Xi Jinping’s rousing speech at the lavish 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was a reflection of the good, the bad and the (whitewashed) ugly of its complex legacy. In his narcissistic admonishments, warnings and praise of the 95-million-member CCP, Xi has transformed into one-man rule, the risks and dangers ahead for China and the world were discernible.
Xi’s speech was a torrent of paeans to China’s success in overcoming adversity: “the party and the Chinese people showed the world that the Chinese people has stood up, and the time in which the Chinese nation could be bullied and abused by other was gone forever.” He added, “We must uphold the firm leadership of the Party. China’s success hinges on the Party.”
For Xi, the collapse of the USSR left an indelible fear for China’s future. As Xi explained in 2013 as he assumed the presidency, one reason the Soviets collapsed was “that their ideals and convictions wavered.” Xi’s efforts to bolster and tighten control of the CCP have been animated by this fear.
The CCP, for Xi, is the Chinese nation, and buoyant Han (92 percent of China is ethnic Han) nationalism is increasingly viewed as a source of CCP legitimacy, as economic growth has slowed. This helps explain Beijing’s brutal policies in Xinjiang and Tibet and its global assertiveness.
As for the good, Xi proudly recounted the undeniable achievements under the CCP. But he conveniently omitted the bad and the ugly. Some of the horrors of CCP rule since 1949, conveniently omitted from Xi’s speech: tens of millions dead as a result of famine from Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” of the 1950s, and the grotesque violence of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. And not least, the crackdown on protestors at Tiananmen Square. Absolute power means you can rewrite history as you like. That is the bad and the ugly.
Yet there’s no denying China’s stunning economic accomplishments over the past four decades. Pivoting away from the catastrophes of the Mao period, Deng Xiaoping’s market-oriented reforms from 1979 led to China’s GDP rising from $191 billion in 1980 to $14.3 trillion in 2019, with per-capita income increasing from $195 in 1980 to $10,261 by 2019. In the process, 770 million were lifted out of absolute poverty.
This transformation from an agrarian peasant society to becoming the world’s factory, building a large middle class and becoming a leading trade and high-tech power, provided a performance-based sense of legitimacy. This was highlighted by Deng’s slogan of the 1980s, “To get rich is glorious.” There was, in effect, an informal social compact — stay away from politics and you can enjoy a modicum of economic, social and cultural space.
China pursued a variation of the East Asian economic model, one of state subsidized, investment-driven export growth that created a middle class and democratic transitions as occurred in South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines in the late 1980s. So, it is understandable why many erroneously thought that Deng’s reforms would lead to political change as well. But China is an order of magnitude larger and more complex than other Asian states, and the CCP increasingly opted for order and control of 1.4 billion Chinese. Under Xi’s predecessors, a relatively moderate authoritarianism eroded incrementally.
Xi’s ascension, however, marked a dramatic shift. As Elizabeth Economy chronicles in a recent book, it was a “Third Revolution.” Xi undid the institutional reforms Deng put in place, such as term limits, making himself in effect, president for life. He curtailed much of what had been social and cultural latitude and enforced a hard techno-nationalist surveillance state. He cracked down and asserted a CCP role in China’s dynamic private sector, most notably Big Tech, putting CCP committees in corporate boardrooms. He also shifted from what was a loose collective leadership to a cult of personality, with Xi at the center of the CCP elite’s leading policy groups. And he discarded Deng’s motto – “hide your strength, bide your time” – for an assertive Chinese foreign policy seeking to tilt the world system toward China’s preferences.
His tough-minded nationalism was evident in his speech: “The Chinese people will absolutely not allow any foreign force to bully, oppress or enslave us and anyone who attempts to do so will face broken heads.” Thus, Beijing’s asserting dubious territorial claims in the South and East China Seas to the Himalayas, and its ambitious trillion-dollar Belt and Road Eurasian infrastructure scheme.
Then there are the “Wolf Warrior” diplomats, attacking the slightest criticism of China. Xi has often used economic coercion, putting pressure on South Korea for deploying THAAD missile defenses, imposing sanctions on EU parliamentarians, issuing “14 demands” and trade sanctions on Australia for criticizing Chinese influence operations and wanting a transparent investigation of COVID19 origins. Xi’s foreign policies appear a series of “own goals” that polls show have generated fear and resentment from India to Italy.
Many watched Xi’s speech for language on Taiwan. Xi called for “complete unification” and said, “We must take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward Taiwan independence.”
The good news is that this was typical CCP boilerplate: Xi did not put a timeline on unification. Remarkably, he still referred to CCP Taiwan policy modeled on Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two systems,” even as Beijing is demolishing Hong Kong’s freedoms and the autonomy it promised in the 1997 turnover from Britain. To most Taiwanese, this is absurd.
All told, Xi’s CCP anniversary speech had few surprises and much bravado. But despite China’s remarkable economic and technological success, there is a sense of underlying fear and vulnerability in Beijing’s behavior — from Xi’s techno-totalitarian control of the party-state and efforts to control business to crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Can Chinese innovation compete absent freedom? Will Beijing continue its global aggressive behavior in the face of a growing world-wide backlash that is mobilizing much of the world against it?
It is tempting to view China as an immature fledgling great power. The challenge to the U.S. and other like-minded states is how to curb Beijing’s ambitions and find a way to manage a competitive coexistence with a major nuclear state before they spin out of control.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and its New American Engagement and Strategy and Risks Initiatives. He served as a senior counselor to the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-12. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.