As Chinese President Xi Jinping prepared for his coronation this week as China’s 21st-century emperor, he trumpeted the success of his hard-line policies over the past five years — and, in the process, offered an ominous warning of what’s to come.
The congress will conclude this weekend by granting Xi an unprecedented third term as China’s leader, and installing a new generation of reliable Xi supporters to the ruling Politburo. Most telling in this festival of personal celebration: Xi’s utter lack of self-criticism.
Outside the echo chamber of Chinese propaganda, there’s growing evidence that Xi is making mistakes. China’s economic growth is slowing, to what many expect could be under 3 percent this year, and the party was evidently so nervous about this issue that it delayed this week’s scheduled release of third-quarter gross domestic product numbers. China’s business elite, meanwhile, are struggling to cope with Xi’s emphasis on inefficient state-run companies rather than Chinese innovators. And Chinese citizens have suffered under an oppressive “zero covid” lockdown.
Some analysts expected he might offer some modest concessions to his critics at home and abroad — scaling back the zero-covid policy, for example, or promoting officials who might provide more of the checks and balances that had existed among the Chinese collective leadership until Xi took power in 2012 and began a ruthless consolidation.
But Xi offered no apologies for China’s recent course, only praise for his policies and pointed insults for his critics. The setting of the party congress gave his self-assessment special importance. The bottom line: If Xi has been moving in the wrong direction in recent years, as many Chinese and foreign analysts believe, he is now promising to run even faster in that direction in the future.
Xi’s speech was encyclopedic. The official translation ran to 60 pages, single-spaced. Its anodyne-sounding theme was “socialism for the new era,” and Xi mentioned this “new era” — the Age of Xi, we might call it — more than 40 times. The speech had 80 mentions of security, 45 of socialism, 23 of technology. It mentioned freedom once.
Xi’s tone toward the United States was not bellicose, but he signaled that China is hunkering down for a period of intense competition with what he suggested was a bullying America: “Confronted with drastic changes in the international landscape, especially external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade and exert maximum pressure on China, we have put our national interests first, focused on internal political concerns, and maintained firm strategic resolve,” he said.
Xi’s most intriguing comments were his attacks on domestic critics, who have grumbled about the Communist Party’s ever-tightening control of all sectors of Chinese life. Xi ripped these naysayers: “Inside the Party, there were many issues with respect to upholding the Party’s leadership, including a lack of clear understanding and effective action as well as a slide toward weak, hollow, and watered-down Party leadership in practice.”
The Chinese leader continued: “Some Party members and officials were wavering in their political conviction. Despite repeated warnings, pointless formalities, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance persisted in some localities and departments. Privilege-seeking mind-sets and practices posed a serious problem, and some deeply shocking cases of corruption had been uncovered.”
On his police-state covid-19 lockdowns, Xi said he had launched “an all-out people’s war to stop the spread of the virus,” and he made no mention of the human costs of these policies. With the coronavirus, China truly has been caught between the health risks for an aging population and the costs of strangling commerce and social interaction.
As for the economy, Xi defended his neo-Maoist emphasis on state-run firms, and the consequent throttling of entrepreneurs. He attacked “money worship, hedonism, egocentricity and historical nihilism” and said of the once-vibrant Chinese internet sector, “online discourse was rife with disorder.” Chinese business leaders were already intimidated by Xi’s attacks; now they are likely to retreat from any Western business contacts that might be dangerous.
Taiwan is the issue that most concerns many Western analysts. They will hardly be reassured that Xi got loud applause when, after saying he wanted peaceful reunification, that “we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.” He blamed “interference by outside forces” (meaning the United States) and a “few separatists seeking ‘Taiwan independence,’ ” for any troubles.
Xi spoke like the modern-day emperor he has now become. As we read his strident work report, we should remember that its author will be the most powerful Chinese leader in history — whose response to China’s sagging economy and international isolation is full speed ahead.