At the recent 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, the Great Hall of the People stood up in applause as Xi’s leadership was extended for another five years. The decision was a vote of confidence in the president’s vision for a more assertive role for China in international affairs. The sentiment reflected support for policies laid out in Xi’s three-and-a-half hour address during which he said China “would be moving closer to the center of the world stage,” pursuing its own ambitious policies backed by a “world-class military.”
These developments are of such great interest as the former student of ‘Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought’ at Tsinghua University has remained true to his training. In a marked difference from China’s new elite, the president shows greater ideological confidence in expounding the necessity of following communist principles. In recent decades those in power have argued that blending Chinese socialism with free market principles was the pathway to modernity, however this president is committed to pursuing a “Chinese Dream” towards greatness which closely resembles earlier communist ideas.
Having recognized a potential opportunity for global leadership, China aims to realign the world order through schemes such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the One Belt One Road Initiative.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Communist Party control over government is growing and the upcoming administration is understood to have designs on better coordinating the gargantuan Chinese administrative apparatus. In a departure from liberal economics, it is understood that state-owned firms will be empowered in line with efforts to centralize power. Such moves herald a break from mainstream views that have been held in China since the tenure of Deng Xiao Peng who had aimed to reform China’s economy and open it up to the world. Similarly, the separation of party and state that had taken place after the authoritarian rule of Chairman Mao Tse Tung has been overturned as Xi consolidates control over the party. In a remarkable show of support, “Xi Jinping Thought” will now be taught across national curricula and party members alongside state workers and schoolchildren will study the philosophy of the strongman increasingly known as “Papa Xi.”
However, a return to central communist party rule does not indicate a return to isolationist foreign policy principles. The leader has embarked on a charm offensive, visiting over 60 capitals in the last two years and speaking the language of ‘inclusive’ globalism. This has come amidst talk of the West having enveloped itself in a return to protectionism following the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. To policymakers in Beijing, such chaos elsewhere in the world has allowed the Communist Party to more confidently criticize the decadent west, highlighting the paralysis brought about by the challenges facing liberal democracies. In many respects the insular nature of the Trump administration has risked leaving the seat of global leadership empty — a chair upon which Xi would like to sit.
Though China continues to advocate the need for international peace and security through working within the established procedures of the international community, it is clear that it recognizes a malaise in the system. It in increasingly clear that it aims to realign the global order through schemes such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the One Belt One Road Initiative which focuses on the connectivity between Eurasian countries through six land corridors and a maritime silk road. Within this context, Xiao Peng’s philosophy known as “hide our capabilities and bide our time” is being overhauled as China’s economy grows, allowing it to project a greater international presence. In the first six months of 2017, 62 million Chinese citizens travelled to other countries. This number, a size equal to the population of a large country, illustrates how Chinese economic performance is increasing its interaction with the global community.
In many respects China is beginning to behave how any country its size should. The difference is that it is now more confident in its worldview and is more keen to engage in soft power initiatives to, in Xi’s own words, offer “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.” In the last year, China invested some $225 billion overseas, an amount the size of most large sovereign wealth funds. With a GDP having averaged almost 10 percent from 1989 to 2017, China has the economic clout to reshape the world with Beijing at its center.
With the largest standing army at over 2 million personnel, a more active China could be destabilizing. Its maneuvers in the South China Sea have already worried neighbors and drawn the attention of the United States. Having purged the Communist Party of 278,000 officials and in the absence of an obvious successor, it is thought that Xi may seek a third term in 2022. The experience of the next five years will illustrate clearly whether a more assertive China is a blessing or an unwelcome addition to an already crowded fight for global hegemony.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).