Since coming to power in 2012 and especially after consolidating his power in 2017, President Xi Jinping has positioned himself as the man mandated to rejuvenate China and lead the Middle Kingdom to a new era of greatness. As such, in both rhetoric and policy, he has made numerous big statements, but it’s often the case that such moves backfire on his country.
At the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October 2017, the strongman leader proclaimed that his country “has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong” and “with an entirely new posture, now stands tall and firm in the East.”
With such confidence, in that three-and-a-half-hour speech, Xi announced his country had entered “a new era” in which the Chinese nation will “realize [its] dream of national rejuvenation” and “that sees China moving closer to [the world’s] center stage.”
In a very nationalist address to the National People’s Congress (NPC), the one-party nation’s rubber-stamp parliament, in March 2018, he reasserted such claims.
In both these key speeches, he also hailed “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” calling it Chinese wisdom, approach, solution and strength to the world.
Xi made such bold statements at the CPC’s quinquennial congress and the NPC’s annual meeting because at those two key events, he stunningly consolidated his power, making him China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, who ruled the People’s Republic with absolute power and at times an iron fist from its founding in 1949 to his death in 1976.
The 2017 congress – aka Xi Jinping’s congress – enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in the party charter at its 2018 meeting. The NPC amended the PRC’s constitution to include his thought and remove the presidential term-limit, allowing him to rule the country indefinitely.
To demonstrate that he is the man capable of rejuvenating China and leading it into a new era and, thereby justifying his extraordinary power grab and indefinite rule, in policy terms, he initiated and pursued grandiose projects. “Made in China 2025,” a flagship policy aimed at transforming “China into a world science and technology leader” and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious global infrastructure project, which he himself dubbed “a project of the century,” are two of these.
Xi’s propagandists also fawningly praised him, his leadership and achievements. State broadcaster China Central Television produced “Amazing China,” a documentary film, to hail China’s huge accomplishments in many areas, including science and technology, under his watch.
All of this fueled strong suspicion, apprehension and opposition in the United States and other countries. The US government has adopted a hardline posture vis-à-vis China since June 2018, partly, if not mainly, due to Xi’s overbearing stance.
Last September, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that was very critical of a wide range of China’s domestic and foreign policies under Xi, including the BRI, while the European Commission unveiled a new “Connectivity Strategy” widely seen as the EU’s answer to China’s BRI.
Xi has also faced disquiet, discontent and dissent in China. Deng Pufeng, the eldest son of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s reform and opening, and who advised Chinese leaders to maintain a low profile, urged the Asian nation to “keep a sober mind” and “know its place.” That Deng Pufeng, who is, like Xi Jinping, a princeling, made such remarks in the tightly-controlled country and that his comments were published show how the Chinese elite and public disapprove of Xi’s assertiveness.
Due to such pushbacks, in recent months Xi’s China has become less assertive in some key areas – at least at the rhetoric level. The phrases, such as that China “has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong,” haven’t appeared in Xi’s latest remarks. Beijing has downplayed the “Made in China 2025” scheme. The BRI, which had been omnipresent in Xi’s key international speeches since its conception in 2013, was conspicuously excluded from his remarks at the G20 summit in Argentina last month.
Yet, while seemingly softening his stance on these issues, Xi has continued to be assertive and aggressive on others.
While stating that Beijing is seeking “peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and greatest efforts,” he said the mainlanders “make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means” to bring the island into their fold.
Put differently, he bluntly told the Taiwanese to reunify with the mainland, or if you don’t, we will use arms to attack you. Thus, his so-called “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” is, in fact, a threat.
In his statement Xi also made other comments that were unacceptable to the Taiwanese people and the Tsai Ing-wen government in particular. These included Beijing’s willingness to hold talks with only political parties in Taiwan that hold the so-called “1992 Consensus” and its proposal of “one country, two systems” as the best way to achieve reunification.
Instead of convincing the island to reunify with the mainland, Xi’s comments have made the former more determined to defend its sovereignty, identity, democracy and liberty
As such, instead of convincing the island to reunify with the mainland, Xi’s comments have made the former more determined to defend its sovereignty, identity, democracy and liberty.
More crucially, instead of weakening President Tsai Ing-wen, who Beijing loves to hate, Xi’s remarks have provided her with a unique opportunity to galvanize domestic and international support for her policies.
Indeed, immediately after Xi’s speech, Taiwan’s first female president issued a statement saying that the development of cross-strait relations must be based on “four musts,” including that China “must handle cross-strait differences peacefully, on the basis of equality, instead of using suppression and intimidation to get Taiwanese to submit.”
In her New Year message on January 1, she had already unveiled those “four musts,” which also require that China must recognize the island’s existence, respect its freedom and democracy and only communicate through government-authorized channels.
But if such demands in her New Year message were her own – or her Democratic Progressive Party’s – position, after Xi’s remarks, they have constituted the “Taiwan consensus” because the vast majority of Taiwanese would now agree with her “four musts.”
In her January 2 statement as well as during her press conference with foreign media three days later, she urged all political parties in Taiwan to reject Xi’s “one country, two systems” proposal and the “1992 consensus.” They positively responded to her call.
Three opposition parties, namely the People First Party (PFP), the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) and the New Power Party (NPP), backed her stance against Beijing’s “one country, two systems” proposition – a framework under which Hong Kong has operated since Britain returned it to Chinese rule in 1997.
Even the pro-Beijing and main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), the party behind the 1992 consensus, publicly rejected Xi’s inclusion of the “one country, two systems” framework as part of the consensus and his “one country, two systems” proposal as a whole because it lacked public support.
Tsai and her DPP lost ground to the KMT in the local elections in November. There were even calls within her party and pro-Taiwan independence groups for her not to run for a second term in 2020. But her prompt, firm and unequivocal response to Xi’s speech has now certainly strengthened her authority and policies.
Sympathy for Taiwan
Though no country or international organization has publicly responded to her call to speak up on Taiwan’s behalf, internationally people will now sympathize more with the island. After all, like it or not, Taiwan is a de facto independent country with its own democratically elected government, currency, military and foreign policy. Its flourishing democracy has – as pointedly observed by two US presidents, Barack Obama and George W Bush – become a shining example for the region and the world.
The mere fact that the Chinese leader overtly threatened to use force to integrate the island, which the communist regime in Beijing has never ruled, has already made people more receptive to Taiwan and more critical of China.
On this reading, it’s clear that Xi’s forceful statement on January 2 was unwise and counterproductive. It has made Taiwan’s peaceful reunification with China even more distant.
In fact, as already noted, such a reunification, which is central to Xi’s Chinese Dream, is very unlikely, if not impossible, under his regime, which is regressive at home and assertive abroad.
In her press briefing with foreign journalists last Saturday, Tsai plainly said the Taiwanese people cannot accept the “one country, two systems” model for three simple reasons: that “China lacks a democratic system, has a poor human rights record, and has never renounced the use of force against Taiwan.”