall in ratings pertaining to public perception gloablly.

In 2012, as per data compiled by the Pew Research Center, 41.5 per cent of Canadians, 67 per cent of Germans, 84 per cent of Japanese, 35 per cent of the English, and 40 per cent of the people in the US viewed China unfavourably. These numbers rose gradually during the reign of Xi, peaking in 2021 where 73 per cent of the Canadians, 71 per cent of Germans, 88 per cent of Japanese, 63 per cent of English, and 76 per cent of the people in the US view China unfavourably.

Xi is not alien to the perception realities in the diplomatic realm. Perhaps, this explains the pursuits of the CCP to have the United Front Work Department, an arm of the CCP directly managed by the top political brass, focussed on improving the image of China abroad to ensure more investments and diplomatic leverage. One of the key goals of this department has been media manipulation.

CCP is proactive in shaping the global public opinion in its favour, and therefore, for long, the party has stressed the need of having its own version of CNN or Russia Today. In 2016, Xi put forward the idea of Chinese media having great global influence, and today, more than $10 billion is being spent annually to infiltrate media organisations across the globe.

The odds favour the CCP too, for the pandemic recently, and the overall business model of media in the West leaves them exposed to financial vulnerabilities.

However, backed by the CCP, the media in China is flushed with resources, and the same resources are also diverted to influence media personnel and organisations through partnerships and collaborations, personalised tours to the countryside, financial incentives, access to the mainland, and if all else fails, threats.

China’s infiltration of the global media began at home, given the number of correspondents present in the mainland and how most Western publications, due to the language constraints, use these outlets as a source for understanding China.

In 2018, the China Central Television (CCTV), Doordarshan equivalent of the Chinese government, was consolidated to include the national radio network, international radio service, and the China Global Television Network (CGTN), the international body within the CCTV.

The global scale of CCP-backed media outlets deserves recognition and, grudgingly, some respect. Today, the CGTN has broadcasts in English, Spanish, French, Russian, and even Arabic with production studios in Kenya, US, and the United Kingdom. China Radio International under CCTV has stations broadcasting in more than 60 languages.

Xinhua, also known as the New China News Agency, today boasts of more than 180 bureaus across the world with regional headquarters in New York, Brussels, Moscow, Cairo, Nairobi, and even Mexico. Distribution of content is through paid partnerships and memorandums with local media outlets and radio stations.

China Daily, registered under the company name of the China Daily Group, is one of the oldest publications out of China, launched in 1981, and is unapologetic in receiving editorial guidance from the CCP. Today, it has 40 bureaus outside China, in the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, and Australia. Interestingly, it was the Australian paper, The Age, and financial assistance from the Australian government that aided the launch of China Daily 40 years ago.

A report from January 2009 in the South China Morning Post highlighted the planned investment of around $6.5 billion in global media by the CCP, and this was before Xi, and during his reign, has only grown leaps and bounds.

Three, the growth of military firepower in the Xi regime.

China, traditionally, has spent close to 2 per cent of its GDP on defence. However, a growing economy, more than doubling during the 10-year reign of Xi, has fuelled the expansion of China’s military capacity. A study by the RAND Corporation in 2015 estimated that by 2017, China would have an advantage over the US in six of the nine areas of conventional warfare. The report concluded stating that US dominance would be further reduced by 2030 in the Indo-Pacific region.

China, earlier this year in August, tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled the entirety of the globe before hitting close to the target. The move, vindicating China’s advanced space capabilities, took many in the US intelligence community by surprise.

While the missile missed the target by more than 20 miles, even then it validated the progress the Chinese had made on hypersonic weapons, leaving the US behind in the modern-day arms race. The success of the test has raised an important question as to why the US has always underestimated the modernisation capacity of the Chinese military.

Already, in recent months, given the growing tensions between Washington and Beijing, the military officials within the US have warned against China’s increasing nuclear capabilities. Not many months ago, a satellite image confirmed that China was building more than 200 intercontinental missile silos. What complicates matters further is that the Chinese are not bound by any arms-control policy and have also been uninterested in engaging with the US on the issue.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, referring to the tests in August, compared it to the Sputnik moment from 1957 when USSR first launched an artificial satellite into space, triggering a space race. Earlier this month, a Pentagon assessment report estimated China would increase its nuclear stockpile by four times by 2030. From a little over 200 nuclear warheads, China is expected to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030. Currently, the US leads the nuclear arms race with over 3,800 warheads.

The 192-page report hinted at the expanding nuclear infrastructural capacity of China in land, sea and air.

