People gather at a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on July 1, 2021. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP / Koki Kataoka

On July 1, the Communist Party of China celebrated its 100th anniversary with great pageantry and propaganda. The magnificent display in Beijing involved a highly choreographed ceremony in Tiananmen Square with large-scale aerial exhibitions (including China’s most advanced J-20 stealth fighter jets), a 100-gun salute, and thousands of performers.

The event saw President Xi Jinping deliver a rousing speech to a crowd reportedly numbering more than 70,000 people that painted the CPC as savior of the nation – fighting against “meddling” foreign forces and an “exploitative feudal system” to unite and rebuild the country through a socialist revolution for a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

What does Xi’s speech, which was received with loud applause and cheers among the Chinese audience, reveal about the CPC’s ambitions and China’s future trajectory on the global stage? Why has China all but threatened to “crush” meddling external forces, and is Beijing, under the CPC, truly prepared to do so?

Much of Xi’s hour-long speech put nationalistic rhetoric front and center, amid an aim to stir nationalistic sentiments among the citizens and displaying the CPC as the essence of China’s miraculous rise thus far.

As Xi bluntly put it, continued rule of the CPC is not only central but indispensable for China to continue its upward trajectory and emerge as the world’s foremost economy and leading great power.

Crucially, as Xi declared in his speech, the CPC’s centennial marks the accomplishment of its first goal – to build a moderately prosperous society. Further, Xi highlighted the CPC’s four key successes – its “new-democratic” revolution, socialist revolution, socialist modernization (by opening up its economy), and socialism with Chinese characteristics. 

Moreover, in highlighting the CPC’s triumphs, Xi’s speech put front and center his claim that China had entirely eradicated “absolute poverty” from the nation, lifting some 100 million people above the poverty line, a decade before scheduled. Despite the CPC’s loud celebration of this achievement, a closer inspection of such claims shows how dubious they really are.

Despite being on the cusp of being an advanced economy, Beijing sets its measurement threshold at US$1.90 (extreme poverty line), instead of the more appropriate measure of $5.50 for upper-middle-income states. Such a calculatedly frugal yardstick casts a shadow on China’s accolades and contrarily hints at underachievement – this benchmark would put a quarter of China’s population in poverty. 

More important, China’s targeted poverty-alleviation strategy has become a political exercise, often leading to oppression of the people – such as through the relocation scheme. The fact that foreign observers are still prevented from verifying Chinese developmental claims and human-rights conditions raises questions over their authenticity.

In this context, Xi’s speech came across as propaganda directed at China’s domestic audiences. The celebrations were not only an exercise in stoking nationalistic fervor by highlighting the Party’s successes, but also establishing the criticality of the CPC in China’s rise. Xi’s words conveyed a growing confidence in the Party’s legitimacy and a profound conviction in its enduring rule over the nation.

In other words, Xi’s address aimed to close the gap between the People’s Republic of China and the CPC by firmly intertwining the political party’s success and growth with that of the Chinese state, and presenting China as a “monolithic powerhouse.”

Since assuming office in 2012, Xi has instituted stringent reforms that have made him China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping. Apart from removing term limits – which were put in place in 1981 to avoid Mao-like over-concentration of power – Xi has embarked on a political crackdown against any critics within the CPC, primarily under the guise of his anti-corruption campaign.

This was visible in the fact that the number of Party leaders behind Xi appeared considerably lower than at previous celebrations. Under Xi, corruption has become an issue that is not only financial but ideological and disciplinary in nature; his speech only confirmed that the Party will continue its power-consolidating anti-corruption campaign. Xi Jinping will therefore only further enhance his leverage to enforce Party loyalty and compliance upon CPC members moving forward.

While this political purge of rivals and dissidents may have solidified Xi’s position within the CPC, it also shows the Party’s obsession with maintaining a vise-like grip over the populace.

The significant discontent, resentment and dissent among Chinese youth over growing economic inequality and an increasingly repressive authoritarian regime are emblematic of continued opposition against Xi’s CPC; the centennial celebrations were therefore aimed at amping up the narrative that the CPC is a champion of a proud Chinese identity and the backbone of a strong China. The fact that Xi’s speech was preceded by that of the CPC’s youth wing attests to this domestic image-building focus of the Party.

Beyond being a display of the CPC’s vitality, Xi’s speech sought to solidify his “strongman image” by presenting a defiant, if not aggressive, face to China’s rivals.

