Watching the pomp and grandeur of the events marking the centenary of Chinese Communist Party that culminated in a major speech delivered by CCP general secretary Xi Jinping before a 70,000-strong crowd on 1 July at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the impressive performance was as much a grand celebration as a geopolitical missive. This was China telling the world that it has arrived.
The awe-inspiring choreography and stunning visuals were meant to express efficiency, control and order against the chaos of democracies. The CCP was perhaps trying to prove that one-party states do not lack in vitality or vivacity. But the Chinese president had a lot to convey of his own. Xi’s hour-long, extraordinary address gave us a glimpse into the way the party perceives itself, the direction towards which it wants to take China and Xi’s personal ambitions.
It also made explicit the implications of great power competition with the rapid rise of a Leninist authoritarian state that is integrated with the global economy, brings its own set of toolkits to the table, bends the existing system to facilitate its rise and presents an existential threat to the normative order by offering an autocratic alternative to democratic societies and their political systems.
Xi moved from history to the present and linked the fate of 1.4 billion people of China to the fate of 95 million members of CCP, stating forcefully that the party and the state are inseparable, CCP’s right to rule is inalienable and the survival and success of CCP is integral to China’s national rejuvenation.
Xi also exhorted the virtues of Sinified Marxism — ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ as he likes to call it — and the importance of ideological clarity as well as malleability in the highly centralised power structure of the CCP. Having secured his position as the “core leader” for life, Xi also placed equal emphasis on “upholding the party’s firm leadership” and maintaining a strong military that remains loyal to the party as essential conditions for China’s progress.
Also notable was his pitch that China’s job is only half done. Xi expressed satisfaction that the first centenary goal of removing absolute poverty has been met, and the party is “now marching in confident strides toward the second centenary goal of building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects.” The case that Xi was making is that it is essential for him to remain at the helm (beyond the two-term limit that he has already abolished) for China to meet its goals and be “rejuvenated” — a term that appears in his speech 24 times.
Yet amid the restorative rhetoric that sees success as the result of a never-ending “struggle” (13 appearances), what shone through was the note of defiance, even anger, as Xi took aim at the powers he deems to be antithetical to China’s rise.
In a passage marked with deceit, aggression and imagery of violence, the Chinese president warned that whoever takes on China will pay a heavy price. Xi’s message was intended as much for the domestic audience as the United States and other nations that have criticised China’s mercantilist policies, territorial aggrandisement, wolf warrior diplomacy and oppression of minorities.
Xi said, “We Chinese are a people who uphold justice and are not intimidated by threats of force. As a nation, we have a strong sense of pride and confidence. We have never bullied, oppressed or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will.”
Deception is a favourite tool of the CCP, so the irony is lost on Xi. As the chairman of Central Military Commission that controls the party’s armed wing, the PLA, Xi has overseen an astonishing phase of Chinese territorial aggression across the land and sea, sparing not even the tiny Bhutan. The millions of Uyghurs Muslims who remain incarcerated for the ‘crime’ of practicing their religion, or those who were forcibly sterilised may also have something to say.
Xi then delivered the punchline. “By the same token, the Chinese people will absolutely not allow any foreign force to bully, oppress or enslave us and anyone who attempts to do so will face broken heads and bloodshed in front of the iron Great Wall of the 1.4 billion Chinese people.” The specific phrase has also been translated as “heads bashed bloody.”
Interestingly, the imagery of violence and bloodshed is toned down in the official English translation where “broken heads and bloodshed/heads bashed bloody” is replaced by a more sanitised expression. The Chinese foreign ministry version of Xi’s speech reads, “Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a ‘collision course’ with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
Washington Post, however, points out that the phrase “heads bashed bloody” was trending on the social media platform Weibo, unhindered by the regime’s army of censors as soon as Xi delivered his speech.
It is likely that Xi was playing to the gallery that greeted the words with a lusty cheer. Behind the aggressive rhetoric, however, Xi sent a larger message that the post-War world order is over, and the liberal democratic axis must learn to live with and accommodate the rise of a rival power that has hegemonic designs of its own.
When Xi said, “We are also eager to learn what lessons we can from the achievements of other cultures, and welcome helpful suggestions and constructive criticism. We will not, however, accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us. The Party and the Chinese people will keep moving confidently forward in broad strides along the path that we have chosen for ourselves, and we will make sure the destiny of China’s development and progress remains firmly in our own hands”, he laid down a marker.
Or consider these lines: “We will continue to champion cooperation over confrontation, to open up rather than closing our doors, and to focus on mutual benefits instead of zero-sum games. We will oppose hegemony and power politics, and strive to keep the wheels of history rolling toward bright horizons.”
Xi’s candid remarks show China is throwing both a structural and ideological challenge to the US and the hegemony of the America-led liberal order. At one level, it is a power game. An exponentially powerful China is stating that it will brook no opposition in its quest of becoming the regional hegemon and reserves the right to shape the behavior of the states in the geography that it dominates. That means the United States, the ruling hegemon, no longer enjoys primacy in Asia.
