As the west stumbles, ‘helmsman’ Xi pushes an ambitious plan for China

Washington, United States Published: Oct 31, 2020, 02:46 PM(IST)

File Photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

Xi must tackle some of the most serious economic and geopolitical challenges China has faced in many years

The United States is embroiled in a bitter presidential race and a surge in coronavirus infections. Europe is locking down again. In Beijing, by contrast, Xi Jinping is exuding confidence that he and China can emerge from the pandemic stronger and unbowed.

A Communist Party conclave concluded Thursday with a rousing statement lauding Xi as the party’s helmsman, affirming his broad mandate as the leader who will steer China through perilous waters for years to come. The meeting of the Central Committee, a council of senior officials, laid out ambitions for China to mature as an economic, military and cultural power despite rising uncertainty abroad.

With Xi as “the core navigator and helmsman,” an official summary from the meeting read, “we will certainly be able to conquer the range of hardships and dangers that lie on the path forward.”

Xi has used the meeting to show that he remains unchallenged and resurgent nine months after the coronavirus plunged China into its worst crisis in decades. Without mentioning the missteps that marred China’s initial response to the virus outbreak, the committee’s 200 or so voting members praised the country’s “major strategic achievement” in largely stifling the outbreak.

The party elite’s show of unity behind Xi shored up his political dominance and will help him as he pushes for technological, social and economic advances to make China and its ruling party more resilient in a post-pandemic world. China, the party officials said, faces “new tensions and challenges engendered by intricately complicated international conditions.”

“He is trying to convince the party that only he, Xi Jinping, has the political resources, the experience and the determination to pull China through,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has long studied Chinese politics.

As other leaders and nations turn inward, consumed by crises, Xi appears keen to press the message that the party’s grip on power is secure and the country can play a greater role internationally. Party propaganda has asserted that China’s success in extinguishing COVID-19 infections shows its overall “institutional superiority,” and Beijing has promised to share a potential vaccine for the coronavirus.

Even so, Xi must tackle some of the most serious economic and geopolitical challenges China has faced in many years.

The coronavirus crisis has slowed China’s economic growth, increased unemployment and hurt the country’s global standing. Relations with the United States have reached a new low, brought down by disputes over trade, technology and human rights. Western governments have turned against Beijing over crackdowns on protest in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong and on Muslim minorities in China’s west. Chinese military moves have rattled neighbors.

“China has done a pretty good job by itself in putting together a loose, global anti-China coalition,” said Bilahari Kausikan, a former diplomat from Singapore who is now chair of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. “I cannot think of any serious country — with a big economy or even some with small economies — that does not have some concerns about China and Chinese behavior.”

With Xi’s position secure, a dramatic shift in Chinese policy seems unlikely. He is expected to push for another five-year term as the Communist Party’s leader, beginning in 2022, meaning his highly personalized rule could last another decade or more.

By then, he would have ruled longer than any other Chinese leader except Mao Zedong. Mao was also praised as the “great helmsman,” though in referring to Xi on Thursday, the committee used different characters for the term helmsman.

“This is a big show for Xi Jinping to try to convince the senior cadres that he deserves support to remain supreme leader well beyond 10 years,” Lam, the analyst, said.

Xi’s vision for China’s rise rests on strengthening the Communist Party’s reach into society and making technological advances to expand domestic consumption, upgrade industry, clean up the environment and protect the country from security threats. These goals formed the thrust of the party’s plans for the next five years, a draft of which the Central Committee endorsed Thursday.

“The dominant tone is that China has major opportunities for growth, for managing the process of decoupling in its own favor, and for setting the terms for the next stage of globalization,” said Julian B. Gewirtz, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “This is really an extraordinary tone to hear at a moment where it is not just the United States that is continuing to struggle with the pandemic.”

For Xi, the party meeting highlighted how China’s success in dealing with the coronavirus revived his political fortunes after setbacks early this year. Chinese officials initially played down the threat of the virus, and as infections multiplied, Xi faced a sharp surge of public anger.

Coming less than a week before the United States votes, the Chinese party meeting offered a stark contrast to the raucous wrangling of democratic politics. The Central Committee met behind closed doors, and if there was any internal dissension, propaganda overseers ensured that it did not leak.

After the meeting ended, Chinese television news showed Xi entering the meeting hall to sustained applause. The officials listening earnestly to his speech did not wear masks, a sign of China’s confidence that it has controlled the virus.

“The contrast between the current state of the United States and China, especially about COVID and the economy, has got to be a huge resource for Xi in terms of domestic support,” said Susan L. Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California San Diego, who was a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration.

“We’re in the campaign period for the 20th Party Congress” in 2022, she said. “There is no successor in sight, and every indication is that he’ll want to stay on for a third term.”

Xi’s move to end the two-term limit on the presidency has held off contention over a potential successor that would otherwise have been in full swing by now, eight years into his tenure. That 2018 decision ignited criticism about the danger of concentrating power in one supreme leader, but now seems to be accepted as reality. Few insiders believe that Xi will retire in two years.

Xi, 67, has not publicly said how long he wants to stay in office. For now, though, he has made no move to nurture, or at least identify publicly, a successor. He still must build support in the elite for staying on. Xi’s recent rhetoric, suffused with warnings of risks to China’s rise, appeared to form part of that effort, said Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who studies Chinese politics.

“The case for remaining on can be built around a sense of impending crisis when the experienced hand has to stay,” Fewsmith said by telephone.

More pointedly, faced with escalating pressure from the U.S., Xi used a speech this month marking 70 years since China’s entry into the Korean War to warn that “the Chinese people don’t go looking for trouble, but nor do they fear it.”

The Central Committee said that China would make “major strides” in modernizing its military and would strengthen the training of troops for war readiness. China’s national security apparatus — already formidable — would also be fortified, the committee said.

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