Four, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Xi, unapologetically and at length, has spoken about the political reunification of Hong Kong and Taiwan with mainland China. Using the Covid-19 pandemic as a diplomatic distraction, Beijing successfully curbed the protests in 2020.

The protests stemmed from the controversial extradition bill. The critical issue with the bill was that it would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite any ‘suspected’ criminals to mainland China, thus preventing dissenters from the mainland from taking refuge in the city.

Given the prevailing dictatorial policies of the CCP in the mainland, the opaqueness of the judicial system, the constant abuse of human rights, and state-enabled media censorship, this legislation was seen by the citizens of Hong Kong as a free ticket for Beijing to suppress the rights and erode the autonomy they were promised during the handover in 1997. While the bill was withdrawn in 2019, the protests continued until Hong Kong was hit by the pandemic.

Eventually, Beijing introduced the ‘National Security Law’ in Hong Kong. The law introduced harsh sentences for an otherwise liberal city while criminalising any activity including the sabotage of public spaces that could qualify as subversion, secession, colluding with foreign forces, or terrorism.

What was startling about the law was Article 38. It stated that the law would apply to offences committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the region. To put it simply, it declared that any foreign national, anywhere in the world, criticising China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, could be arrested, detained, and prosecuted if they entered the mainland or the city.

Thus, any American, European, or Indian journalist, or anyone from any part of the world could be nabbed in Hong Kong for a single line of criticism they may have written, published, or tweeted against China. Strangely, the law and the swift takeover of Hong Kong saw little backlash from the global community.

Now, observers predict a similar fate for Taiwan.

For Xi, Taiwan’s political reunification with mainland China could well amount to one of the few defining moments of his legacy.

However, the reunification would not be as simple as that of Hong Kong, for military action to some extent may be warranted. Already, Chinese airplanes routinely invade Taiwan airspace, thus recently prompting Taiwan’s defence minister to declare that China would be able to invade Taiwan as soon as 2025. Against less than 400 in 2020, in 2021, more than 675 airplanes have already flown through the Taiwan airspace.

For China, Taiwan is more than a political statement. Home to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) which caters to almost 50 per cent of the global chip market, Beijing risks disrupting the global supply chains by invading Taiwan, putting trade of around $500 billion at risk. However, for China, it would mean a complete takeover of the TSMC, an established fabrication industry, and an indispensable role in the global economy for decades to come.

Taiwan’s best bet lies in a US rescue, but what remains unanswered is the cost to it. Would the US, after its recent exit in Afghanistan, and its prolonged stay in South Korea, be interested in another long war in the Indo-Pacific without an exit strategy. Already, the White House is inviting several chipmakers to set up shop to isolate against an imminent Taiwan invasion and supply chain disruption.

There is little hope from the United Nations on the subject of Taiwan as well, for the body failed to address the annexation of Hong Kong, the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, and several other human rights violations committed during the reign of Xi.

Five, China’s infiltration of the United Nations. As evident by the shoddy handling of the coronavirus origins and spread by the World Health Organization (WHO), China, today, enjoys significant clout within the one global body that could have held it accountable for the virus which has killed more than five million people.

For years now, China has been infiltrating many UN institutions and has flexed its economic muscle to gain leverage in policymaking and issues of geopolitical importance. The influence has taken many forms, ranging from direct action to indirect monetary steps via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

There has been a significant increase in Chinese leadership across UN agencies as well. As of today, China dominates four of the 15 UN-specialised agencies. These include the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). Meanwhile, there is only one US national heading one of the 15 agencies — the World Bank.

Interestingly, Chinese nationals only make up for 1.06 per cent of the total UN system staff, disproportionate to its contribution and economic clout. There are three other agencies led by nationals from Ethiopia (WHO), Togo (IFAD: International Fund for Agricultural Development), and Kenya (UPU: Universal Postal Union), each influenced and indirectly controlled by China through backdoor negotiations or simply, by virtue of BRI.

Not just WHO, heads of other agencies have been vocal in their praise for the Chinese leadership. In 2019, Australia’s Francis Gurry, heading the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) spoke highly of China’s commitment towards intellectual property even as the White House continues to lament the losses worth hundreds of billions of dollars to their economy due to IP theft by China.

Six, While investments in the BRI peaked around 2018-2020, the cumulative investments by China have exceeded $2 trillion globally, especially in Europe, Africa and South America.

