Congress concludes this weekend by granting Xi an unprecedented third term as China’s leader and installing a new generation of staunch Xi supporters in the ruling Politburo. Most revealing of this celebration of personal celebration: Xi’s complete lack of self-criticism.
Outside the echo chamber of Chinese propaganda, the evidence that Xi makes mistakes is mounting. China’s economic growth is slowing, with many expecting it to be below 3 percent this year, and the party was apparently so nervous about the issue that it delayed the release of third-quarter gross domestic product figures for this week. China’s business elite, meanwhile, is struggling to come to terms with Xi’s emphasis on inefficient state-run companies over Chinese innovators. And Chinese citizens have suffered under an oppressive “zero Covid” lockdown.
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Some analysts expected him to make some modest concessions to his critics at home and abroad — for example, tapering off the zero-Covid policy or promoting officials who could offer more of the checks and balances employed under the Chinese collective Xi took power in 2012 and began ruthless consolidation.
But Xi made no apologies for China’s recent course, only praising its policies and clearly insulting his critics. The framework of the party congress gave special importance to his self-assessment. Conclusion: If Xi has been moving in the wrong direction in recent years, as many Chinese and foreign analysts believe, he now promises to move even faster in that direction in the future.
Xi’s speech was encyclopedic. The official translation comprised 60 pages, one line. His soothing-sounding theme was “socialism for the new era,” and Xi mentioned this “new era” — the age of Xi, as we might call it — more than 40 times. The speech had 80 mentions of security, 45 of socialism, 23 of technology. It once mentioned freedom.
Xi’s tone with the United States was not belligerent, but he signaled that China is retreating for a period of intense competition with what he described as bullying America: “Faced with drastic changes in the international landscape, particularly external blackmail, containment , and put maximum pressure on China, we have put our national interests first, focused on domestic political concerns and maintained a firm strategic resolve,” he said.
Xi’s most intriguing comments have been his attacks on domestic critics who have grumbled about the Communist Party’s increasingly tight control over all aspects of Chinese life. Xi tore up these naysayers: “Within the party, there were many problems related to maintaining party leadership, including a lack of clear understanding and effective action, and a slide toward weak, hollow, and watered-down party leadership in practice. ”
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The Chinese leader continued, “Some party members and officials wavered in their political beliefs. Despite repeated warnings, pointless formalities, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance persisted in some localities and departments. Privilege-seeking mindsets and practices have been a serious problem and some deeply shocking cases of corruption have been uncovered.”
On his Covid-19 police state lockdowns, Xi said he had “launched an all-out people’s war to stop the spread of the virus,” and he failed to mention the human cost of those policies. With the coronavirus, China has truly been caught between the health risks of an aging population and the costs of stifling trade and social interaction.
On the economy, Xi defended his neo-Maoist emphasis on state-run enterprises and the resulting throttling of entrepreneurs. He attacked “money worship, hedonism, egocentricity and historical nihilism,” and said of China’s once-buoyant internet sector, “Online discourse was full of clutter.” Chinese business leaders were already intimidated by Xi’s attacks; now they are allowed to withdraw from all potentially dangerous Western business contacts.
Taiwan is the topic that worries many western analysts the most. They will hardly be reassured that Xi received loud applause when, after saying he wanted a peaceful reunification, he said that “we will never promise to refrain from the use of force and we reserve the option to take all necessary measures”. He blamed “interference from outside forces” (meaning the United States) and “a few separatists seeking ‘Taiwan independence'” for all the problems.
Xi spoke like the modern emperor he has now become. As we read his strident work report, we should remember that its author will be the most powerful Chinese leader in history – whose response to China’s flagging economy and international isolation is full steam ahead.