Author : Manoj Joshi

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 05, 2018
Xi will need all the authority he has in the coming period as the trade war with the US intensifies.
The return of Xi

In recent months, there has been talk about internal pressure being put on Xi as a fallout of his policies and the difficulties faced by his new Politburo Standing Committee colleague Wang Huning. The most notable instance is the 24 July article written by Xu Zhangrun, a law professor in Tsinghua University, who denounced Xi’s hardline policies, including those seeking to revive orthodox Marxism and Maoist totalitarianism. 

There were other indicators too of the unhappiness with the President, including criticism of the excessively positive and over-the-top propaganda such as the documentary — “Amazing China.”

Xi’s was not seen in the official media in the first fifteen days of August, presumably he was at the customary vacation/meetings at Beidaihe seaside resort. This is the annual retreat of the top two dozen or so leaders of the country where key decisions are taken.

Xi surfaced from the working vacation with four significant meetings signaling that things were tightly under his control. The first meeting, one between 17 to 19 August, was with the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which called for strengthening the Communist Party of China (CPC) leadership over the PLA.  The message of the meeting was not unusual — the need for military to show absolute leadership to the CPC.

Subsequently on 22 and 23 August, he chaired a five-yearly national conference on propaganda and ideological work where he emphasised the correctness of the Party decisions since the 18th Congress in 2012 and certified the reliability of the officials (like Wang Huning, the ideological chief and PBSC member who chaired the meeting) in the ideological and propaganda work. Besides his command of the PLA and the ideological apparatus of the Party, XI was also signaling that there was essential unity in the Party approach going back to the Congress that elected him the Chairman of the CPC.

In recent months, there has been criticism of the CPC’s overblown nationalistic propaganda which has sought to show China’s achievements as being greater than they are. Now, leading newspapers like People’s Daily are criticising the “repeatedly boastful and arrogant” talks and calling on the media to desist from claims that the US was scared of China and that Japan was in awe of Beijing’s achievements. Even while doing this, the Chinese authorities insist, as Xi did at the 22 and 23 August meeting, that the Party’s work on propaganda and ideology in the past five years had been “completely correct.” 

On 24 August, Xi presided over the first meeting of the Commission for Law-Based Governance. In the meeting, he called for the strengthening of the centralised and unified leadership of the CPC on the issue of advancing “law based governance in all areas.” In essence, the Commission is aimed at promoting the “rule of law” as the CPC sees it, as well as ensuring the Party’s leadership over this “rule of law” system. 

Then on 27 August, he chaired a seminar on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), where he defended the Initiative and said that it was not about creating a “China Club”. But observers said that there were indications that China was undertaking some adjustments in its strategy given the global pushback against various BRI projects. In this case, the comments came after Malaysia pulled out of a China-backed railway project. Xi said that the BRI was “an economic cooperation initiative, not a geopolitical or military alliance.” 

Consolidation of the Xi ideology

The approach indicated that Xi remains firmly in the saddle and the conflict with the US may actually be strengthening his hand. He is circling the nationalist wagons and in such circumstances opposition to him would be seen as anti-national.

A confirmation of this trend is visible in efforts to push Deng Xiaoping in the background. This is a corollary of the decision of the 19th Party Congress of 2017 that under Xi Jinping, China was witnessing a “New Era.” After all following Deng, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era” was written into the Party Constitution. 2018 is witnessing the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening policy launched by Deng.

On 26 August, the CPC published updated discipline rules for Party members. The rules are meant to get cadres push Party policy faithfully. The rules originally published in 2015 called on cadres to uphold the CPC Constitution and party regulations, ensuring intra party discipline. The rules, the official release said, were to resolutely uphold “the core status of General Secretary Xi.” The new rules say that Party members cannot speak against central policies or “spread rumours” that damage the CPC. More important, it says that “Party members who have religious belief should have strengthened thought education. If they don’t change… they should be encouraged to leave the Party.” 

The Wall Street Journal reported that a museum in Shenzhen was “upgraded” with a panoramic sculpture of Deng Xiaoping being replaced by video screens showing quotes of Xi. All this is part of a larger process of showing Xi Jinping to be a greater figure.  A report by a correspondent to a visit to the National Museum of Art in Beijing also reported an exhibition on the 40th anniversary and noted that Deng hardly figured in the exhibits, whole Xi’s father “stole the show.” 

The downgrading of Deng is also linked to the fact that Xi’s political line of the Party leading in all areas goes against the thrust of Deng’s policies that had sought to promote the separation of the party and the state.

According to Jerome Cohen, from the beginning of the Deng reforms till 2012, despite official Marxism-Leninism, Chinese judges, prosecutors, lawyers, legislators, bureacucrats, law professors and even police were, by and large, educated to respect the Western legal values…” But under Xi China has promoted the concept of “rule by law,” and has denounced universal values like the separation of powers, judicial independence and the role of human rights lawyers and have instead promoted total CPC dominance. 

Recently, an article in People’s Daily by Li Junru, cited the aphorism coined by Xi in the 19th Party Congress “Government, the military, society and schools, north, south, east and west — the party leads them all.” Li argued that it was right to roll back the system advocated by Deng.

Challenges ahead

Xi will need all the authority he has in the coming period as the trade war with the US intensifies. September may see an intensification of the trade war with the US. According to reports, US President Donald Trump is keen to institute a fresh round of sanctions on 6,000 products worth $200 billion.  China is expected to retaliate with tariffs on products worth $60 billion, but thereafter it soon runs out of products to sanction and make take recourse to other non-tariff measures.

Trump is being encouraged to go ahead with the tariffs not only because he thinks it is playing well with his domestic political base but also because he thinks that the Chinese are undermining his North Korea policy. So far, the two countries have imposed 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion worth of each other’s goods.

The Chinese now have come to accept that the trade issues are only one prong of a multi-pronged US approach that, in their view, seeks to “thwart the rise of China.” Writing in the People’s Daily recently, a top Chinese official noted that the US policy was not about trade, but containing China. 

Doubling down on the view expressed in the National Security Strategy issues in December 2017 that saw China as a peer competitor, the US has come up with a massive National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) which states that “long term strategic competition with China is a principal priority for the US. Besides the authorisation of $716 billion for defence expenditure, it has authorised a number of measures to restrict Chinese influence in the US.” Where China may have initially believed that in the currently divided US polity, there may have been some value in hunkering down and seeing the Trump Administration on the backfoot after the November elections, they now realise that they are confronting a consensual shift in the US policy, as evidenced by the massive majorities with which the NDAA was passed. 

According to reports, the CPC Central Committee may hold its fourth full meeting later this year. The meeting is expected to focus on economic issues and reform agendas, but the situation is likely to compel Xi and the CPC to change the agenda.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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