China's President Xi Jinping reviews a military honor guard outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 10, 2018. Photo: AFP / Fred Dufour
China's President Xi Jinping reviews a military honor guard outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 10, 2018. Photo: AFP / Fred Dufour

On December 17, a day before Xi Jinping delivered a keynote speech to mark the 40th anniversary of China’s “Reform and Opening” initiated by Deng Xiaoping, Xinhua ran a fawning feature about its current leader, headlined “Xi Jinping: The man who leads China’s reform into a new era.”

In it, China’s official news agency hailed Xi as a devout, proven reformer, who is carrying forward Deng’s cause. But if Xi’s high-profile speech on Tuesday and many other developments in China since he came to power in 2012 are any indication, China’s policies in the “new era” – or Xi’s era – won’t be as progressive as those embraced by Deng.

Like most of his major pronouncements in recent years, Xi’s latest intervention at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People was long on grand preaching and vague promises but short on concrete policies. In the 80-minute speech, Xi didn’t outline any specific measures that could help boost China’s slowing economy and resolve Beijing’s growing tensions with Washington. Asian and Chinese stocks slipped after his remarks, and this showed that Xi failed to lift the confidence of Asian, and even Chinese, investors.

Xi couldn’t offer tangible progressive reform measures that Asia, the world at large and possibly many in his own country had hoped for because he isn’t a leader who is willing to take such steps.

Xi couldn’t offer tangible progressive reform measures that Asia, the world at large and possibly many in his own country had hoped for because he isn’t a leader who is willing to take such steps

In many respects, the fifth-generation leader of the People’s Republic of China is similar to Mao Zedong – who ruled the communist-run PRC with absolute power and an iron fist from its foundation in 1949 to his death in 1976 – and antithetical to Deng, who quit all his official roles in 1989.

In an essay in October, Sheng Hong, director of the Beijing-based Unirule Institute of Economics, one of the tightly controlled nation’s few independent economic think-tanks, said Deng’s reform and opening-up program was based on two principal pillars, namely “pushing for domestic reforms” and “aiming at the establishment of the Sino-US relation.”

With regard to the latter, Sheng pointed out that Deng, who was restored to power a year after Mao’s death, put great emphasis on the establishment and maintenance of good ties with the US because China needed a favorable international environment for its own development. “As long as China has a good [relationship] with the US,” which was “the world’s biggest market [and] the leader of the world’s most powerful nations … its relations with other countries will follow.”

But, Sheng explained, Deng prioritized ties with Washington also because much of what China needed for its “reform and opening-up” program came from the US. Indeed, the influential economist admitted, “most of the institutions [the Chinese] adopted over the last four decades were originated from the US.”

In a speech in the same month, Zhang Weiying, another prominent Chinese economist, also acknowledged that “China’s rapid growth over the past 40 years has come from marketization, entrepreneurship and technological [learning] from the West rather than the so-called ‘China model.’”

With regard to China’s reform and opening up, Sheng Hong wrote, it “is also the guarantee to the strategic cooperation between China and the US” as such a cooperation “would never have been possible if China [had still been] entangled in the Cultural Revolution era when it exported revolution [and] implemented a planned economy.”

“A China that embraces marketization, rule of law, and democratization is one that can be strategically accepted by the US, which constitutes the current Sino-US relation,” Sheng argued. “Without doubt,” he stated, “China’s reform and opening-up lifted China from its ideological conflict with the West and brought about a convergence in terms of values.”

That’s why, in Sheng’s view, “China’s reform and opening-up and the China-US strategic cooperation are interdependent … there is no China-US strategic cooperation without China’s reform and [vice versa].”

With such an interpretation of Deng’s reform and opening, unlike many, if not most, Chinese officials and state-run media, Sheng was receptive to Mike Pence’s “remarks on the [Donald Trump] administration’s policy toward China” in early October, in which the US vice-president delivered what was seen as the most severe and wide-ranging indictment of China’s behavior by any American leader since the Cold War.

“Even though we could criticize [Pence] for being incorrect and inaccurate with his historic accounts, we should not overthink it,” Sheng suggested. “Our best policy is to take his address as benevolent advice” because the US vice-president “said explicitly that he hoped China would still undertake Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up that featured further market reforms, more political freedom and freedom of speech, and more constitutional democracy and rule of law.”

Sheng added that taking such benign advice “is not difficult … for the Chinese government … because the Chinese society today is a result of Deng’s reform and opening-up.”

On Sheng’s reading, it is crystal clear that Deng’s reform and opening-up were more or less about the adoption of the liberal economic and political ideas championed by the US and other Western countries and that China should continue Deng’s vision by carrying out “further reform and opening-up.”