In the early weeks of the pandemic in April 2020, as per a report in the South China Morning Post, the European Union diluted the report about Chinese state-backed disinformation campaign as it feared it would lead to China withholding export of medical supplies to its member states.

During the pandemic, as the US restricted the export of critical medical equipment, China was the first to answer Italy’s call for emergency medical supplies. China, publicly, committed to sending 1,000 ventilators, two million masks, 100,000 respirators, 20,000 protective suits, and 50,000 testing kits in March itself.

Spain, in late March, had signed a $467 million contract to procure medical equipment from China, which includes 550 million masks, 5.5 million rapid test kits, 950 respirators, and 11 million pairs of medical gloves.

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, China played a critical role in the export of medical supplies across the globe, especially the EU. In 2018, of the EU’s PPE imports, 50 per cent came from China alone.

For the US, the share was 48 per cent. For the rest of the world, China accounted for more than 40 per cent of the exports of PPE. In the same year, of the total imports, EU imported 49 per cent of the face shields, 50 per cent of the protective garments, 71 per cent of the mouth-nose-protection equipment, 38 per cent of the gloves, and 58 per cent of the goggles and visors from China alone, as per data available from the United Nations Comtrade.

China, since 2007, has invested more than $318 billion across Europe. Investments by state-owned enterprises of China alone constitute more than $165 billion worth of investments.

The UK saw more than 220 deals of around $70 billion, Italy and Germany had deals worth $31 billion and $20 billion respectively, across sectors ranging from technology to airlines. Other states also have fairly high levels of investments.

China has investments worth $5.8 billion in Norway, $7.3 billion in Sweden, $2.1 billion in Greece, $13.4 billion in France, close to $7 billion in Spain, around $8.6 billion in Portugal, and $9.2 billion in Finland. To put things in perspective, the current range of China’s investment in India, with a population three times of the EU, stands around $30 billion, officially, as per the data compiled by the American Enterprise Institute.

In what can be termed as one of the biggest deals in Europe, China National Chemical Corp announced the takeover of pesticide manufacturer Syngenta AG, based in Switzerland, for $46.3 billion in 2016. Across Europe, close to 360 companies were taken over, and partial or complete ownership was extended to four airports, six seaports, and 13 professional soccer teams.

Under Xi, investments into China have only grown, and even as most real estate groups today struggle with coupon payments for their dollar denominated bonds, China will continue to be the investment haven for many Western establishments. Holdings in both domestic equities and domestic bonds have gone from almost zero in 2014 to around a trillion yuan each in 2016 to close to 4 trillion yuan each in 2021.

Thus, with the economic leverage it has globally, especially in the EU, China routinely arm-twists official bodies and bullies companies to toe the line to protect its interests.

On the domestic front, Xi still has many challenges to overcome. To begin with, there is the slowing economy complemented by a real estate crisis that can dent the global economic recovery. While the parallels between the 2008 housing crisis and the current real estate market situation in China are not uncanny, the contrasting nature of the economies does not pose a Lehman-like threat to the entire sector in China, given most debt is owed by state-backed or state-controlled financial institutions.

Then, there is the question of the declining birth rate. Earlier this year, China allowed families to have three children, given the fertility rate in China was only 1.3 per woman. For Japan, it was 1.36 in 2019, and in the US, it was 1.7. China’s history of family planning complements the problem of the fertility rate, for before 1971, there were no restrictions on the number of children a family could have.

China’s 60 and above population has increased from 10.45 per cent in 2005 to 14.7 per cent in 2013 to around 18 per cent in 2019. As per the 2018 National Economic and Social Development Statistical Bulletin released by the National Bureau of Statistics in 2019, the total population of China was around 1.393 billion. The 0-15 age group comprised 248.6 million people while the one above 60 had close to 250 million people, proving how the young were starting to trail the old in terms of population. By 2050, China could have more than 450 million old people and not enough young people to care for them. Thus, country is set to age before it gets rich.

There is a lot else that Xi would like to get moving. For instance, the central bank backed digital currency would be put to test during the Winter Olympics of 2022, a crackdown on bitcoin mining, and an indispensable role as an exporter and supplier of critical material in the renewable energy economy and other rare-earth metals.

Xi, while staking claim to the future of the CCP and China, has centralised all the power, and while it has more or less worked in his favour in the first 10 years of the reign, it would be the succeeding 10 years that would define his legacy.

From here on, it’s Xi Jinping for China for the rest of his lifetime, but will Xi restore China’s place in the human civilisation as he claims or will he collapse under the weight of his own reign, party, and country?

Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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