Why India needs to be wary of Xi Jinping’s 20th Party congress address
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 30 Oct , 2022

As expected, Xi Jinping has got a third term as China’s leader. With the Constitutional amendments making him and his Thought the core of the nation, and given his relatively young age, the door for a fourth term for him has been potentially opened.

Power in China has been centralised further in him. The Standing Committee of the Politburo is now packed with his men. The earlier practice of accommodating the Communist Party’s various political factions has been jettisoned. The grip of the Party on all aspects of national life has been tightened.

In his speech at the 20th Party Congress, Xi spoke about strengthening “the overall leadership of the Party and the centralised, unified leadership of the Central Committee”. Marxism integrated with Chinese cultural characteristics is declared as the fundamental guiding ideology of dialectical and historical materialism upon which the Party and the country is founded- however antiquated this thinking may appear in terms of the rejection of Marxist ideology worldwide.

Xi declares that the CCPs “theories are from the people, for the people and beneficial to the people”, which is his version of a commonly accepted definition of democracy that he is applying to an autocracy. He reiterates in his address China’s claim to be a democracy- a “whole-process democracy”, one that is “democracy in its broadest, most genuine, and most effective form”. Xi has already presented China’s version of democracy as an alternative political system more suited to the needs of developing countries. His address in fact expatiates on his concept of a “whole- process democracy”. Does it mean that he feels the need to assure the public of giving them more participative rights, impartial judiciary and law-based governance (socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics)?

He promises to develop a Chinese narrative that presents China as “credible, appealing, and respectable, “for which China will strengthen its communication capabilities. As it is, China has worked hard to foster a positive image through fueling money to opinion making think tanks, media and academia in the West, Confucius Institutes, mobilising Chinese students abroad, and the like.

In his speech Xi implicitly castigated his immediate predecessors, referring damningly to issues within the Party’s leadership, “including a lack of clear understanding and effective action as well as a slide towards weak, hollow and watered-down Party leadership in practice”, and the uncovering of “deeply shocking cases of corruption”.  This might explain the seemingly unceremonious eviction from the final session of the Party Congress of Hu Jintao, his immediate predecessor.

Xi spoke critically of “misguided patterns of thinking such as money worship, hedonism, egocentricity, and historical nihilism” that spread under the earlier weak leadership, as well as online discourse being “rife with disorder”, justifying implicitly the need for strict censorship that he has imposed on China’s information networks. He spoke of many shortcomings “affecting the modernisation of national defence and the military”. He claims to have brought together the “entire party, the military and the Chinese people” – the result of the consolidation of his power. He vaunted his own “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a new Era” as providing fundamental guidance to the Party and the country, with the Party being the “highest force of political leadership”, and that the “upholding the centralised, unified leadership of the Party Central Committee is the highest political principle”.

The repeated paragraphs in his speech on the need for strengthening the Party rule in China would suggest challenges and a real power struggle within the system, hidden from public view, otherwise why stress this to this degree in his address. The references to the absolutely dominating role of the Party in all spheres of national life scattered throughout Xi’s speech as if the legitimacy of the Party, despite over 70 years of communist role, has to be constantly re-affirmed is striking.

Xi admitted that development in China had been unbalanced and spoke of closing the economic gaps in society, which explains his curbs on the private sector as part of pursuing “common prosperity”, i.e., social fairness and justice, though he claimed that China had “once and for all resolved the problem of absolute poverty in China”.

On China’s economic growth Xi claimed that in the decade he has been in power, China’s GDP doubled to account for 18.6% of the world economy, up 7.2% points, with China remaining the world’s second largest economy, with its per capita income doubled. He noted that China’s manufacturing sector is the largest in the world, as are its foreign exchange reserves, with R&D spending increasing 2.8 times- the second highest in the world. He listed the areas of advanced technology in which China has made strides and joined the rank of the world’s innovators.

Calling China “a major developing country” does not conform to this picture of China’s economic achievements. To say that China will not “pursue grandiose goals” contradicts Xi’s declared ambition to be at the center of global relations by 2049; in other words, the world’s leading power.