However, as Sheng himself recognized, there is now “a countercurrent” to Deng’s liberalization. This was exemplified by the fact that a month later, the liberal economist and his colleague Jiang Hao were prevented from leaving China to participate in a forum at Harvard University to mark China’s 40 years of reform and opening up. Sheng was stopped on the grounds that he would “endanger national security.”

Many other signals and factors indicate that, under Xi Jinping, China isn’t wholeheartedly carrying forward Deng’s cause. In some key respects, Xi is upending it.

Deng’s reform program remarkably transformed the impoverished nation into a global economic powerhouse because, first and foremost, he called back the state control established in the Mao era’s planned economy while giving the market a bigger say in deciding the flows of people, services, goods and capital. Xi is now doing the opposite.

Under his rule, it’s not the state but rather the party – or even Xi himself, who is the party’s core – that now controls everything.

In his speech on Tuesday, Xi reiterated what he had said on several occasions, including at the National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) last autumn: “Party, government, military, civilian, academic and everything in the east, west, north and south … the party will guide.”  Such a statement, which was coined by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, was in fact added to the party charter at that twice-a-decade gathering.

A recent report by the Asia Society Policy Institute and the Rhodium Group said, “In the decades following China’s 1978 decision to reform and open, its growth was driven by demographics and structural adjustment – letting market logic reshape the economic landscape.”

“But in recent years … Beijing has attempted to reassert control over investment and markets” and “China’s private sector is shrinking for the first time in two decades,” the study found.

Deng likewise made important political/institutional reforms. Chief among these was, without doubt, his decision to restore the offices of president and vice-president in a new constitution ratified in 1982 and set a two-term limit for the posts (Article 79). All of this was aimed at preventing China from suffering the calamities that it had endured under Mao Zedong’s 27-year tyrannical rule, including the catastrophic Great Leap Forward and the disastrous Cultural Revolution. In fact, the two-term limit enabled the world’s most populous and one-party state to make relatively peaceful transfers of power in 2003 and 2013.

But in March this year, the National People’s Congress (NPC), the PRC’s rubber-stamp parliament, removed that progressive clause, paving the way for the now so-called Chairman of Everything, Everywhere and Everyone” to stay in power beyond his due retirement in 2023 – and possibly for life.

In terms of foreign policy Deng followed and advised Chinese leaders to adhere to the maxim ‘Hide your strength, bide your time.’ Again, Xi has ignored such wise advice

In terms of foreign policy Deng followed and advised Chinese leaders to adhere to the maxim “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Again, Xi has ignored such wise advice.

Addressing the CPC’s 19th congress last October and the NPC’s annual conference in March this year, Xi not only solemnly declared that China “has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong” and “with an entirely new posture, now stands tall and firm in the East.” He also vehemently announced that his country had entered a new era, in which it would “stride forward at the forefront of the world” and “take center stage” in the world.

In the first intervention, which lasted more than three hours, Xi extolled his country – or more precisely his own – “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” boasting that such socialism, a form of “state capitalism,” offers “a new option for other countries” and “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.”

But Xi’s posturing is seen as ill-advised. In what was seen as a rebuke to China’s assertiveness under Xi, Deng Pufeng, the eldest son of Deng Xiaoping, reportedly urged the Asian nation to “keep a sober mind” and “know its place.”

As noted earlier, Zhang Weiying was also very critical of the “China model.” In his view, using the “China model” to explain the Asian nation’s economic success over the past four decades is not just wrong but also dangerous because it “inevitably leads to confrontation between China and the West.”

Indeed, together with his unprecedented power grab, authoritarian rule and reluctance to reform, Xi’s assertive and muscular posturing, which is also manifested by Beijing’s expansionist ambitions in the disputed South China Sea and through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has stoked strong apprehension and reaction in the US and other Western countries. Pence’s speech, which criticized a wide range of Beijing’s domestic and foreign policies and promised that the US would respond in kind, was a case in point.

From what has been seen, it’s evident that, under Xi, China is not just unwilling to continue or deepen the policies initiated by Deng, it is even reversing many of these. Such a reluctance or U-turn is a key – if not the underlying – factor behind the United States’ present tension, suspicion and confrontation with China. Both Sheng Hong and Zhang Weiying blamed Beijing – not the Trump administration – for the current trade war between the two superpowers.

On this reading, it’s also clear that unless the strongman leader is receptive to voices and views such as those of these prominent intellectuals and, consequently, changes its course, in the Xi era, China won’t see the breakthroughs it had witnessed under Deng.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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