They say there is a tide in the affairs of men. In the case of President Xi Jinping, it seems to more of a tidal wave, or so it seemed to those who outside his country who listened to his speech at the ceremony marking the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party of China at Tiananmen square. The tenor of the speech was unusually combative, indicating that the tidal wave could go either way. It could carry him forward and into destruction, or it could lead to others pushing back against him, and very strongly at that.
And that’s not just outsiders. To many within China, it would have been a source of dismay.
Xi Jinping's Speech on 100 Years of China's Communist Party
First the speech itself. The first part dwells on the undoubted trials and tribulations suffered by the Chinese, through foreign invasions and interference. That part is true enough. So is the fact that thereafter, the country went through a transformation under the auspices of the CPC. What is obviously left out is the trials and tribulations that were inflicted on the people themselves during that process.
Few have forgotten, for instance, the horror of the so called “Cultural Revolution” which went on for a decade, and killed an estimated 2 million apart from nearly destroying the economy. That was about fifty four years ago; half way home and worth remembering. Great leaders make great mistakes.
Thereafter, Xi can undoubtedly boast of the shift from a centralised planned economy to “a socialist economy” that helped achieve “the historic leap" to become the world’s second largest economy, with “moderate prosperity”. That’s true, too. Certainly, it was a historic shift and a learning curve for the CPC. But surely it also relied on the inherent industry of the Chinese people.
Today, China has the highest suicide rate in the world, and that’s according to China’s own sources, which cites pressure to perform and find employment as leading causes. With estimations of one person committing suicide every three minutes, this scenario is not an indication of prosperity. Its shows something is badly wrong.
But setting that aside, there’s not a doubt that under the CPC guidance, the country has made great strides of reform in the last few years. The problem arises when Xi sees China’s national rejuvenation as “ a historical inevitability”. That’s a sure mark of trouble ahead. Dictators since Fredrick the Great have used this phrase to mask their own intentions of a march to power.
The Chinese Communist Party is Xi Himself
That’s also why his exhortation to the people to support the Party and “uphold the core position of the General Secretary of the Party Central Committee” borders on the hilarious. Xi is himself the holder of this grand title, and is now known as the "Chairman of Everything". At last count he had some 12 official titles including the Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, the National Security Commission, not to mention a new title of ‘Commander-in-Chief’ when he donned military fatigues for a military event.
Apart from his designation as “Core leader” and the adoption of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the constitution which virtually deified him, are the titles, adulations that provide the sure-fire indication of his consolidation of power. So when he exhorted the crowd to support the party, the message is clear. The embodiment of the 95 million party members is Xi himself.
This is, however, the apex. Whether from here on he goes down is dependant on several factors, including whether the sentiments of other aspiring leaders on the increasing paranoia apparent in arrests of ‘dissidents’ like real estate tycoon and veteran CCP member Ren Shiqiang, or the power of China itself to deal with the increasingly tough stance by countries including the US, Australia, Japan and perhaps India. ‘Losing face’ is simply not an option, forget about war.
Xi Jinping's China and the 'Hostile' Outside World
That position is apparent in the rage evident in the denunciation of all foreign powers. Well, nearly all. Next door is Pakistan, whose Prime Minister was recently heard to say that he “accepts” the Chinese version of Uighur detention camp. But overall, the strident notes were all too evident – and were repeatedly cheered by the crowd. Xi’s war cry was that “We Chinese are a people who uphold justice and are not intimidated by threats of force…We have never bullied, oppressed, or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will”.
Apparently the take over of a peaceful people of Tibet doesn’t count, since in Beijing’s eyes it isn't ‘another country’.
Then comes the stern warning “we will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us. Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course (or in other reports “crack their heads and spill blood”) with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people”. More cheers. The 70,000 strong Covid screened crowd was ecstatic.
Then, there is the irony of his “greetings” to the people of Hong Kong, at a time when the letter (forget the spirit) of the promised “One country two systems” was turned upside down with last year’s "Security Law". Xi says he supports that system, but in the very next sentence promises that China will “implement the legal systems and enforcement mechanisms….to safeguard (China’s) national security". No more protests and no going back on that decision on a harsh law.
As for Taiwan, it's more of the same - "a historic mission and an unshakable commitment” of the CPC.
For India, Every Word of Xi's Speech Counts
Even as Foreign Minister Jaishankar was in Qatar, talking about the need for China to adhere to written agreements not to deploy large forces on the border, reports indicate not just the digging-in of Chinese forces along disputed areas, but also the completion of first bullet train line linking Tibet to Nyingchi near Arunachal, as well as new highways in the ecologically and strategically sensitive Yarlung Zangbo river, which is our Brahmaputra.
For India, every word in that muscular speech counts, as this steady increase of capabilities continues.
A Not So Loveable China Again
All of the above sits ill with the advice Xi himself gave just last month to his advisors to project a "credible, loveable and respectable China". That advice was sound, given the worldwide anger generated by the pandemic, and China’s own actions in Hong Kong and elsewhere. That sage advice seems to have been abandoned. Certainly it is not seen in Chinese actions in Ladakh or anywhere on the border.
Meanwhile, the pressure is increasing. Reports of the defection of top Chinese spy master Dong Jingwei to the US are gaining traction, while the treatment meted out to Ali Baba tycoon Jack Ma and his Ant Group is now likely to be replicated with other big business like Ten Cent, Byte Dance and others who are thought to have got too big for their boots.
The reasons for collision are built into the ‘reforms’ model, pitting free wheeling commerce against the centralisation and control demanded by the Party. But the party is virtually Xi himself. If trouble is mounting, then it's no surprise that Xi’s speech centred on loyalty and integration of the party. It seems the ‘Chairman of everything’ may not be as placid as he seems. Still waters it appears, do run deep.
(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)