Xi's tightening grip has wide ramifications for China and the world

A forceful "unification" of Taiwan has been projected by most analysts as happening within the next five years of Xi’s new third term, as he will need this to cement a history-making legacy that will help him extend his rule for life

Collins Chong Yew Keat Nov 09, 2022
Chinese President Xi Jinping

The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that has just ended provided a two-pronged clear intent to both the internal and external audiences. Firstly, the relentless grip of President Xi Jinping will ensure that China’s future orientation will be shaped by his strategic dictate and philosophy, breaking all previous conventional norms and adherence. 

Secondly, Beijing’s status and role in the global order are a matter of how the West will react to its increased bellicosity that is intended to ramp up both deterrence and fear in the opposing powers. Xi drove home a firm message on upholding the influence and power of the Party, in which the Party’s survival and interests superseded other considerations. He cemented the importance of the ideological pivot and pursuit of the core direction of dictating China’s progress and wanted to put China at the centre of the world order based on this guiding principle.

In achieving so, Xi realised that to achieve the "Chinese Rejuvenation" dream of 2049, the current level of capacity readiness is still way behind the West, compounded by the slowing growth and internal demographic and economic challenges. Two major challenges facing China have been highlighted. First, the security threats posed by the West and the future of Taiwan. Secondly, the economic structural concerns expose the future of China’s economic resilience. These will be addressed through increased internal amplification of strength and self-reliance, instead of exposing China to further vulnerability from the West.
 By extending his grip on power in all paradigms of authority, Xi wanted an unyielding adherence to his vision, path and direction that he wanted for China. Under ex-President Jiang Zemin, the prevailing hallmark at that time was the decentralization of power where factions had their own way, and bribery and corruption were rampant which were weakening the Party. When Hu Jintao took over, he was unable to demolish the party structure built by Jiang. Xi came and launched an anti-corruption campaign and ousted all who gained power in Jiang's days. He oversaw the pivot from soft power expansion and strategic patience during Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin’s era to his approach of hard power clarity and ideological prominence. 

Break with past

Xi saw Hu’s goal of adhering to Deng Xiaoping’s doctrine of “staying low, buying time and being patient” as counterproductive and subjugating China to the whims and fancy of the West.  No longer does Xi see the approach of trapping one’s enemy into a false assurance and complacency as one that is suited for the China of the future.
Xi tried to make his era as distinguishing and distinct as possible from the two major eras of Mao and Deng through his dual approaches. First,  making China at the top of global power and making the world revolve around China; and second, gaining legitimacy internally through both enhanced people control by hard measures and internal security mechanisms, and consistent public buy-in and legitimacy through propaganda and nationalist emotionalism. This is achieved through playing the victim card and escalating the common hyper-nationalistic goal of achieving and rejuvenating the great "Chinese Dream". The only path that is viable both for China’s internal audience approval and in sending a deterrent message to the West is through strategic clarity and relentless build-up of military and hard power self-reliance and capacity.
As reflected in Xi's emphasis on ideological and socialist policies, he put pressure on the tech and entertainment industries and redirected focus on “common prosperity” rather than individualised and institutions or personalities. This paves the way for a new face of the Cultural Revolution of Xi’s design. The Congress showed that Xi wanted a shift from the digital-based entrepreneurship-led growth that flourished under Hu, including Alibaba and Tencent, to one that is more aligned with the Party’s core ideological supremacy and under its control to guard against deviant tendencies. In cautioning the danger of money worship, hedonism and historical nihilism, It paints a picture of his core intention for his next bold push for the Party. Securing regime security and political security and continuing the “comprehensive national security concept” will be the highest order. For this, ramping up spending on the surveillance state and tightening internal control and to continue spending more on internal security than on external ones, will be the leitmotif of Xi’s reign.
It reveals the CCP’s underlying sense of insecurity and also Xi’s own personal insecurity, where threats to China as a nation and to the CCP as a regime are growing and the country’s capabilities and responses are seen by Xi as inadequate. China’s elites and state media have defined this approach as  “safeguarding party leadership, China’s socialist system, and the authority of the Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core.” 

Politburo shake-up

Xi’s pursuit of absolute loyalty to him with no room for deviant alignment or factions marks the beginning of the end of an era of collective bargaining and room for persuasion in the preceding leadership. It marks the dawn of an era of unquestioned leadership and hardline authoritarianism of Xi Jinping. 
The Politburo shake-up reflects just that. The appearance of the seven top Politburo members, all men, signalled the culmination of months of behind the scene balancing factions and brutal purges. Xi is successful in axing the remaining factions of Hu Jintao and grooming new allies while purging other rivals and threats. Li Keqiang and Wang Yang were both dropped from the Politburo, another sign of Xi consolidating his power, where both Li and Wang were known for their ties to the Communist Youth League which was once a dominant faction. Xi has relentlessly dismissed members of the Youth League and other rival factional groups in his decade in power and now he has completed their political eclipse through this move. Li Qiang and Cai Qi, the current party secretaries of Shanghai and Beijing respectively, were chosen based on their loyalty and commitment to Xi and his agenda. All these mark the new grip where there is no room for previous conventional norms or rules, reinforced by Xi’s option of not grooming clear successors.
Another norm-breaking decision was to make Chen Wenqing, China’s current spy master, to be a Politburo member for the first time since the Ministry of State Security was established. This indicates the growing focus on espionage and amplifies the message that  “the spies have risen” in Xi’s China, further solidifying his control over the Party and people. 
In seeing how Taiwan remains the ultimate galvanising factor in boosting Xi’s legacy and providing the biggest spark to the 2049 goal, 15 out of 24 members have links to the island, either in business, economic or security domain.  This indicates the balancing act and wide options for Xi to choose either force or non-forceful push for reunification, although realising that force remains a matter of when, not if, seeing how almost impossible the ground factors are in contributing to peaceful reunification.

A forceful "unification" of Taiwan has been projected by most analysts as happening within the next five years of Xi’s new third term, as he will need this to cement a history-making legacy that will help him extend his rule for life. A new era of clash of ideological and egoistic rivalry in hard power looms, one which will no longer be fuelled by soft power and influence-seeking pursuit as in the past. It is an all-out bruising battle for dominance, with the rest of the world watching in nervous apprehension about its consequence for China and the region. 

(The author is a Kuala Lumpur-based strategic and security analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at collins@um.edu.my)

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