In calling socialism with Chinese characteristics a foundation of the system, Xi stated that the same would act as the crux upon which to build a new world. Any foreign force that attempts to “bully, oppress or subjugate” the Chinese people would collide with a “great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion” citizens and be categorically crushed.

Interestingly, this phrase received the biggest response from the audience present at Tiananmen Square. Such comments clearly framed the US and its allies/partners as China’s rivals, rather than competitors, thus painting a rather worrying roadmap of China’s international strategy. This roadmap is clearly on the line of “China and the Rest” if not “China vs the Rest.” 

Additionally, in addressing Xi’s “project of the century” – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – he asserted that China would promote high-quality development via a new diplomatic approach underpinned by the “human community with a shared future” thinking.

Although Xi’s rhetoric on the topic (and the Covid-19 pandemic’s economic turmoil) suggest a different BRI approach, little is expected to change in terms of strategy. Rather, what we might see is mostly a change in tactics to promote the BRI and reframe its relevance for the new era, without addressing the lack of transparency and questionable practices.

Notably, Xi’s remarks followed the propaganda that has been so visible in Chinese state-media outlets in portraying the US as an instigator of conflict and an oppressor trying to stifle China’s rise and development.

Such rhetoric readily ignores the fact that since the Richard Nixon era, the US has viewed China first as a fellow member of international society, and then as a partner in sustaining and strengthening the international system that helped China rise. And while China’s rapid growth was unsettling for Washington amid talks of an impending American decline, it has been China’s belligerence in the region and blatant disregard for the rules-based order that has caused friction between the two powers. 

Despite US President Joe Biden’s attempt to portray Beijing as a stiff competitor rather than a threat, Xi’s words only reaffirmed that for China, Washington is a rival power looking to obstruct its ambitions.

Xi’s comments, even if merely rhetorical, marked a clear perception of the US as a great-power competitor. Further, Xi’s words perhaps signaled that the US needs to reconcile with the Chinese power as much as China needs to do with the US. 

No high-level speeches in party conclaves in recent years have failed to mention or exert China’s sovereign authority on Taiwan, and Xi was masterful to this extent. He reiterated a patent part of all PRC statements on the matter: an unshakeable commitment to reunification with Taiwan.

Although he stated that China wanted a “peaceful” unification, this was accompanied by a vow to crush any Taiwanese independence “schemes.” Xi’s warning, along with his emphasis on China’s “firm will and powerful capacity” to enforce such a will, is an indication that the CPC is becoming increasingly authoritarian under the guise of achieving national rejuvenation. 

In essence, Xi’s speech made it explicit that despite all its claims to the contrary, China is looking to disrupt the Western-dominated international order and reshape a world in its socialist characteristics, or “Chinese characteristics.” It has little regard for existing regional and global liberal democratic systems, and will therefore not be hesitant to employ intimidation or use force to threaten peace and stability in the realization of its ambitions.

The CPC’s centennial celebrations stand as a reminder of the unprecedented levels of power that the Party enjoys. Mottos like “listen to the party, be grateful to the party, and follow the party,” which were chanted at Tiananmen Square, point to the legitimacy that the Party enjoys, based primarily on its success in modernizing the country.

In the military domain too, reform of the People’s Liberation Army alongside efforts to transform it into a world-class force have enabled the CPC to maintain absolute leadership over the Chinese military. Hence, under Xi’s CPC, China appears to have the resolve, will and ability to achieve its vision, and moving forward, it is likely that the world will witness a much more hostile and confrontational Chinese power in times to come.

In recognition of the tone that Xi has set for China’s future via his rousing speech, the US, and its allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, can no longer be complacent. China under the Xi regime must be recognized for what it is: not merely a “challenge” or a “competitor” but a successful, powerful and threatening “rival” adversarial state.

In the Indo-Pacific region in particular, the Quadrilateral powers of the US, Japan, Australia and India must be prepared to face a hostile, neo-Maoist techno-autocracy that Xi has revived; China’s strong-arm tactics, unilateralism, and “wolf warrior” diplomatic maneuvers will only grow in the coming era, and must be firmly managed, if not opposed.

Beijing has already proved to be a revengeful trade partner; but, in light of the tone set by Xi’s July 1 address, the world faces a China that is a formidable economic, industrial, military and technological power, willing to use its prowess to emerge as a global hegemon. 

Mahima Duggal

Mahima Duggal is an associated research fellow at the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs (SCSA-IPA) at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), Sweden. She is also editorial assistant to the series editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia.