Home / Opinion / Views /  Big triumph for Xi, a step back for China

At the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) underway in Beijing, General Secretary Xi Jinping adopted a particularly trenchant tone with respect to perceived external challenges to his party’s absolute control over claimed Chinese territories. Indeed, the language used by the party with respect to such challenges has grown increasingly strident. In the 18th Party Congress report of 2002, for example, the CPC was concerned about “guarding against and forestalling external intervention in the affairs of Hong Kong and Macao". In the latest report, there is greater determination to “take resolute action to prevent and stop interference in the affairs of Hong Kong and Macao by external forces." The change in language appears to indicate a change in evaluation of the ‘threat’ that the CPC sees coming from the outside world.

And yet, China under Xi has managed its internal security challenges rather well. Despite an international outcry over human-rights violations of Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang, for example, the situation would appear to be rather well under control. The so-called terrorist threat from Uyghur separatists is overblown, and if it exists at all, is kept under check with a draconian surveillance system in the province as well as not-infrequent injunctions to powers in ‘all-weather friend’ Pakistan to help minimize potential harm to Chinese interests. Another manifestation is Beijing’s ability to impose repeated province-wide lockdowns in Xinjiang in the wake of covid outbreaks, including one in force currently.

Similarly, the party’s concerns over Hong Kong, too, are particularly astonishing. For all intents and purposes, the Special Administrative Region has been completely bent to Beijing’s will with the implementation of China’s National Security Law and consequent incarceration of prominent democracy activists in the city, as well as a general pall of fear over the rest of the population.

With respect to Taiwan, China’s aggressive military exercises in the Taiwan Straits in response to the August visit of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to the island nation offered a preview of what was to come in the 20th Congress report.

In fact, the differences between pronouncements on Taiwan in the Party Congress reports of 2017 and 2022 are notable.

While the expression “blood is/runs thicker than water" occurs in both reports, “blood ties" have been referenced previously. One way to interpret this is as a way of stressing the cultural and social aspects of China-Taiwan ties. However, given that the CPC has refused to renounce the use of force in integrating the island—something specifically highlighted by Xi in the 20th Congress report—“blood" can take on a whole different meaning. Equally notable is the fact that the specific expression “resolving the Taiwan question", which occurred only once in the 19th Party Congress report, appears four times in the latest one. If the attempt to separate “the few separatists seeking ‘Taiwan independence’" from the apparently larger mass of “our Taiwan compatriots" is meant to soften the blow, then the reference to “external interference by outside forces" in the same sentence as well as another one early in the latest report to “gross provocations of external interference in Taiwan affairs" only reinforce a tone of menace and implacability.

As far as the CPC is concerned, “tests" not just “in governance, reform and opening up, the market economy" but also in “the external environment" will “exist for a long time to come". That said, while the 19th Party Congress report exuded a degree of confidence in China’s ability to manage the international environment, the 20th Congress report has the air of a country under greater siege from the outside world. Consider, for example, statements such as there are “external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China" or that “External attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time".

A China governed by a political party with such a strong sense of suspicion of the outside world and one that sees external threats around every corner will by design or accident end up creating an environment where such threats will fructify. The 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China might mark a moment of personal triumph for General Secretary Xi if, as widely expected, he continues for a third term in power. For China itself, however, the future appears more fraught.

Jabin T. Jacob is associate professor at the department of international relations and governance studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, and adjunct research fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, India. He tweets @jabinjacobt.

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