/ 18 October 2022

China: Xi Jinping’s speech short on detail, big on pride

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers an important speech at the opening ceremony of the 73rd World Health Assembly session on May 18 2020
The president’s speech at the Communist Party of China’s congress was vague on the issue of Taiwan as the party paves the way for his third term.

On Sunday, President Xi Jinping struck a triumphant tone in his speech at the opening of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by highlighting what he said were the party’s achievements over the past five years. 

Xi also promised a series of reforms that he said he hopes will direct China toward the goal of national rejuvenation.

Speaking in front of about 2 300 delegates in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Xi defended China’s zero-Covid strategy, saying the pandemic control measures had “protected people’s lives and health”.

He also justified his hard-line policies towards Hong Kong, saying the move to impose the “patriots rule” — which allows a pro-China panel to vet candidates and elect only those to parliament who are deemed loyal to Beijing — in the former British colony had helped turn the situation in Hong Kong from “chaos to governance”.

Xi also said that although Beijing would strive for peaceful reunification with Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China views as its territory, it would never renounce the option of using force to achieve that goal.

“The wheels of history are rolling on toward China’s reunification and rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and the complete reunification of the motherland must be achieved and can definitely be achieved.”

Speech could have been more confrontational

Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer in Taiwan Studies at the Australian National University (ANU) based in Taipei, said Xi’s speech was a lot less escalatory than some analysts might have been expecting. “He talks about the ‘complete reunification of the motherland ought to happen’ and ‘must happen’ but he is very vague on how he intends to make it happen. 

“While some Taiwanese observers fear Xi could be laying out specific new strategies to solve the Taiwan problem, Xi’s speech signals a greater desire to hold on to continuity rather than change. He talked about firm resolve and strong capabilities to oppose Taiwan’s independence but he didn’t talk about intent, plan or timetable. The intent is to make it even more ambiguous as to the timeline and urgency of unification with Taiwan.”

Apart from emphasising the CCP’s success in overcoming problems, Xi also highlighted “rapid changes in the international situation”, praising the party’s efforts to “uphold international fairness and justice, advocate the practice of genuine multilateralism, and clearly oppose all hegemonism and power politics”.

As geopolitical tension between China and Western countries rises, Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore (NUS), says the emphasis on multilateralism means China will continue to challenge and compete with the United States. “When talking about multilateralism, it often means Beijing will work through international institutions, notably [United Nations] agencies, to counter what it sees as US influence.”

Emphasis on ideology and self-reliance

Although the speech is being largely viewed as expressing a continuation of the existing policies under Xi’s rule over the past decade, Chong says the leader’s emphasis on discipline and ideology was notable. “One of the ways that Xi Jinping tries to deal with challenges, including the slowing economy and China’s rivalry with the US, is to emphasise party discipline and ideology.” 

Xi described Marxism as the guiding ideology of the communist party and said that it was the “solemn historic responsibility” of the party’s members to keep “opening new chapters in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context”.

Laying out his vision for the next five years amid rising economic problems, Xi said Beijing would continue to promote common prosperity, improve wealth distribution and accelerate the development of a housing system. He also highlighted the need for China to grow its economy through a socialist market economy and dual circulation strategies.

Seeking world-class education

Dexter Roberts, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Xi didn’t offer more insights about the concept of “common prosperity” in his speech. “It has been a statement of purpose without a lot of information, and there is not a lot of fleshing out about how they are actually going to do it.

“I also think common prosperity has an element in the leadership and Xi’s mind of punishing the rich people. A lot of the crackdowns on entrepreneurs and big tech companies in China have concerns about data and economic security,” he added.

But, Iris Pang, the chief economist for Greater China at Dutch multinational banking and financial services ING Group, thinks Beijing is trying to rebrand common prosperity by highlighting the need for China to build world-class education. “I believe they are looking for world-class education, and this will provide opportunities for the younger generation to climb the wealth ladder and they have a channel to do that properly.”

With the US increasing its efforts to prevent China from accessing critical semiconductor technologies, Xi promised to focus on “high-quality development” that would prioritise education, science and technology. He said China would “accelerate the realisation of a high level of scientific and technological self-sufficiency and self-improvement”.

Roberts, of the Atlantic Council, says Xi’s repeated emphasis on “self-reliance” shows Beijing wants to prove it can “go it alone”, even though it may be a challenge. “I don’t think Xi realises how difficult it would be for them to indigenise the high-tech side of their supply chain.”

Military modernisation and strengthening security

Xi also stressed the importance of continuing to accelerate the “modernisation of military doctrine, the organisation of the army, military personnel and weapons and equipment”.

He said it was important to strengthen a wide range of “securities” in China, mentioning the word about 50 times throughout this speech. He urged China to reinforce the foundation of its national security while improving its early warning system and ensuring food and energy supplies.

David Bandurski, a co-director at the China Media Project (CMP), said the concept of national security was one of the clearest signals in Xi’s speech on Sunday. “It’s a complete continuation from what we’ve seen under Xi. We can assume with some accuracy that they are talking about the United States, and some of it may be about domestic concerns about the security of development or employment.”

Overall, some experts think Xi is ramping up the vision and direction that he’s mapped out over the past decade through the speech. Holly Snape, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Glasgow, said that instead of setting new goals, Xi’s speech doubles down on a narrow vision of “party-defined modernisation”.

Shaping history to lay out the future

“It’s important that Xi headed drafting, as it enabled Xi to deepen and consolidate thinking he began to set out, especially in 2017,” she said.

Bandurski adds that Xi’s political report is mainly to signal his power and position him within the communist party’s history. “History is always right in front of the CCP, and interpreting history and expanding history is really key to signalling power for Xi. Everything is about telling the basic story, which is that the last five years have been a great success and here’s why.”

The twice-a-decade congress will last about a week and Xi is expected to secure an unprecedented third term. The party will also unveil the lineup of its new leadership at the summit’s conclusion.

This is an edited version of an article first published by Deutsche Welle.