Xi Jinping has struck a confident posture as he looks to secure China’s prosperity and power in a post-COVID-19 world, saying that the country is entering a time of opportunity when “the East is rising, and the West is declining.”
But behind closed doors, China’s Communist Party leader has also issued a blunt caveat to officials: Do not count out our competitors, above all the United States.
“The biggest source of chaos in the present-day world is the United States,” Xi said, a county official in northwest China recounted in a speech published last week on a government website. He quoted Xi as saying: “The United States is the biggest threat to our country’s development and security.”
That warning, echoed in similar recent public comments by senior officials close to Xi, reinforces how he is seeking to balance confidence and caution as China strides ahead while other countries continue to grapple with the pandemic.
His double-sided pronouncements reflect an effort to keep China on guard because, despite its success at home, it faces deep distrust in Washington and other Western capitals. Although China is growing stronger, Xi has said, there are still many ways in which “the West is strong, and the East is weak,” officials have recounted in speeches recently issued on local party websites.
Xi will unveil a long-term blueprint for navigating China in this new global environment later this week, when the Communist Party-controlled legislature, the National People’s Congress, gathers Friday and convenes for about a week.
“Xi Jinping strikes me as ruthless but cautious in erecting a durable personal legacy,” Dimitar Gueorguiev, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University who studies China, said. In the eyes of China’s leaders, he said, “the response to the coronavirus was really a textbook example to the party of how you could bring things together in a short amount of time and force through a program.”
Xi and other Chinese leaders have recently described challenges, both short term and long term, that could hold back their ambitions. The Biden administration has signaled that it wants to press China on human rights and compete with it on technological advancements and regional influence in Asia. At home, China is grappling with an aging population and trying to overhaul an engine of economic growth that uses too much investment and energy for too little gain and too much pollution.
Beijing also sees a threat in Hong Kong after anger at the Communist Party’s deepening control there ignited months of anti-government protests in 2019. Underscoring Xi’s hard line against any political challenges, the Chinese legislature appears poised to back plans to drastically rewrite election rules for Hong Kong, removing the vestiges of local democracy in the former British colony.
China is also looking to its next big leadership shake-up next year, when Xi, 67, appears likely to claim a third five-year term in power, bulldozing past the term limits that had been put in place to restrain leaders after Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
China’s leaders have seized on the country’s success in extinguishing coronavirus infections as vindicating Xi’s high-pressure, top-down rule. Having emerged triumphantly from the pandemic, Xi will look to further centralize his power, said Lynette H. Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto.
The congress is part of the party’s stagecraft this year to reinforce the view that Xi is essential to safely steering China through momentous changes. Official Chinese media have recently hailed Xi’s campaign to end rural poverty as a major success. This week, he reminded party cadres to rally behind his leadership and demonstrate loyalty to his agenda.
“The looming risks and tests will not be any less than the past,” Xi told an audience of younger party officials in Beijing, according to official reports. “Our party has relied on struggle up to this day and must rely on struggle to win the future.”
And in July, Xi will preside over the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, celebrations that are likely to cast him as a historic leader like Mao and Deng. Adding to the aura of success are China’s plans next year to hold the Winter Olympics and to have a space station in orbit.
Xi has portrayed China as moving closer by the year to regaining its rightful historic status as a great power, while established powers are riven by dysfunction.
He urged officials late last year to “grasp clearly the grand trend that the East is rising while the West is declining,” Zhou Ye, a party cadre at Fudan University in Shanghai, recently told a meeting, according to an online account. “There is a vivid contrast between the order of China and the chaos of the West.”
For years, Xi and other Chinese officials have sometimes used swaggering rhetoric, setting East against West. But officials have used such phrases markedly more often in recent months, underscoring the confidence — critics say hubris — enveloping the Chinese government.
The health of the economy will be crucial to whether that confidence survives. Government advisers have suggested that average growth could be 5% or higher over the next five years, if things go well.
But the country might not sustain that level of growth unless it becomes more innovative and reduces its reliance on investment in heavy industry and infrastructure, economic advisers in Beijing say.
The country also faces serious demographic challenges. For decades, China has benefited from a young labor force that streamed into its factories and cities. But China’s aging population will place growing demands on pension funds, health care and accumulated savings.
Such economic pressures could corrode public support for the party in the years ahead, said Andrew G. Walder, a professor at Stanford University who has contributed to a book on the “Fateful Decisions” facing China. “We shouldn’t be too lulled by stability in public approval of the Communist Party’s performance,” he said.
Leaders in Beijing appear much more focused on the United States, which they see as remaining bent on hobbling China’s ascent, regardless of who is in the White House.
Chinese policymakers were alarmed when the Trump administration pulled back Chinese companies’ access to U.S. technology. Many say that the United States will keep trying to hold back China by restricting its access to “chokehold technologies,” such as advanced semiconductors and the machines to make them.
“Containment and oppression from the United States is a major threat,” said Chen Yixin, a security official who served as Xi’s policy enforcer in Wuhan, where the coronavirus emerged. Lecturing officials about Xi’s ideas in January, Chen used military language to emphasize the dangers: “This is both an unplanned clash and a protracted war.”
Xi’s plan for addressing these shortcomings is to expand domestic innovation and markets to be less dependent on high-tech imports. But building up the capacity to design and make advanced high-tech components is costly, with no guarantee of success.
The prospects for Xi’s plans also depend on questions that go unmentioned in official pronouncements: How long does he intend to rule? And who will he appoint to succeed him?
In 2018, Xi rammed through a constitutional change abolishing term limits on the presidency, opening the way for him to stay in power for more than a decade as president as well as party leader. China’s political and economic elites are likely to grow increasingly jittery in private about when and how Xi will promote a potential successor, or stable of successors.
He could dominate for years yet, making his decisions, or misjudgments, all the more consequential.
“Internally there are now few sources of opposition — no sources of opposition,” Xiao Gongqin, a historian in Shanghai, said, “so the leader must be able to stay even-keeled.”
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