The Communist Party of China recently held its 19th party conference. The highlight of the event was a three-hour address by General Secretary, Xi Jinping.
The conference ended with Xi emerging stronger than before. What does that mean for the Chinese people, global economy, and India? Read here.
This article is first in a series called Notes On China. The aim of the series is to provide analysis of events and ideas related to domestic politics, economy, and foreign policy of China.
As the world’s second largest economy and the only foreseeable power with a potential to upset the US-led world order, China’s politics is practically a black-box, nearly as opaque as the North Korean political system. This was demonstrated yet again when think-tankers, long time China watchers and journalists placed confident bets that Xi Jinping’s successor, Chen Min’er has been “quietly” chosen and that he will make it to the elite decision-making body, the Politburo; and that Xi will retain Wang Qishan, the CCDI (Central Commission for Discipline Inspection) head by bending the party’s age rules. These speculations were demolished as the carefully choreographed 19th party congress ended, and Xi emerged as the sole predicted winner.
Along with a second term (that may or may not extend further), Xi also managed to get his “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” enshrined into the Constitution. Only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping (posthumously) have had the privilege of getting their own thought along with their names in the Constitution before. Xi’s predecessors Hu Jintao (Scientific Outlook) and Jiang Zemin (Three Represents) had their theories written into the Constitution minus their names.
While presenting his work report on 18 October, Xi confidently marked the arrival of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. What exactly does this ‘New Era’ mean and what does it encompass? What implications do Xi’s ‘thought’ hold for China, the international system and Sino-Indian relations in particular? These are some questions that would be explored in this article. The recently concluded 19th party congress proceedings, along with Xi’s three-hour marathon speech offer us clues into what otherwise remains nebulous Chinese politics.
Xi Jinping Thought On Socialism With Chinese Characteristics For A New Era:
As daunting as it sounds, for those well versed in Marxist jargons or who study China, the ‘thought’ establishes a narrative continuity in Chinese Communist Party rhetoric. In the Marxist parlance, thought is more important than ‘theory’. During his speech, Xi tried to draw a long arc from Marxism-Leninism to Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development, wrapping it up with his “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. In doing so, Xi not only acknowledged the “united” singular narrative of the party but firmly established its legitimacy.
“Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” is the phrase originating with Deng, the father of Chinese modernisation that adapts Marxism to China’s special conditions, thus Sinicising it. It includes the market playing a decisive role in allocation of resources, while at the same time, state-owned enterprises playing a dominant role. According to Xi, after successfully experimenting with "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, it is now time to take it forward into the "New Era”.
The "New Era” is basically the shift in the primary contradictions facing the society (another pet Marxist terminology). Until the 18th party congress, the principal contradiction in Chinese society was one between the ever-growing material and cultural needs of the people and the low level of production. In the 19th party congress however, this principal contradiction shifted to one between the people’s ever growing needs for a better life and unbalanced and inadequate development. Xi’s prescribed antidotes are thus injecting the system with the Chinese dream of rejuvenation and fulfilling the objectives of the "Two Centenaries”.
The “Two Centenary Goals” is the “idea that China is heading into a phase in which it can anticipate, and “struggle” toward, the full creation of a “moderately well-off society” (the first goal), and at the same time push actively and confidently (using Hu Jintao and Xi’s ‘Four Confidences’) toward the creation of a fully-modernised socialist nation (the second goal). While the 16th, 17th and 18th national congresses of the Communist Party of China have focussed on the first of these goals, the 19th congress and the 20th will focus primarily on the latter (while consolidating the former).
Xi has laid out an ambitious target for the next 30 years in fulfilling this goal. The first batch, according to him should be achieved from 2020 to 2035. By 2035, China is envisaged to become a top-ranked innovation country with a large middle-income population with narrower wealth gap and great soft power advantage. From 2035 to 2050, China’s focus will shift towards becoming a nation with pioneering global influence, a great modern socialist country as envisioned by Xi.
Implications Of Xi Jinping Thought:
For The Chinese People
Within China, the party realises that its legitimacy is closely tied to its capacity to pull the remaining 70 million out of poverty and reduce the huge inequality gap as a result of lop-sided reforms. It is thereby pertinent to note the heavy emphasis on people centric policies among the 14 areas listed to realise the Chinese Dream such as: ‘people as masters of the country’, ‘protecting and improving people’s livelihoods’ and ‘deepening reform in China’.
Xi’s win has raised the profile of party leadership as the sole fundamental guarantor for achieving the Chinese Dream of rejuvenation. It claims to exert its influence over all spheres of Chinese life, economy, political affairs, education, science and technology, ethnic and religious affairs and national security. Under his rule, the party is has been enthusiastically reviving Marxist thought by reactivating 77,000 small party branches all over China, reinvigorating Marxist ideology education in universities and schools, setting up centres on studying ‘Xi Thought’ in more than 20 universities.
Unspeakable human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet under the name of national security has been on a rise under strong arm tactics of Xi’s allies in these sensitive areas. Human rights defenders in China, already facing clamp down and arbitrary arrest will find it increasingly difficult to fight for their rights in China under Xi. Censorship on news not only for domestic audience but also for foreign journalists reporting on China has increased in the Xi era. United Front Work, responsible for infiltrating foreign countries’ and influencing politics within those countries (especially in Australia and New Zealand) has already been given a forward push since 2012.
Challenging The International System
To the world, the message emerging from the 19th party congress is very clear. China has arrived on the world stage. It aims to signal a clear shift from the days of Deng whose maxim was to “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership”. Under Xi, China seeks to build a counter narrative to the dominant US-led rules-based order. This is happening at a time when Donald Trump’s domestic policies and international security arrangements have drawn concern regarding the commitment of the US towards maintaining the rules-based order.
The ‘New Era’ will witness a confident China, which will actively try to influence and shape the global order. By firmly holding on to Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and ‘resolutely’ negating Western democratic ideals, China under Xi will further make efforts to insulate it from influences of Western liberal ideas and organise the country into a stronghold of modern Marxism. It will actively seek to export an alternative “China Plan” that promotes the idea that China’s achievements over the past five years have offered a template for other developing nations progressing towards modernisation.
Impact On Sino-Indian Relations
A resurgent China is also likely to pose hurdles to long term Sino-Indian relations. The recent Doklam stand-off and heightened rhetoric at that time showed signs of how future conflicts could unravel. Mutual distrust and lack of understanding of what China and India entail in each other’s strategic calculus have further driven animosity between the two.
Creeping influence of China in India’s erstwhile strategic backyard of South Asia and the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) being written into the China’s Constitution are going to further drive contentions. Xi, by prioritising the BRI, has signalled that it has no intentions towards understanding Indian concerns on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, while making overtures to India to join the China-led initiative.
Vetoing UN action against Masood Azhar and forestalling India’s inclusion into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), recent cases that have happened under Xi’s rule also suggest that China would not only thwart India’s rise but actively partner with a rogue state Pakistan to achieve its twin goals of a successful CPEC that stands to benefit China and to place Pakistan as counter to India in South Asia.
Napoleon Bonaparte once remarked, “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world”. Today, the Communist Party has made the solemn promise of restoring China to its rightful place in the world, wiping the stain of the century of humiliation forever. Question is, how far will Xi go to turn this promise into reality and whether China’s great rejuvenation impacts China and the world positively.