With 2-Hour Speech, Xi Shows What Makes Him So Powerful

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We Indians have a tendency to view contemporary China so much through the lens of the western media and intelligentsia that we fail to understand the true nature of the gigantic self-transformation our neighbour has achieved. The West, America in particular, is today paranoid about the rise of China because of its fear of losing global dominance. Hence, right-wingers in USA and Europe view China – especially its strong-willed leader Xi Jinping – as a threat. Washington has been doing all it can to contain China, from weaponising semiconductor technology to taking provocative actions in Taiwan, which China claims as its own.

The West also has a habit of discussing politics in a personalised manner. Hence, almost all of the western media’s commentary in the run-up to the 20th national congress of the Communist Party of China was focused on how Xi Jinping was going to solidify his power by getting himself re-elected as the party chief for a norm-defying third term.

However, those who watched the proceedings of the opening session of the CPC’s congress on October 16, and paid close attention to the speech delivered by Xi, would have come to a different conclusion. The Chinese Communist Party is a far bigger entity, and has built a far more institutionalised structure, than can be run as per the whims and fancies of its top leader. The CPC has learnt bitter lessons from the chaos of the final decade of Mao Zedong’s rule when the so-called ‘Cultural Revolution’ traumatised Chinese society and almost destroyed the communist party. Xi Jinping is no doubt powerful, but he is not taking the party along the path of ageing Mao, nor will the party allow him to do so. As Xi himself once said soon after becoming CPC’s general secretary for the first time in 2012, “power in China” is now placed firmly “within a cage of rules and regulations”. Viewed in this way, power is far more personalised in the hands of Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Donald Trump (when he was president of the USA).

It may surprise many that the speech Xi delivered on Sunday is not his alone. It is a report he submitted to the CPC’s 20th congress on behalf of its outgoing central committee, elected at its 19th congress five years ago. Preparation of the speech began almost a year ago, and a lot of leaders contributed to it and reviewed it at various stages. In short, China’s leadership is far more collective and consultative than is the case in several democracies.

Coming to the content and delivery of Xi’s address, any unbiased observer could easily notice another important difference. There was no demagoguery of any kind – no “ghar mein ghus kar maarenge” kind of rhetoric in reference to an external adversary. Unlike what we routinely see at similar conferences of political parties in India, there was not one word of threat or criticism targeting an internal adversary. Indeed, coming from one described recently by The Economist magazine as the “world’s most powerful leader”, Xi’s speech was bland, bereft of any oratorical flourishes.

Yet there were a lot of meaty messages in the two-hour-long speech Xi read out from a written text. It comprehensively covered all the achievements of China since the beginning of the ‘new era’ – that is, when Xi became the party chief a decade ago. But it did not gloss over the enormous challenges the country is now facing. “Corruption”, he said, “is the biggest cancer that damages the party’s vitality and fighting power.” China, during his uncompromising battle against graft, has sent thousands of “tigers” (top-ranking officials) and “flies” (low-level functionaries) to jail for taking bribes. “The anti-corruption campaign is the most thorough way of self-revolution,” Xi said.

A good part of Xi’s speech was devoted to the task of “self-reform” of the communist party. He repeatedly exhorted CPC’s 5.9 million members to “remain true to the founding aspirations and original mission” of the party. This is by no means easy. China today is unrecognisably different from the circumstances in which the CPC was founded in 1921, or the time when it led the revolution in 1949. It is different even from the period when Deng Xiaoping initiated the bold policy of “reforms and opening up” in the late 1978. How can the party remain alive and effective, and not deteriorate and collapse (as happened to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union)? The West is doing all it can to end the rule of the communist party, which some hope will also lead to the disintegration of China, as happened to the Soviet Union.
China will not disintegrate. What is actually going to happen is the opposite, which Xi strongly affirmed in his speech. He said, “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification (of Taiwan) with the greatest sincerely and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force. The wheels of history are rolling on towards China’s reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The complete reunification of our country must be realized and it can without a doubt be realized.” This drew the loudest cheers from the nearly 3,000 delegates in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

On Taiwan, his language this time was much milder than what the world had heard a year ago at an event marking the centenary of the CPC. In a message unmistakably aimed at the USA, he had said, “The Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, coerce and enslave us. Whoever attempts to do that, will surely break their heads on the steel Great Wall built with the blood and flesh of 1.4 billion of Chinese people.”

The term “national rejuvenation” of China appeared eight times in his speech. The confident message was: China has risen, and the West better come to terms with it. “China’s international influence, appeal and power to shape the world has significantly increased,” he said. In a world searching for non-western paradigms of modernity, he stated “Chinese modernization offers humanity a new choice for achieving modernization.” To societies like India, which are concerned about widening wealth disparities (even the RSS has expressed worries over this problem), China has a message: “We will steadfastly push for common prosperity for all people. We will improve the system of income distribution. We will keep wealth accumulation well regulated.” China’s “green development” was a repeated promise in Xi’s speech.

Finally, there was a pointed assurance to all those concerned about China’s rising power. “China will not engage in any kind of hegemony and expansionism”. For Indians to start believing that China is willing to walk the talk on this score, one fervently hopes that Xi Jinping resumes his dialogue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon and removes all the obstacles in the path of full normalisation of India-China relations.

(The writer was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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