Perspectives: The Month Through China’s Eyes
This Month Through China’s Eyes focuses on the recently concluded 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, which saw Xi Jinping elevated to a level of authority in China not seen since the days of Mao Zedong. During the congress Xi outlined his vision for China’s development and increasingly central role in world affairs, while introducing a new guiding ideology subsequently written into the party’s constitution, marking the first time since Mao Zedong Thought that a living party leader has enshrined in the constitution an ideology named after themselves. The Congress was also unique in that contrary to precedent, no successor to Xi was named, indicating that the president is likely considering a third term as China’s leader in 2022.
Chinese state-run media was naturally effusive in their praise during and after the five-day event. Over the course of the event, media coverage focused largely on five major themes: the new era of China’s rise and emerging global leadership position, China’s ongoing reforms, the importance of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping’s unveiled ideology and the new leadership line-up introduced at the end of the congress.
The New Era
Among these themes, the idea of China’s rise entering a new era captured the most attention by far. The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, quoted from Xi’s own speech to write that: “In announcing the emergence of a ‘New Era’ because of the ‘great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics’, Xi is making history in the 21st century. The West watched his speech with a mixture of awe and admiration…this New Era means, first of all, that, ‘The Chinese nation, with an entirely new posture, now stands tall and firm in the East.’ The era of humiliation to which the Chinese were subjected to in the 19th century as a result of innumerable foreign invasions and the Opium Wars, and the era of internal strife for the consolidation of Chinese territory and people’s sovereignty in the 20th century, are now history. China of the 21st century, as a result of the successful process of reform and opening up led by the Communist Party, is preparing itself to stand high on the podium of the world economy.”
A further article in the People’s Daily picked up another recurring theme, that of the ‘main contradiction facing Chinese society’ which the new era would address: “The start of a new era indicates that a more confident and aspirant China will begin to embark on a new journey from a fresh starting point. But the judgment is also grounded on the evolution of the main contradiction facing Chinese society. In this new era, the Party aims to solve the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life by adopting a more comprehensive and balanced development approach.” The article also sought to highlight to China’s increasingly central role in global leadership and the benefits thereof: “China’s rise should be seen as a huge opportunity rather than a challenge. China is committed to promoting an open economy and free trade, and in the process, the world will be introduced to more Chinese solutions for global problems. China is a rising tide that is lifting all boats. In many ways, China’s future is the world’s future.”
The Global Times sought to paint this new era in terms of geopolitics and China’s rising power: “China won’t take the old, traditional path of a rising power. It won’t grow into an empire when it becomes a great modern socialist country. Traditional geopolitics believe in a zero-sum game involving exclusive international political power. But China’s history is one of integration. Sharing interests with the rest of the world is the true pursuit of China.” True to its more nationalist editorial board the paper sought to contrast China’s inclusive approach to the West’s own zero-sum competitive thinking: “People in the West may not be able to understand a concept of a community with a shared future for mankind for now but the idea is easy enough to get across to Chinese society with its emphasis on the philosophy of harmony. Some new concepts in international politics have emerged, replacing long-existing ideas such as the zero-sum game.”
The topic of ongoing reform was one of the key elements of Xi Jinping’s record breaking three and half hour opening speech at the congress, with the direction and timing of further reforms receiving significant media attention. Xi’s speech included a series of specifics on further reform and opening up: “We will expand foreign trade, develop new models and new forms of trade, and turn China into a trader of quality. We will adopt policies to promote high-standard liberalization and facilitation of trade and investment. We will implement the system of pre-establishment national treatment plus a negative list across the board, significantly ease market access, further open up the service sector, and protect the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors. All businesses registered in China will be treated equally.”
Interestingly, the specifics themselves received scant coverage, although China Daily did pick up on the theme of increased openness: “Openness brings progress, as Xi noted, and the further opening-up of the country will ensure China’s interaction with the rest of the world is positive and encouraging of reciprocity for mutual gains.” The article quickly transitioned though into the ‘new era’ coverage that dominated most of the news coverage of the congress: “In light of this, the world needs to say no to the outdated practice of viewing relations among nations as a zero-sum game, and instead act on the reality that no country alone can address the many challenges facing mankind, and no country can afford to act solely on self-interest. In the new era, while sticking to its path of peaceful development, a stronger China will contribute more to world peace and development. And
In another article China Daily also stayed away from the specifics, writing that: “Xi Jinping pointed out that China is now in a decisive period if it is to realize the building of a moderately prosperous society in an all-round way by 2020. Calling the years ‘a decisive period’ means China is yet to complete these major tasks.” The paper repeated Xi’s own call for a ‘problem oriented approach’ to solving the issues facing the country: “The government must follow a problem-oriented approach and carry out a targeted approach to prevent and defuse risks, eliminate residual poverty, and advance pollution prevention and treatment. These are the key challenges China faces in its efforts to build a moderately prosperous society in an all-round way. Only with a problem-oriented approach can China promote balanced, coordinated and sustainable development, so its building of a well-off society in an all-round way comes true.
Virtually alone among domestic editorials, privately owned business publication Caixin ran an article that considered the execution of further reform and the challenges Xi would face: “Complacency and the consolidation of vested interests are two of the major stumbling blocks for carrying on with reform. They must be eliminated. …Considering the resolutions and other reform plans from the third and fourth plenary sessions of the 18th CPC Central Committee, it is clear there are still many problems that have long been in need of a solution.” The article recognised the increasing difficultly China’s leaders would face when tackling the outstanding major issues: “Future reforms are not going to be smooth sailing. The low-hanging fruit has already been picked, and the reforms that still need to be completed involve the ossified core of the old planned economy system, the constantly shifting tides of globalization and the new challenges posed by technology to an emerging and transitioning China…The journey’s last mile will be its toughest.”
