The impressive opening ceremony of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) presented a spectacle of the united apex of the CPC. This was typical China, producing an immaculate display of CPC discipline where the carefully elected 2,280 delegates representing 89 million Party members with more than 4.5 million grassroots organizations. Only collective page turning and occasional applause pleasantly interrupted General Secretary Xi Jinping’s marathon speech of three and a half hours. By the time Xi finished his speech, over one billion people had viewed hashtag #19thPartyCongress# on Sina Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter), reflecting interest and enthusiasm beyond the promenade of the Tiananmen Square.
Xi gave a marathon speech sharing wealth of information about China’s past achievements as also outlining his vision for an increasingly prosperous China as socialism with Chinese characteristics has “crossed the threshold into a new era.” It mentioned that China has created 13 million urban jobs per year in the last five years and has brought its poverty rate below five percent. Xi’s assurance of a continued growth of 6.5 percent in the backdrop of continued global slowdown — which has seen China contributing 30 percent of the annual global growth — promises to make China a formidable locomotive in determining future trends. No doubt, Xi is today seen as one of the world’s most influential leaders. Indeed, starting with his Davos speech in January this year, his vigorous defense of free trade and calling protectionism as “locking oneself in a dark room” had seen Xi emerge as a new world leader taking up the mantle of defending globalization. Taking that promise forward in his speech to the 19th CPC National Congress, Xi promised to “protect the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors,” with local entrepreneurs expected to stay competitive by adopting information technology-driven innovation strategies.
Xi also outlined severe challenges that lie ahead for China. He urged all Party members to get ready to work hard for making China a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021 which he has premised on “uniting Chinese people of all ethnic groups” in order to lay stronger foundations for China emerging as a “a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful” by 2049. Xi also underlined that he remains determined about the Chinese Dream of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. In spite of punishing many officials violating Party discipline, including not just “flies” but also “tigers”, he also underlined that the issue of corruption still remains CPC’s formidable challenge and his unfinished agenda.
Xi has also vowed to make the Chinese People’s Liberation Army a world-class military by the mid-21st Century. The Chinese military has already undergone massive reforms since Xi came to power. The recent past has also witnessed impressive modernization of China’s armed forces. Xi sees China today as closer than any time in history to realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, implying China would attain its rightful place at the center of the civilized world.
As a rising global player, the last five years of China’s diplomacy have seen it steer clear from the much hyped “Thucydides Trap” where China’s unprecedented rise was expected to push it into competition with existing major powers, especially the United States. Indeed, speaking at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies on the day of Xi’s speech to the 19th CPC National Congress, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson underlined that “it was time for China to take center stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind” as he reiterated U.S. President Trump’s resolve to deepen cooperation with China on addressing the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.
Other than building a framework for major country relations featuring overall stability and balanced development in this “new era”, Xi’s speech also sought to reassure neighboring nations, saying China will “deepen relations with its neighbors in accordance with the principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness and the policy of forging friendship and partnership.” Xi’s speech underlined the significance of the Five Principles of Coexistence, something that should be music to India’s ears. Xi went further to assure “settling disputes through dialogue and resolving differences through discussion, coordinate responses to traditional and non-traditional threats and oppose terrorism in all its forms.”
But most of all, Xi’s speech privileging China’s soft power, especially culture, should assuage skeptics about the future vision of Xi whom the world media is painting today as the world’s most influential leader in command of one of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world. This should also generate greater support to Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative which has increased China’s focus on engaging its immediate and extended neighborhood that defines its strategic location in world affairs. But these are also issues that make neighbors like India concerned about China’s increasing engagements in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal, and Pakistan, though both President Xi and Prime Minister Modi have so far managed to ensure that the differences are not allowed to become disputes as they lead their countries on their chosen paths of rapid development.
The author is professor of International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.