Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the Roundtable Summit Phase One Sessions of the Belt and Road Forum. Photo: Reuters, Lintao Zhang
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the Roundtable Summit Phase One Sessions of the Belt and Road Forum. Photo: Reuters, Lintao Zhang

Stability remains the paramount concern for the Communist Party of China (CPC). According to a framework suggested by Susan Shirk, a former member of the administration of US president Bill Clinton who claims to be a China expert, the party aims to achieve stability by strictly ensuring adherence to three core ingredients – preventing large-scale protests, avoiding public leadership splits, and keeping the military loyal to the party.

The CPC is a party that likes to be in command all the time, and this time around while it is losing a sense of command, it is substituting it with stringent control with more supervisions, inspections and commissions.

Increased party committees, classroom surveillance and a controlled Internet are its mechanisms. The changes made at the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March look rather alarming as to which way China is headed.

The short-term analysis of this year’s NPC does appear like the ultimate victory of Xi Jinping over his rivals and made for easy headlines like “Xi Jinping forever” and “President for life” and so on. However, most of the analysis on Xi’s power status is premised on a wrong set of beliefs. Therefore, it is necessary to have alternative frames of reference when measuring Xi’s power status. 

First of all, domestic conditions in China are not conducive to according such power to Xi. At the recently concluded NPC, China set a rather modest target of 6.5% for growth of its gross domestic product this year.

Xi Jinping set out a wonderful set of reform targets in the Third Plenum of the 18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012 in calling for markets to play a more decisive role in resource allocation. What followed in policy since that was what is known as supply-side reforms and other sets of structural reforms.

However, very little of that has been implemented. China’s notorious and slow-to-change state-owned enterprises have also been major targets of the reform initiatives of Xi and Premier Li Keqiang. However, they are also more or less where they were in 2012-13 in terms of reforms, just because they have a stubborn intrinsic logic.

On multiple occasions, Xi has told his ministers and governors of the urgency and immediacy of the reforms; “reform or perish” was the gist of his message to them.  

In 2015, the chairman of the National Council for Social Security Fund, Lou Jiwei, predicted that China’s GDP needed to grow by 6.5% annually for five years at least to avoid falling into the middle-income trap. Lou said at that time, “Without reforms to remove obstacles hindering the free flow and allocation of land, labor and capital, China’s economic growth miracle might end.” With lack of reforms in the sectors that most urgently need them, the 6.5% rate might be a little reassuring but is likely to give restless nights to the leaders in Zhongnanhai. 

In short, Xi Jinping’s domestic economic achievements are nothing significant yet. His masterpiece to overcome this has been the Belt and Road Initiative. However, most of the major countries have stayed away from it and, like China’s investments of the past, the BRI experience has raised concerns of creating dependencies and debt traps in recipient countries.

In addition, the concerns about trade wars with the US and Xi’s sudden and one-sided offer of economic relaxations and opening up at the Boao Forum reaffirm China’s need for an open global economic architecture and continuance of economic globalization.  

On the political front, Xi was declared the core leader of the fifth generation of the leadership of the CPC at the Sixth Plenum held in October 2016. This was seen as a moment of his political achievement. However, Xi is the first serving president of China to adopt such status himself.

Chinese revolutionary and politician Deng Xiaoping coined this term in 1989 with he called Mao Zedong and himself the core leaders of their generation, and Jiang Zemin earned that title for the third generation of the CPC leadership.

When Deng devised this term, China was passing through a political crisis in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Thus the first time this phrase was used was when China was on the brink of political instability, as Tiananmen was a direct outcome of China’s factional politics. It is difficult to imagine why this term is used for Xi when apparently everything seems to be working just fine. 

Moreover, it is not as if China is unaware of its challenges. The report presented by Xi Jinping at the start of the 19th party congress is a sombre reminder of the tasks unfinished and the tasks not even started yet. Even then, and astonishingly enough, he presented China as a model for developing countries. The confidence of Xi and his power status do start to look life façade, especially if one begins to unravel the layers of contradictions on which this power is built. China is not falling apart but Xi’s power and capacity appears to be overestimated, to a large extent. 

Dr Avinash Godbole is is an assistant professor with O P Jindal Global University, specializing on China studies and international relations. The views expressed here are personal.

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