The Communist Party
The importance of the Communist Party and its leadership to China was another theme that received significant media coverage. The Global Times captured the general media sentiment in the following: “The CPC is a not a loose-knit interest group revolving around elections, like a party in the West, but the blood and bones of China’s national operating mechanism, and the source of the whole country’s cohesion and mobilisation.” The article goes on to identify four distinctive characteristics of the party (i) its structure, discipline and emphasis on unity, (ii) its diligence and willingness for sacrifice, (iii) its lack of dogma and approach of seeking truth from facts and (iv) its strong sense of mission. With these characteristics in place the article concludes that: “The CPC has a new vision as China has grown to become the world’s second-largest economy. The CPC has the tradition of connecting with the masses and overcoming difficulties. It is fully integrated with Chinese society and its governance is backed by a complete legal system. The Chinese public’s support for the CPC cannot be measured using Western parameters.”
People’s Daily sought to make more explicit China’s need for the party’s leadership given the state of the world today: “China requires strong leadership to maintain stability given China’s unique, complex challenges: domestically (slower growth, industrial overcapacity, endemic pollution, imbalanced development, income disparity, social injustice, social service demands) and internationally (regional conflicts, sluggish economies, volatile markets, trade protectionism, ethnic clashes, terrorism, geopolitical rivalries, territorial disputes).” The article also listed the party’s own stated development priorities, depicting these as obligations of the party to the people: “The Party’s leadership is deemed essential for China to continue its current development. Yet to continue to earn its leadership, the Party has a higher obligation to enhance rectitude of governance, standards of living and personal well-being — which includes rule of law, transparency in government, public oversight, institutionalized checks and balances, increasing democracy, various freedoms, and human rights.” The article’s conclusion echoed the party’s own rhetoric of basing its legitimacy on its ability to continue to deliver results: “Going forward in the ‘new era’, the Party faces challenges – furthering economic reform and transformation, and guiding social development and transition – while at the same time, improving transparency and building institutions that are self-regulating. The Party claims a historic mission. The Party will continue to be judged by the results.”
Xi Jinping Thought
The unveiling of Xi Jinping’s signature ideology “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” also received significant media coverage and praise. It joins the series of guiding ideologies from China’s prior leaders that embody “Marxism adopted to Chinese conditions”. People’s Daily called the ideology “the soul running throughout the report delivered at the opening of the 19th CPC National Congress” explaining its importance thus: This important thought represents the latest achievement in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context, and is an important component of the system of theories of socialism with Chinese characteristics. It is this new way of thinking that brings the understanding of socialism with Chinese characteristics to a new height. When the tenets of such modern thought are applied, a nation can carry out comprehensive and deeper reforms, while promoting economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological development.” The article’s also seeks to credentialise the ideology’s namesake, a theme that was repeated again and again during the congress itself by participants: “Meanwhile, in the past five years, Xi’s policy has not only inspired historic changes in China, but has captured worldwide attention for its profound thinking and political wisdom.”
‘Xi Jinping Thought’ marks the first time since Deng Xiaoping that a leader’s name was included in the title of the ideology, signalling another break from the consensus driven leadership model that has governed China for the past 20+ years. Hu Jintao’s and Jiang Zemin’s ideologies were the blandly titled “Scientific Development Outlook” and the ‘Three Represents”, respectively, both of which failed to capture the imagination of the Chinese people. People’s Daily in another article covering ideology even fails to mention them, placing Xi Jinping Thought as a the direct descendent of Mao and Deng: “It is fair to say that Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era is the latest achievement in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context, following the success of the Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory.” The remainder of the article asserts that the newly introduced Xi Jinping Thought is the distillation of Xi’s long held views, and therefore the ideological driver of successes of his first term: “The reason behind China’s historical reforms and significant achievements in the past five years is the instruction given by Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, which broadened our horizon, deepened our thoughts and received worldwide attention.”
Finally, the inclusion of Xi Jinping Thought into the party’s constitution, an honour not bestowed on a living leader since the time of Mao Zedong, was also commented on, if somewhat briefly in the press. The Global Times made a cursory reference in an op-ed, without pointing to the historical precedent it was setting: “The inclusion of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era into the CPC Constitution paves the way for the CPC to embark on a new journey. This holds enormous significance for both the CPC and the country. Xi Jinping Thought will make China stand upright in the new era.” The remainder of the article pointed to the ideology as being a driver of national unity and clarity on the country’s future path: “For a certain time in the past, the country was developing fast. But there were fierce discussions about what direction the country should go to and what path it should take…It is believed that after the 19th Party Congress, the whole of society will be clear about these issues through the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era…A powerful guiding principle will serve as the basis for national unity.”
China’s New Leadership Team
Interestingly, the new constitution of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee China’s highest executive body received almost no attention despite the election of five new members. The continuity of the communist party’s leadership and Xi’s own elevation to its ‘core’ apparently left little room for the new members to be recognised as individuals. The People’s Daily was one of the few papers that attempted to write about the leadership team, and addressed the above issue by focusing on their mission in the context of the party’s goals rather than on the members themselves: “China’s top leaders are elected for their experience and ability to lead. As socialism with Chinese characteristics enters a new era, the Chinese people know they are in good hands, and their support for the new leadership shows that the Communist Party of China is doing what the people hope for: helping the people achieve a better life and leading them to realize the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation. This is why the new top leadership of the CPC is now being called the Dream Team for China’s New Era.” The only reference to the leaders themselves was the following blurb: “The Dream Team for the New Era is made up of high-quality, experienced leaders who put the people first.”
©2017 Greater Pacific Capital