China readies for big play

With the US caught in domestic issues, President Xi has a great chance to achieve the Chinese Dream

By   |  Published: 22nd Oct 2017  12:00 amUpdated: 21st Oct 2017  10:14 pm

Moviegoers across China loved this summer’s ‘Wolf Warrior II,’ in which Chinese action star Wu Jing portrays a tough super-patriot, who rescues fellow countrymen and oppressed Africans with help from the People’s Liberation Army. It became China’s biggest-grossing movie ever and many reportedly sang the national anthem as the movie closed on an image of a Chinese passport and the words, ‘Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.’

This red-blooded nationalism has been channelled skillfully by President and ruling Communist Party leader Xi Jinping as he seeks to strengthen the party’s role in Chinese life and shepherd the country’s rise to prominence at a time when the United States and others in the West are seen to be in retreat.

President Xi’s efforts are expected to get a huge backing at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which the Chinese President kicked off on October 18. This meeting, held once every five years, will see President Xi being given a second five-year term as President of China and general secretary of the Communist party.

Xi’s Global Vision

For years, after its emergence from hardline Marxism in the late 1980s, China stuck to reformist leader Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to ‘keep a low profile and bide one’s time, while also getting things done.’ That began to change after last decade’s global financial crisis, from which China emerged relatively unscathed, and the country’s foreign policy has since shifted into high gear under Xi.

China has succeeded in leveraging its booming economy and mountain of foreign currency holdings to influence other nations and further its global ambitions. A key watershed came this year, when the People’s Liberation Army began manning China’s first overseas base in Djibouti, reversing decades of rhetoric eschewing such facilities as imperialist Cold War holdovers.

The overall goal seems clear: Restore China to its traditional role as East Asia’s leading nation and a global economic and cultural force. In his address to the Congress’ opening session, Xi said as much when he outlined a vision of raising China’s international stature. By 2050, Xi said, China would be “a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.”

While he reiterated that China pursues an “independent foreign policy of peace”, he also warned other countries not to underestimate China’s willingness to stand up for itself. “No one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests,” said Xi.
“Xi presents very bold visions for where China should be headed and what China must become,” said Jingdong Yuan, an Asia-Pacific security expert at Australia’s University of Sydney. A more forceful post-congress approach could include expanding China’s role in international bodies and new China-sponsored initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank. China could also become more assertive in regional hotspots such as the South and East China Seas and its contested border with India.

The goal is to make China an indispensable economic partner with expanded political influence, while offering new opportunities for Chinese businesses weighed down by overcapacity and shrinking markets at home. “To do this, China has refined its diplomacy to take advantage of favourable global trends while not going so far that it would damage relationships with its neighbours and the United States,” points out Yuan.

Bold yet Pragmatic

In some areas, China has proved unyielding. Beijing, for instance, angrily rejected last year’s ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague on a Philippine case that invalidated most of China’s territorial claims in the contested South China Sea.

It has also taken a hard line against South Korea’s deployment of a US anti-missile system that Beijing calls a security threat. South Korea has been vilified in Chinese state media, with Chinese group tours banned and South Korean businesses in China hit hard.

However, the pragmatic approach more often wins out. Beijing has largely resisted the urge to fire back when US President Donald Trump lambasts China for not doing enough on North Korea or allegedly cheating at trade, instead offering measured responses. Xi, meanwhile, pulled off a successful visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Florida estate that was heavy on the sort of positive optics Beijing prefers. Trump is now due to travel to Beijing in November.

In China’s latest border standoff with India, Beijing agreed to a mutual pullback of forces just days ahead of a China-hosted summit of large developing economies. Beijing has also softened its approach to charm Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, offering him infrastructure investment and military assistance against Muslim rebels, while agreeing to allow Philippine fishermen to return to their traditional grounds in Scarborough Shoal, which China seized in 2012.

Backed by a Strong Party

Xi, in his three-and-a-half-hour address, urged a reinvigorated Communist Party to take on a more forceful role in society and economic development to better address ‘grim’ challenges facing the country. He struck a nationalistic line throughout his speech, calling for the party not only to safeguard China’s sovereignty but also to revitalise Chinese culture, oppose ‘erroneous’ ideology and promote religion that is ‘Chinese in origin.’

“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is no walk in the park or mere drum-beating and gong-clanging. The whole party must be prepared to make ever more difficult and harder efforts. To achieve great dreams, there must be a great struggle,” Xi told hundreds of delegates, who applauded regularly.

He pledged that the party would have ‘zero tolerance’ for corruption and said it would “continue to purify, improve and reform itself” – an indication that it would not allow outside checks on graft while adding that the party would have to take big risks and overcome ‘major resistance.’
Xi keeps an unwavering focus on a strong Communist party, since he believes that it was the failure of the Communist party that led to the disintegration of the erstwhile USSR.

More Power to Xi

Xi wields undisputed power and is set to get a second five-year term as party leader, making him China’s unquestioned political supremo. Analysts say he has consolidated his power by sidelining his competitors in other intra-party cliques, including those surrounding his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao and former leader Jiang Zemin.

China is run by the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, currently a seven-member body led by Xi, with Premier Li Keqiang his No. 2. While Xi and Li are expected to stay, the fates of others are determined by loose precedents governing retirement age, which is 68. Four are expected to depart, while the status of party discipline boss and close Xi ally Wang Qishan appears uncertain.

The 2,287 carefully chosen delegates to the congress are drawn from 40 constituencies, including the 31 provincial-level administrative districts, the government, the military, state industries and grassroots organisations representing most of the party’s 89 million members.
In a secret process, they will select a roughly 200-member central committee, along with more than 150 alternates, from a pool of around 400 candidates. The committee will then pick a 25-member politburo and the elite Politburo Standing Committee, led by the general secretary.

A Balanced Economy

Xi proclaimed China’s prospects as bright but made a rare acknowledgement of severe economic challenges.

To achieve a ‘moderately well-off society’ by 2021 – the 100th anniversary of the party’s founding – and even greater national power and prosperity by 2049 – the centenary of the founding of the communist state — China needs continued economic growth and the lifting of millions out of poverty.

He called for developing state-owned companies that dominate industries, including finance, energy and telecoms, while also giving the market the ‘decisive role’ in allocating resources. While pledging to make the banking industry more market-oriented and to shrink bloated state-owned steel and coal industries, Xi emphasised Beijing ‘must develop the public sector,’ a goal that reform advocates complain wastes public money and further slows economic growth.

Xi’s conflicting goals are raising concerns but it could as well be an approach that ensures growth and enables primacy of the state and the party. And Xi would like it.

Illustration by Krishna Chaitanya