SINGAPORE — Chinese officials will be facing an increasingly unstable situation both at home and abroad as they convene this week for the nation’s most significant political event in years. However, President Xi Jinping’s leadership and the prospect of conflict with the U.S.-led West are the event’s central themes.
At this week’s twice-decade National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, is certain to win a historic third term.
In his address to the congress on Sunday, Xi made no mention of China, which the US and its allies view as their main global rival, changing its position on issues like Taiwan, Hong Kong, or its stringent “zero-Covid” policy. He anticipated difficulties, though, and warned that China would not back down from rivalry or conflict.
In front of approximately 2,300 delegates in the Great Hall of the People, Xi said, “We must deepen our feeling of hardship, adhere to the bottom-line mentality, be prepared for risk even in times of peace, prepare for a rainy day, and be ready to withstand major tests of high winds and high seas.”
Xi is anticipated to win a third, five-year term as general secretary of the nation’s ruling Chinese Communist Party and as commander-in-chief of its armed forces at the weeklong conference. (His third position as president of China won’t expire until the spring of next year.) He may even be given the title of “party chairman,” a position that has only ever been held by Mao Zedong, who ruled the People’s Republic of China for 27 years following its foundation in 1949.
According to Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, the lack of surprises in Xi’s address indicates his general confidence.
He claimed to be “assured in his influence over the party and control over the course of policy.” Who knows if he is confident about the state of the economy and the effects of COVID-19.
In addition to the “zero-Covid” limits that officials claim are necessary to prevent the health care system from becoming overburdened, Xi faces a number of issues that will make his third term unlike his first two. Due to economic rivalry, tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and disagreements on Russia’s war in Ukraine, China’s ties with the United States, Europe, and Australia are at their lowest point in years.
Instead of focusing on those challenges, Xi stressed national security issues and his prior accomplishments in his speech.
China has advanced significantly during the past ten years, according to Wang Huiyao, the head of the Center for China and Globalization and a former consultant to the State Council, the country’s highest administrative body. The president’s leadership has unquestionably been reinforced by such accomplishments.
China’s GDP has increased by more than double to $17.7 trillion under Xi. According to World Bank data, the number of rural poor people decreased from 82 million in 2013 to 6 million in 2019, while the number of mainland Chinese billionaires as measured by Forbes magazine increased from 113 in 2012 to 539 in 2022, compared to 735 in the United States. The network of high-speed rail lines in China has increased by more than four times to 25,000 miles, which is more than the rest of the world combined.
Along with its advancements at home, China has expanded its influence overseas, attempting to foster trade and other ties, project soft power, and make aggressive steps in the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with a number of nations. As Xi accelerates the modernisation of his military, expanding the number of aircraft carriers from one to three, compared to America’s 11, China’s yearly defense expenditure has more than doubled to $230 billion. The nation also boasts a large-scale space program, having recently made spacecraft landings on the moon and Mars and is almost finished building its own space station.
Xi has increased state surveillance, consolidated power in his own hands, and violently suppressed dissent, but he has also made China more dictatorial. In the western province of Xinjiang, he directed a campaign of atrocities against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities that the United States and others claim amounted to genocide. Chinese officials refute these claims, claiming that they are engaged in the battle against terrorism and that the sizable prison facilities used to house Uyghurs and other minorities serve as centers for vocational and training.
Critics claim that a national security law Beijing enacted in 2020 has reduced civil freedoms, stifled free speech, and all but eliminated political opposition in the Chinese region of Hong Kong. After months of anti-government protests in 2019, the Chinese government claims the national security law was required to restore calm in Hong Kong.
With “Xi Jinping Thought” being taught beginning in primary school and intensely researched by authorities, Xi has dismissed political competitors and pushed to integrate his views on Chinese socialism into daily life. Ever since Xi eliminated China’s usual two-term presidential restriction in 2018, analysts have predicted that he will stay in power.
A third term for Xi is a disaster, according to Human Rights Watch senior researcher Yaqiu Wang.
Wang, who was born and raised in China, said, “It’s sad, especially for someone who was born in the 1980s, because we grew up in a society that was becoming more rich and more liberalized.” “You felt like things were improving, people were feeling proud and empowered.”
Today, she continued, “human rights have gone substantially worse – in every element.”
As Xi positions his form of government as an alternative to democracy, the rise of authoritarianism in China has worldwide repercussions.
According to Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, “He wants to present this picture of China being a force for stability, but it’s a force for stability that is different from the U.S. viewpoint.”
A career-defining accomplishment that would have symbolized Xi’s legacy is one item that is missing, according to Jinghan Zeng, professor of China and international studies at Lancaster University in England.
While Mao established the Communist state, Deng Xiaoping, China’s most important leader in the 1970s and 1980s, promoted reforming and opening up the nation’s economy. Xi, on the other hand, has been open about his goal to reunite China with Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own.
How is Xi Jinping going to defend the claim that he is a leader on par with Chairman Mao? said Zeng. You “can’t really see anything” that would work, “besides reunification with Taiwan,” if you look around.
Xi restated his opposition to Taiwan’s independence and denounced interference from “foreign forces” in his speech on Sunday.
We continue to work with the utmost earnestness toward the possibility of peaceful reunion, he said. However, there is no pledge to refrain from using force, and all available options remain on the table.
Taiwan’s response was a warning to Beijing against “acts of pressure and hostility,” since it has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.
Only Taiwan’s 23 million residents have the authority to determine the future, according to a statement from the Mainland Affairs Council.
The possibility of a direct military battle between Washington and Beijing has been raised by President Joe Biden’s remarks that the U.S. would intervene to defend Taiwan, a democracy and a significant microchip maker, in the case of an invasion. According to an survey published last month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think group, few experts anticipate Xi would use substantial force against the island in the next five years, despite the fact that he has greatly escalated pressure on Taiwan.
Although Xi did not specifically address it in his speech, Russia’s conflict in Ukraine is another hot topic in China’s relations with other nations. Over the past year, relations between Beijing and Moscow have intensified, and Xi has refrained from criticizing Russia’s conduct.
Xi has already passed the traditional retirement age for Chinese officials at the age of 69. Anyone who follows Xi closely and isn’t already too elderly could be a prospective successor, according to the new Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest governing body. If no one meets that description, it will be interpreted as Xi’s intention to hold onto power indefinitely.
“There was a lot of wishful thinking in the West that Xi Jinping would become a pro-liberal leader before he became president in 2012,” Zeng added. It would be incorrect to assume that he will reverse course during his third term, just as it was then.
In Ottawa, Ontario, Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University, claims that Xi sees China as a rising force and that great-power competition has formed his worldview. Therefore, it is unlikely that tensions with the US and many of its allies will decrease any time soon.
It will be extremely challenging for us to have more cooperation during President Xi’s third term, she predicted, due to both his long-term objectives and the prevalent sentiments in the West. We have been on this course for about ten years.