Xi Jinping has taken a confident posture as he seeks to ensure China’s prosperity and power in a post-Covid world, saying the country is entering a period of opportunity where “the East is rising and the West is declining ”.
But behind closed doors, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party also issued a blunt warning to officials: don’t count our competitors, especially the United States.
“The greatest source of chaos in the world today is the United States,” Xi, a county official in northwest China, said in a speech posted on a government website last week. . He quoted Xi as saying, “The United States is the greatest threat to our country’s development and security.”
The warning, echoed in recent similar public comments from senior officials close to Xi, reinforces how he seeks to balance confidence and caution as China moves forward as other countries continue to battle the pandemic.
His double-sided statements reflect an effort to keep China on its toes as, despite its success at home, it faces deep mistrust in Washington and other Western capitals. Although China is getting stronger, Xi said, there are still many ways that “the West is strong and the East is weak,” officials said in speeches recently posted on party websites. local.
Xi will unveil a long-term plan to navigate China in this new global environment later this week, when the Communist Party-controlled legislature, the National People’s Congress, meets on Friday and meets for about a week.
“Xi Jinping strikes me as ruthless but cautious in building a lasting personal legacy,” Dimitar Gueorguiev, assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University who studies China, said in an interview. In the eyes of Chinese leaders, he said, “the coronavirus response was really a classic example for the party of how you could pull things together in a short period of time and force through a program.”
Xi and other Chinese leaders recently described challenges, both short and long term, that could hamper their ambitions. The Biden administration has indicated that it wants to pressure China on human rights and compete with it on technological advancements and regional influence in Asia. At home, China is grappling with an aging population and is trying to overhaul an engine of economic growth that uses too much investment and energy for too little gain and too much pollution.
Beijing also sees a threat in Hong Kong after anger over the Communist Party’s deepening control sparked months of anti-government protests in 2019. Highlighting Xi’s hard line against any political challenge, the Chinese legislature appears ready to support plans to radically rewrite the electoral rules for Hong Kong, removing the vestiges of local democracy in the former British colony.
China is also considering its next big change of leadership next year, when Xi, 67, looks likely to claim a third five-year term in office, going beyond term limits that had been put in place to hold back those in power. leaders after Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
Chinese leaders have used the country’s success in extinguishing coronavirus infections to justify Xi’s top-down rule. Emerging triumphantly from the pandemic, Xi will seek to further centralize his power, said Lynette H. Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto.
The congress is part of the party’s staging this year to reinforce the view that Xi is essential in safely guiding China through significant changes. Chinese state media recently hailed Xi’s campaign to end rural poverty as a major success. This week, he reminded party officials to rally to his leadership and show loyalty to his platform.
“The risks and impending tests will be no less than the past,” Xi told an audience of young party officials in Beijing, according to official reports. “Our party has bet on the fight until this day and must count on the fight to win the future.”
And in July, Xi will preside over the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, celebrations that will likely qualify him as a historical leader like Mao and Deng. China’s plans next year to hold the Winter Olympics and put a space station into orbit add to the aura of success.
Xi described China as moving year by year closer to regaining its legitimate historic status as a great power, while established powers are torn apart by dysfunction.
He urged officials late last year to “clearly grasp the broad trend that the East is on the rise while the West is on the decline,” said Zhou Ye, a party cadre at Fudan University in Shanghai at a meeting, according to an online account. “There is a stark contrast between the order of China and the chaos of the West.”
For years, Xi and other Chinese officials have occasionally used boastful rhetoric, pitting East against West. But officials have used such expressions much more often in recent months, underscoring the confidence – critics say pride – enveloping the Chinese government.
The health of the economy will be crucial for the survival of this confidence. Government advisers have suggested that average growth could be 5% or more over the next five years, if things go well.
But the country might not maintain that level of growth unless it becomes more innovative and reduces its dependence on heavy industry and infrastructure investments, Beijing economic advisers say.
The country also faces serious demographic challenges. For decades, China has benefited from a young workforce that has flocked to its factories and cities. But China’s aging population will place increasing demands on pension funds, health care and accumulated savings.
Such economic pressures could undermine public support for the party in the years to come, said Andrew G. Walder, a professor at Stanford University who contributed to a book on the “fateful decisions” facing China. “We should not be too lulled into the stability of public approval of the performance of the Communist Party,” he said.
Beijing’s rulers appear to be much more focused on the United States, which they see as remaining determined to impede China’s rise, regardless of who is in the White House.
Chinese policymakers were alarmed when the Trump administration removed Chinese companies’ access to American technology. Many say the United States will continue to try to restrain China by restricting its access to “blocking technologies,” such as advanced semiconductors and the machines to make them.
“The containment and oppression of the United States is a major threat,” said Chen Yixin, a security official who served as Xi’s policy official in Wuhan, where the coronavirus emerged. Speaking to officials on Xi’s ideas in January, Mr. Chen used military language to point out the dangers: “This is both an unforeseen clash and a protracted war.
Xi’s plan to address these shortcomings is to expand innovation and domestic markets so that they are less dependent on high-tech imports. But building the ability to design and manufacture advanced, high-tech components is expensive, with no guarantee of success.
The prospects for Xi’s plans also hinge on questions not mentioned in official statements: How long does he plan to govern? And who will he appoint to succeed him?
In 2018, Xi imposed a constitutional change that abolished term limits for the presidency, paving the way for him to stay in power for more than a decade as chairman and party leader. China’s political and economic elites are likely to become increasingly nervous in private about when and how Mr. Xi will promote a potential successor, or a stable of successors.
He could still dominate for years, making his decisions, or his errors of judgment, all the more consequential.
“Internally, there are now few sources of opposition – no sources of opposition,” Xiao Gongqin, a historian in Shanghai, said in a telephone interview, “so the leader must be able to stay even in breakdown.”
Liu Yi contributed to the research.