Consider Xi’s rhetoric on Taiwan. “Resolving the Taiwan question and realising China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China. We will uphold the one-China principle and the 1992 Consensus, and advance peaceful national reunification. We must take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence,’ and work together to create a bright future for national rejuvenation. No one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
A few days later on 6 July, Kurt Campbell, Joe Biden’s Asia handler, said at a webinar that the US “does not support Taiwan independence” and “fully recognises and understands the sensitivities involved". These remarks were promptly played up by Global Times, with added comments that “this is the first time that a senior official in the Biden administration explicitly said that the US does not support Taiwan independence, which sent shockwaves to the island of Taiwan.”
At another level, China is also confronting the ideological supremacy of liberalism and the feasibility of democratic political system in delivering growth and meeting aspirations — putting forth its authoritarian, technocratic model as a viable option.
Xi said, “We will develop whole-process people’s democracy, safeguard social fairness and justice, and resolve the imbalances and inadequacies in development and the most pressing difficulties and problems that are of great concern to the people. In doing so, we will make more notable and substantive progress toward achieving well-rounded human development and common prosperity for all.”
China is challenging the tenets of liberalism — still the most influential global ideology — that personal liberty, political freedom and a moral core is the lifeblood of human progress and the desirable end-state. It is posing instead that a one-party rule that tightly controls all the levers and institutions of society — and even runs a surveillance state — may offer better prosperity and security to its people, and the end-state of human progress is equitable success that may only be achieved by a society that is collectivist, remains unified and is willing to be guided by the iron hands of an imperial government.
American writer and China observer Orville Schell wonders in Foreign Affairs, “might the Chinese just be different from everyone else, especially those in the West? Perhaps, some say, Chinese citizens will prove content to gain wealth and power alone, without these aspects of life that other societies have commonly considered fundamental to being human.” Then he proceeds to answer the question himself: “Such an assumption seems unrealistic, not to say patronising.”
China, however, is questioning the validity of the values that the West holds axiomatic and universal for human civilisation. There could be legitimate debates over whether China’s model of development is inherently brittle and may eventually implode but the CCP is convinced that economic well-being, and not personal liberty, is essential in maintaining the social compact.
Instead of a democratic seal of approval, the party retains legitimacy by delivering on people’s aspirations and growth. It sees representative democracy as a model riven with weakness that breeds chaos and instability.
It would be wrong to assume, however, that the CCP controls Chinese society by keeping it distracted with merely a single-minded pursuit of prosperity. The CCP remains genuinely popular, and it has successfully managed to combine elements of Sinified communism with a staunch nationalist outlook that runs deep in Chinese society. The CCP — from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping — has been able to establish itself as the link between China’s past humiliation and promised greatness.
Consider Xi’s comments: “With a history of more than 5,000 years, China has made indelible contributions to the progress of human civilisation. After the Opium War of 1840, however, China was gradually reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society and suffered greater ravages than ever before. The country endured intense humiliation, the people were subjected to great pain, and the Chinese civilisation was plunged into darkness. Since that time, national rejuvenation has been the greatest dream of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation.”
As Rush Doshi, director for China in Biden administration’s National Security Council, writes in his book The Long Game, “many of the Chinese Communist Party’s early leaders were patriotic youth drawn to this essentially restorative nationalist project.” To dismiss the CCP’s popularity as brittle and the party’s rule as an implosion waiting to happen because it runs an “imported Leninist ideology” is wishful thinking.
This brings us to the key question on the impact of ‘China model’ on democracies, specifically for India, since China is our neighbour and its hegemonic ambitions in the same geography holds huge implications for our development. The question is all the more important because India has been unable so far to translate its demographic dividend into economic productivity to mimic China’s rise.
For the burgeoning Indian middle class, there’s a China-envy at work as the aspirational segment looks at the roadblocks posed by India’s chaotic and rambunctious democracy as the cholesterol that impedes its promised economic transformation, as opposed to China where one-party rule ‘gets things done’.
But can authoritarian technocracy replace India’s multi-stakeholder politics? According to Harsh Pant of King’s College, London, “whatever India did, it did in a democratic framework. India’s economic reforms program was not a dictate from some party high command but the result of a meticulous process of multi stakeholder engagement. India’s choices, therefore, should be understood in this context.”
There’s also the risk that democracies face from within, as CCP’s fixation on command and control is seen as a necessary ingredient of China’s success. As BJP general secretary Ram Madhav writes in Open magazine, “Increasingly, under the osmosis effect, democracies too are turning to concentration of more and more powers in the hands of governments. The economic strife caused by the pandemic has provided an opportunity to the leaders in several democracies to resort to the same model today.”
This is now an open question. It is reasonable to assume, however, that the pluralism and diversity inherent in Indian society, the heterogeneity of geography, not to speak of India’s long argumentative tradition impose implacable roadblocks on the idea of a strong leader doing away with democracy. India’s inevitable rise, and not the hegemonic West, therefore will provide the answer to this question.