In fact, in his address Xi outlined again China’s ambitious targets for 2035 when China “will join the ranks of the world’s most innovative countries”, and “a leading country in Science and Technology”. He noted that “a significant shift is taking place in the international balance of power, presenting China with new strategic opportunities in pursuing development”. But he also noted a backlash against globalisation and mounting unilateralism and protectionism, the world entering into “a period of turbulence and change”, as well as “external attempts to suppress and contain China”, that “may escalate any time”. He also acknowledges that “uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising, and that various ‘black swan’ and ‘grey rhino’ events (a bow to western jargon) may occur at any time. He wants China to be “prepared to deal with worst case scenarios, and be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms”, which requires “upholding and strengthening the Party’s overall leadership” and “carrying forward our fighting spirit”. How he reconciles all these negative omens with new strategic opportunities for China is not clear.

China, he said, had become a major trading partner of more than 140 countries, leading the world in total volume of trade in goods, being a major destination of global investment and a leading country in outward investment. By this he seems to be implicitly playing down concerns about supply chains moving out of China. The underplaying of his own pet project- the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in his speech is significant. The BRI is referred to only in a couple of lines “as a collaborative endeavour” that “has been welcomed by the international community both as a public good and a cooperation platform” and China’s intention to “promote the high-quality development of the Belt and Road Initiative”. There is greater emphasis in Xi’s speech to China’s newly minted Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative to “pursue the cause of common good, live in harmony and engage in cooperation for mutual benefit” for “sustained prosperity and guaranteed security”.

In pursuing modernisation, Xi said, China will not tread the old path of war, colonisation, and plunder taken by some countries, saying that China (borrowing an American line) will stand on the right side of history. This is contradicted by China’s actions in Ladakh, in the South and East China Seas, the constant threats to reunite Taiwan by force if necessary, and colonial practices in emulating the UK in Hong Kong by obtaining a 99-year lease on Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and exploitation of Africa’s mineral resources.

Xi stressed the Party’s absolute leadership over the PLA, with focus on its combat effectiveness and training under combat conditions.  China will, he said, “safeguard China’s maritime rights” and “resolutely defend our country’s sovereignty”. He spoke of enhancing “political loyalty in the military”, as well as “enhance the military strategic capabilities for defending China’s sovereignty”, and establish “a strong system of strategic deterrence”. The security posture will be shaped to deter and manage crises and conflicts “and win local wars”- alluding no doubt to the conflict with India. That a visual of the Galwan clash with India was projected on the screen at the venue of the 20th Congress and PLA Commander Qi Fabao was in the audience during Xi’s speech as a Party delegate suggests that border tensions with India will continue.

Those who believed that the draconian Covid-19 restrictions imposed by Xi that dislocated the lives of citizens and businesses might recoil on him have proved wrong. In his speech Xi took credit for his “tenaciously” pursuing a “dynamic zero Covid policy”, characterising it as “an all-out people’s war”.

On Taiwan independence, Xi believes China has strengthened its “strategic initiative for China’s complete reunification and consolidated commitment to the One-China principle within the international community”. He asserts that “Taiwan is Chinese Taiwan”, and that China “will never promise to renounce the use of force” and reserves “the option of taking all measures necessary”. From India’s point of view, the continuation of tensions in the western Pacific should limit Chinese undue adventurism in the Himalayas.

Xi acknowledges the China has been “confronted with drastic changes in the international landscape, especially external attempts (read US) to blackmail, contain, blockade and exert maximum pressure on China”, but states that China “has maintained firm strategic resolve” and has “shown a fighting spirit and a firm determination to never yield to coercive power”, taking a “clear-cut stance against hegemonism and power politics in all their forms”. “We have never wavered in our opposition to unilateralism, protections and bullying of any kind”, he said.

Xi’s claim that “China respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries” and that it adheres “to the principle of equality of all countries, big or small, strong or weak,” and that it “is firmly against all forms of hegemonism” is manifestly hollow. China bullies smaller countries, makes illegitimate territorial claims, occupies territories that do not belong to it, and seeks hegemony in Asia. This is why India emphasises that global multipolarity must begin with multipolarity in Asia. That “China strives to enhance friendly ties, mutual trust, and converging interests with its neighbouring countries” has no relation to realities, certainly in India’s case.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Kanwal Sibal

is the former Indian Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia.

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