Long march: Xi unveils China's Great Power ambition

Long march: Xi unveils China's Great Power ambition

Long march: Xi unveils China's Great Power ambition

One of the most significant outcomes of the just-concluded 19th party congress of the Chinese Communist Party is a change in the party's constitutional provisions, including elevation of Xi Jinping's 'Thought' to the level of Mao Zedong's 'Thought', thus providing unprecedented legitimacy for Xi. But it also includes the Belt and Road Initiative, the roadmap, literally, for China's march to Great Power status by 2050. Others, like the modernisation plan and control over the military, were reiterated but must be seen in the context of the above significant changes to the constitution.

Thus has Xi Jinping risen as one of the most powerful leaders in the world today. When he took over the reins of China in 2012, his position was at best shaky, with pulls and pressures from the rival factions of the Communist Youth League (tuanpai) and party elders like Jiang Zemin. Xi adopted a number of ancient techniques to consolidate his power.

First is the ancient martial art of taiqiquan – a technique to arrive at internal and external balance, but also to ward off 'evil forces' onto others while saving oneself from the ravages of power politics. Unlike his predecessors Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi was not anointed, although he was born with a silver spoon as the son of a revolutionary cadre, Xi Zhongxun.

Second is the practice of qiangda chu touniao - a game to shoot down birds as they stick their necks out. Since 2012, Xi assiduously pushed through an anti-corruption drive in which a million out of the Communist Party's 89 million cadre were indicted. A dozen members of the apex Central Committee of the party were charged with corruption.

Apart from Bo Xilai and Zhou Yonggang, recently high-level leaders like Sun Zhengcai were silenced. Overall, 40 Central Committee or alternate members have been charged with corruption in the last five years.

Many military leaders were jailed or dismis ­sed, such as Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, and recently Fang Fenghui. Some 4,800 military personnel have been dismissed. While the anti-corruption drive strengthened the party's reputation, it was also utilised to silence and shoot down "tigers and flies".

Drawing adverse notice to oneself is disastrous in Chinese politics. Chen Min'er, Xi's protégé, also lost out on a seat at the standing committee, as did Hu Chunhua, who was in the public eye for some time. The turnover at the leadership level – with five out of seven Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) members, and 11 out of 25 Politburo members – is huge but also advantageous to Xi for controlling the party's crucial decision-making powers.

 By ensuring that, except Zhao Leji, all the other six members of the PSC will have to retire in the next party congress in 2021 following the 'retirement at 68' norm, Xi has overruled any contender for a long period. Also, by suggesting a roadmap till 2050, Xi potentially has bound the next three leaders of the party at least towards working for these strategic goals.

Third, Xi revised the centuries-old 'Middle Kingdom' phenomenon by declaring that China aspires to be at the "centre stage" of global politics. He had also suggested building a "new type of international relations". This is a departure from Deng Xiaoping's "keep a low profile" strategy that contributed to China's rise by attracting investments, markets and technology.

Xi backed his ambition by announcing a roadmap for the party centennial in 2021 and the republic in 2049 and by reviving the 19th century goals of "fuguo qiangbing" (rich country, strong army). He also had plans for building a "moderately prosperous society" domestically and building the Belt and Road Initiative externally.

While China has been part of the Westphalian system since 1971, when it joined the United Nations by replacing Taiwan, and has insisted on observing the UN Charter, the current agenda of resurrecting the Middle Kingdom is fraught with uncertainties and potential conflicts with established dominant powers at the global and regional levels. Mao Zedong used to caution his comrades to keep the tail firmly between their legs and not to wag. Xi appears to have a different plan.

Expanding interests

At the foreign policy level, Xi's warning signals are loud and clear. In the work report, Xi declared, "No one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests". While there are several legitimate interests, they have been redefined or revised in recent times, creating tensions in the region. For instance, since 2005, China has claimed Arunachal Pradesh as a part of its "Southern Tibet"; since 2009, it has expanded its "core" interests to include the disputed islands in the South China Sea, and since 2010, the Japanese-claimed Senkaku islands.

Also, at the party congress, Xi revised the previous "3 NOs" on Taiwan - no nuclear weapons development by Taiwan, no independence, and no military bases/arms sales to Taiwan - to "6 NOs", adding "anyone, any organisation, any political party, at any time or in any form trying to separate any part of Chinese territory from China". While this can be seen as catering to the domestic audience, it nevertheless raised the spectre of war in the Taiwan Straits or over any territorial dispute with China. Thus, the bar has been raised. Interestingly, there was no mention of the North Korean nuclear or ballistic missile developments or the US President's threat to counter Pyongyang.

While the 19th party congress was to take stock of the last five years and project policy options for the future, this congress will go down in history for the concrete roadmap for China till 2050, which is binding on future leaders. Xi's emphasis on unbridled nationalism - a "China First" policy - may alienate it from other countries, primarily the US, but also other major powers like Russia, Japan and India in the short to medium term.

The 19th party congress focuses on "not swallowing" other countries perceptions about clashing sovereignty claims and China insisting on its own version. That raises potential conflict scenarios across China's neighbourhood, including with India. Placing the BRI in the party constitution also suggests that China is unlikely to care much for the sovereignty of India over Kashmir.

(The writer is Professor in Chinese Studies, JNU)

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