China's President Xi Jinping speaks during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 2, 2019. - Taiwan's unification with the mainland is "inevitable", President Xi Jinping said on January 2, warning against any effort to promote the island's independence and saying China would not renounce the option of military force to bring it into the fold. (Photo by Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP)
President Xi Jinping Xi will do his best to maintain the illusion that China can beat the inevitable crash that befalls every economy. Photo: Aleksey Nikolskyi / Sputnik / AFP

Two speeches delivered by China’s President Xi Jinping recently – one to his “comrades” on December 31 and the other to his “compatriots” on January 2 – presented two distinct shades of what the future looks like in terms of China’s rise and the responsibilities that come with it, and how Xi would like to blend these two, turning challenges into opportunities.

To begin with, there was noticeable pride in Xi’s voice as he recounted, in his first speech, several of China’s megaprojects and other indicators of success for 2018. He called these “the trailblazers of the new era” and especially credited it all “to the hard work of people from all of China’s ethnic groups,” as if reassuring minorities and aspiring to build a new model of unity in diversity.

Xi recalled his visits to several families and officials in remote regions of China, underlining his concerns for their contributions as well as their aspirations. He described 2.8 million grassroots workers as “comrades on the front lines of the fight against poverty,” echoing Xi’s tryst with Deng Xiaoping’s prophecy of war no longer being imminent and therefore needing to pursue long-term modernization to lift 700 million people out of poverty over the last 70 years, including 10 million last year. Providing a very personal touch to his ongoing nationwide drive to strengthen his popular appeal, Xi recalled his meetings with several grassroots workers, soldiers, scientists, veterans and villagers, and how he holds each of them in great esteem.

Talking about 2019, he predicted the onset of “a period of major changes never seen in a century,” but his prescription to it reminded one of Mao Zedong as he underlined how “people are the country’s solid foundation and our main source of confidence to govern,” alluding to China’s domestic stability being the source of its expanding global leadership.

Recounting 100 new reform measures launched during 2018 as part of China’s “systematic overhaul of both Party and state institutions,” Xi assured the US leadership that China’s “reforms will never stop, and its doors will only open ever wider”

Recounting 100 new reform measures launched during 2018 as part of China’s “systematic overhaul of both Party and state institutions,” Xi assured the US leadership that China’s “reforms will never stop, and its doors will only open ever wider.” Here, Xi underlined how the “combined forces of Chinese manufacturing, Chinese innovation and Chinese construction have continued to change the face of the country.” This endeavor is now being replicated abroad “with the joint construction of the Belt and Road Initiative” driven by Xi’s drive for “the development of a community of shared future” where China, as he said, seeks to “work tirelessly for a more prosperous and beautiful world.” It clearly indicated China’s readiness to take on more global responsibilities. Indeed, this has been the visible refrain in all of Xi’s speeches since his January 2016 Davos World Economic Forum speech, which is now credited with heralding the globalization 4.0 thesis.

Xi’s second speech, on January 2, marked the 40th anniversary of US recognition of the People’s Republic of China and Beijing’s “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” marking a ceasefire in the civil war which had continued even after the Kuomintang had fled to Taipei. This second speech was essentially evocative of tragedies of past and pitfalls in possible future trajectories, yet it was far more open-ended compared to the specifics in his first speech, which focused on 2018 and 2019. It also exuded an intense sense of pride, saying “Chinese people would never fight Chinese people,” thus alluding to “external forces” as perennial villains of peace.

However, it would be simplistic to think Xi’s January 2 speech was nothing more than a response to President Donald Trump signing the new pro-Taiwan Asia Reassurance Initiative Act on Monday. US factors have been perennial since the days of president Jimmy Carter’s Taiwan Relations Act of 1978, and several US interventions in cross-strait relations have been stronger than this. Also, the fact that this speech followed a rather provocative New Year’s address by Taiwan’s President Minister Tsai Ing-wen – whose election victory in 2016 has since led to a sharp decline in cross-strait trade and tourism – has made it look like a reaction in the eyes of some commentators. However, others think Tsai’s speech was triggered by her loss of face in last year’s midterm polls. The Kuomintang (KMT), which is responsible for a recent thaw with Beijing, was victorious, prompting her to resign as president of the Democratic Progressive Party. The reality is that the success of the KMT in recent elections has led to incremental improvement in cross-strait trade and traffic.

As for the content of President Xi’s January 2 speech, while his  firm and forthright words about how Taiwan “must and will be” reunited with mainland China because he sees this as “an inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” has dominated the headlines, he also promised the Taiwanese that he would “safeguard their interest and well-being.” More importantly, Xi’s January 2 speech did not mention any deadline for unification or reveal any other details about what Deng’s “One Country, Two Systems” mechanism means in his view.

Hong Kong and Macao are often cited as examples of “One Country, Two Systems” in practice, but the case of Taiwan remains clearly distinct from these. While Mao Zedong once talked about “liberating” Taiwan and Deng about the “integration” of Taiwan, president Hu Jintao spoke of winning hearts and minds. While Xi’s New Year speech to “comrades” sought to balance multiple expectations both inside and outside China, it is dissecting Xi’s speech about “unification” that is now likely to become the next hot topic for intellectual acrobatics. Surely, 2019 – marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China – will, in general, attract stronger global searchlights scrutinizing Xi’s steering of China’s rise.

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming (China).

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