The year 2021 was challenging as well as momentous for China for several reasons. President Xi Jinping virtually re-wrote Chinese history by securing a third term and elevating himself to the stature of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Meanwhile, the country struggled with slow economic growth due to multiple Covid-19 outbreaks, power shortages and regulatory crackdown on multiple sectors, for instance technology, real-estate and education. Likewise at the international level, amidst challenges of international censure over Xinjiang policy and worsening bilateral ties with the United States (US), Europe, India, Japan, Australia and Taiwan, China alarmed the world with its advancements in warfare technology by testing hypersonic missiles and upholding Chinese political system as a true democracy. Against this backdrop, President Xi Jinping’s New Year speech was significant for the insights it offered with regard to the political objectives he aimed to achieve domestically and his vision for 2022.
By Mayuri Banerjee
Xi’s Political Objectives
In Xi Jinping’s perception, legitimacy of the “Party-state” is crucial to the stability of the regime. Therefore, since he came to power in 2012, the major objective which surfaced in his New Year addresses was sustaining a high level of political legitimacy for the “Party-state”. To that end, all his previous addresses focused primarily on national rejuvenation being realised by the Communist Party of China (CPC) under his leadership. For instance, the speeches began and delved at length about China’s rapid economic growth, improving living standards, technological scientific advancements, various developmental initiatives launched by the government and China’s increasing international outreach. More importantly, the issues were enunciated in a way to underscore the economic and socio-political vibrancy brought about by the government. For instance, in the 2020 New Year speech he highlighted that “significant breakthroughs” had been achieved by the state in economic, scientific and technological development due to “steady pursuit of high-quality development” and consequently everything was flourishing across the motherland. Similarly, in his 2021 New Year address President Xi emphatically asserted China to be ahead of other great powers in economic recovery from Covid-19. Also, heralding the completion of the 13th Five Year Plan (2016–20) he termed the government’s endeavours as aimed at implementing “high-quality development”. Also, in his 2020 and 2021 speeches, President Xi went a step ahead to create a sense of familial bond with the Party whereby he added personal accounts of inspection of developmental work and interaction with people regarding CPC’s success in eradicating extreme poverty and establishing a moderately prosperous society.
Likewise, in the 2022 New Year address, bolstering the Party’s image as the best institution to govern remained the primary focus. It is noteworthy that in Chinese political system, performance legitimacy in terms of achieving economic targets and strengthening national power is seen as a crucial means to maintain monopoly of power and Xi himself has relied on this to consolidate popular support. However, this year as the government itself refrained from setting an economic target in view of mounting economic uncertainties, Xi steered clear of any elaboration on China’s GDP or its economic growth. Instead, in a very veiled manner he sought to allude fears of an intensifying economic slowdown and reassure the nation about his and the Party’s resolve to tackle economic challenges. He began his address by stating that China was set to achieve the Second Centenary Goal of building a modern socialist country and that it was “developing rapidly with each passing day”. Conveying the government’s resolve, Xi recalled that the Party had an extraordinary journey in leading the Chinese people and scored “spectacular, epoch-making achievements in the past century”, and that CPC’s 100-year achievements and experience were a source of motivation and inspiration. Furthermore, highlighting CPC’s success in delivering a moderately prosperous society, he mentioned that in future the Party will focus on “long-term perspective, remain mindful of potential risks, maintain strategic focus and determination” to rejuvenate the nation. To enhance his image as a mass leader, Xi added that he cared about people’s concerns and strived for their aspirations. It was evident from the address that he not only tried to impress upon the Chinese people the centrality of CPC to Chinese polity, but also project the party as the primary engine for China’s socio-economic growth and development.
Reading the Tea-leaves
The focus on the party’s importance and achievements is hardly surprising if seen in the context of Xi seeking a third term. It is regarding Xi’s vision for the New Year that the address was particularly instructive. The address implicitly underlined his intent of directing China to look inward. Instances like tight border controls, calls for strengthening domestic socio-economic foundation, cutting down reliance on foreign technologies and imports had already created speculations about China preparing to isolate itself from the international community. The address reinforced the notion of insular attitude18 that Xi is likely to follow. The entire address pivoted on China’s domestic issues with scant reference to its foreign relations. Also, he declared that the Party should always remain “true to the original aspiration” of bringing about the rejuvenation of the nation and called for “vigorous and determined endeavour to fulfil their responsibility to history”. These statements combined with lack of reference to prospects of China’s further opening up or structural reforms20 underlined the shift to gravitate inwards.
Although fears of China decoupling from the rest of the world in the long run could be overblown. However, given the launch of the 14th Five Year Plan, turning inward could be a viable short-term strategy to shield against increasing international hostility while simultaneously pursuing its own path of building socialism with Chinese characteristics. In Xi’s understanding, a closed nationalist outlook will not only divert domestic attention away from the critical international opinion but also lead people to embrace the policy goals set by the Party. Moreover, before the 20th Party Congress which is likely to pave way for Xi’s third term, this phase could be used to further consolidate his hold on the Party elites and by extension on the country’s economic and social life.
Implications for China and International Community
Xi Jinping’s strategy to turn inward perhaps is triggered more by domestic exigencies than by external systemic pressure. However, the implications will be felt both domestically and internationally. On the domestic front, more stringent curbs on expression of public opinion (especially on any perceived dissent), greater internal oversight to make party cadres and private corporations adhere to the party line and nurture of party-centric nationalism, could be seen. Reportedly a communique recently released following the plenary session of China’s top anti-graft group stated that the Party will investigate disorderly expansion of capital, platform monopolies and will show “no mercy” to punish corruption, factionalism and interest groups within the Party. In effect, there will be more concerted efforts to curtail the influence of non-governmental entities to enable CPC to dictate the terms of business.
Similarly, the international community and especially China’s neighbours should be prepared to deal with a more aggressive and assertive China. A major strategic implication of turning inward would be a shift to a more muscular foreign policy where Beijing could demonstrate willingness to use force in defending its perceived core national interests in the Indo-Pacific and territorial disputes. The reason simply being that Xi Jinping will be keen to project a masochist image at both home and abroad, which means that while adopting strident policies on domestic issues, the government will be determined not to appear weak in its international dealings. More importantly, due to the “dual circulation policy” which emphasises greater self-reliance, access to Chinese markets might become limited. Speculations are rife amongst the European business community that China could be relatively less welcoming to foreign tech and digital companies.
President Xi Jinping’s 2022 New Year address offered just a glimpse of the policy changes that will be instituted in the New Year. The changes as they unfold will carry special significance for India due to the unresolved border dispute, overlapping geopolitical interests and economic interdependence. While post Galwan Valley crisis India hardened its strategic posture vis-à-vis China, the incoming uncertainties will necessitate New Delhi to further calibrate its China policy. First, New Delhi can capitalise on this evolving situation to attract foreign businesses exiting China by re-structuring its administrative and regulatory hurdles. Second, New Delhi should seek to diversify the China exposure by searching for alternative destination for imports, supply chain and fundraising and lastly strengthen its strategic partnerships with the US, Japan, European Union (EU) and Southeast Asian countries to better manage Chinese assertiveness on its frontiers and in the maritime domain.
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