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Global Perspective: As China's Xi continues to hold power, economy the important issue

Visitors watch a screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking next to a Communist Party flag, in Beijing on Sunday, June 20, 2021. Authorities are gearing up to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of China's ruling Communist Party, which will be observed on July 1. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

This July marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. The party's National Congress, which is held once every five years, is coming up next year. For President Xi Jinping, the immediate task is to quell internal and external anxieties and build momentum to maintain his position as supreme leader.

    Last year, the Xi Jinping administration faced its biggest crisis since its inception. The initial response to the new coronavirus was slow, and the epidemic spread from Wuhan in central China to the rest of the world. In February of that year came the death of Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who first noticed something unusual, but ended up being reprimanded for spreading false rumors, sending shockwaves through society. Li's last words, uttered just days before his death, were: "There should not be only one voice in a healthy society."

    This is a direct contradiction to Mr. Xi's words: "The Party Centre is the brain and the nerve centre; the Party Centre must have one person with the highest authority to set the tone with a single blow of the hammer." Faced with a crisis, the Xi administration made urgent efforts to suppress the virus through the use of coercive measures, to restore prestige through strong information control and propaganda, and to revive the economy through subsidies, tax cuts, and other measures. These steps have produced significant results, and the propaganda of the superiority of China's leadership system seems to have spread widely among the people, in part due to the delay in the West's efforts to contain COVID-19.

    "The overall trend is that the East is rising and the West is falling. The contrast between China's control and the West's confusion is clear," Mr. Xi said at the Central Committee plenum last autumn. China, in the midst of its modernization, continues to view the world in terms of the West versus the East. And by claiming that China is doing better than the West, Mr. Xi is touting the legitimacy of its system.

    Mr. Xi has also laid bare his rivalry with the United States. "The U.S. is now the biggest cause of turmoil in the world ... The U.S. is the biggest threat to our country's development and security," he said. This statement has been conveyed even to low-ranking party cadres. Leading with "time and momentum are on our side," his tough stance has emboldened the so-called wolf warrior diplomats to speak out more forcefully.

    Also in the United States, diplomacy is closely linked to domestic politics. One of the major challenges for the Biden administration is to find a point of cooperation with the opposition Republican Party. In fact, taking a tough diplomatic stance against China has become one of the few areas where bipartisan cooperation is possible. Around April, Biden reportedly asked his aides weekly what Republicans were saying about the "Indo-Pacific."

    The global outbreak of COVID-19, combined with human rights problems in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and Hong Kong, have rapidly worsened China's image among the industrialized nations. In response, China deployed mask diplomacy and vaccine diplomacy, and successfully gained the support of many developing countries regarding human rights issues by appealing for non-interference in their internal affairs. On the other hand, Beijing has effectively imposed economic sanctions on those whose words and actions it does not like. South Korea, for example, has been reluctant to make comments that might provoke China after Seoul learned from the sanctions imposed by China when it deployed U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles.

    Nevertheless, the Xi administration now wants diplomatic stability, and cannot allow the deterioration of its ties with important nations. At the end of May this year, Xi called for strengthening and improving international public relations efforts. Surprisingly, Xi's speech called for a tone of "openness and confidence, as well as humility and calm." However, this was aimed at improving China's image through propaganda, and was probably not an instruction to modify the resolute diplomatic stance that is well received by the public. So far, there is no sign of a concrete plan on how to stabilize the key relationship with the U.S.

    Turning to domestic politics, there is a major obstacle to Xi's remaining in power beyond next year: the political system established by former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues to prevent any one leader from holding too much power for too long.

    In the early 1980s, the powerful position of party chairman was abolished, the system of lifelong tenure was rejected, and a system of collective leadership and term limits was introduced to implement the division of labor among leaders. Reflecting on the Cultural Revolution that then party leader Mao Zedong launched in his later years in the 1960s, Deng and his colleagues tried to avoid concentrating authority and power in the hands of a single leader. This policy was linked to the removal of Mao's successor, Hua Guofeng, from his position.

    This is an inconvenient chapter in the party's history for Xi. On Feb. 20 this year, a roundtable discussion was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Hua Guofeng, and Wang Huning, a member of the Standing Committee of the party's Politburo, gave a speech. Wang only praised Hua's loyalty to the party, and did not mention any criticism by Deng that Hua regarded Mao's instructions as absolute and promoted his own deification.

    On the same day, Xi delivered a speech at the Party History Learning and Education Mobilization Conference. He mentioned that the large-scale "Rectification Movement" in Yan'an had brought about the unity and unification of the party, and called to unite thought and action with him. Launched in the early 1940s, the Yan'an Rectification Movement was a political movement to consolidate Mao's authority and power within the party under the guise of ideological purification and unification. It was accompanied by violence and resulted in the death of more than 10,000 people.

    It is estimated that millions of people died during the Cultural Revolution, but the lessons are not taught in Party History Learning and Education. In the latest edition of the "Brief History of the Communist Party of China," published immediately after the mobilization conference, the description of the Cultural Revolution, which had been treated in a separate chapter in the previous edition, was largely condensed.

    The propaganda will have some effect. Fear of a purge will also discourage rebellion. It is also expected that the system that prevents Xi from retaining power will be modified.

    But in the end, it is the economy that will determine people's attitude toward the regime. An economic downturn will greatly change the social atmosphere. The leaders know this. Current politics and diplomacy may help the country recover from COVID-19, but they will not stop the economic slowdown. Privately, the top leaders are discussing and studying the issue of the legitimacy of their rule. Xi's assertiveness cannot reduce people's hunger.

    (By Akio Takahara, Professor, Graduate School of Public Policy, The University of Tokyo)

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