By Amit Kumar
Ahead of the 20th Party Congress, several party secretaries at their respective Provincial Communist Party of China (CPC) Congresses (2021-2022 cycle) reposed faith in General Secretary Xi Jinping in leading China into the ‘New Era’—a terminology introduced by Xi in 2017 at the 19th Party Congress. He asserted that the Chinese nation and socialism with Chinese characteristics have entered a ‘New Era’ following the 18th Party Congress, held in 2012—the year he took over as the General Secretary of the CPC.
Since its inception, the terminology has become a recurrent feature of CPC communiques to denote the beginning of what Xi describes as the third leg of China’s journey to ‘national rejuvenation’—the Chinese dream to restore the lost glory. While the first stage entailed China’s ‘standing up’ that denoted its liberation from imperialist, feudal, and capitalist structures, the second stage—‘growing prosperous’—signified its transformation from a relatively backward economy into the world’s second-largest economy.
On to the ‘New Era’: What does it mean?
The third stage of this journey, as Xi specifies, entails ‘becoming strong.’ En route this journey, he has identified new contradictions facing the Chinese society, which calls for setting up new goals and adopting a new guiding philosophy.
The CPC, drawing from its Marxist roots, views the movement of history in terms of perpetual contradictions and constant struggle towards its resolution. Xi contends that as Chinese society has evolved, the principal contradiction facing it has also evolved. Accordingly, the unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing need for a better life underpin the present-day contradiction.
The ‘twin goals’, set in accordance with the new principal contradiction, are another characteristic feature of the New Era. The 2019 Party Congress report identified the building of a moderately prosperous society and a modern socialist country as the two centenary goals of the New Era—to be accomplished by the centenary of the CPC (2021) and PRC’s formation (2049). While Xi has already announced the accomplishment of the first centenary goal in his July 2021 speech delivered at the CPC’s 100th anniversary, where he reasoned that the Party has successfully eliminated poverty, the second centenary goal remains to be conquered.
The second centenary goal envisions China becoming a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence, and achieving common prosperity for all by 2049. This goal also has a mid-way stopover in 2035, by when China is expected to accomplish socialist modernisation, i.e. becoming a global leader in innovation and strong cultural soft power with a large middle-income group and a significantly reduced urban-rural divide.
Apart from the internal contradictions, Xi also speaks of an uncertain external environment which is witnessing a profound change in the international balance of power, growing unilateralism, hegemonism, greater power politics, and anti-globalisation trends. Together, these developments have pushed the world into a “period of turbulence and transformation”. This, in turn, requires China to accordingly shape its major-country diplomacy—conduct of diplomatic relations with major international players.
By highlighting the nature of the above challenges, Xi makes a case for a new guiding theory that would lay down a strategy to achieve the stated goals. Accordingly, he has propagated the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era as the guiding philosophy to help China navigate in the New Era.
To ensure strict adherence to the Xi Jinping Thought, commitment to Party building in political, ideological, and organisational terms has emerged as another key feature of the ‘New Era’. More importantly, it mandates the Party and its members to continue to work for the welfare of the people.
The underlying politics
The unveiling of the lofty goals is an effort to not only qualitatively distinguish Xi’s era from his predecessors, but also make it monumental in China’s recent history. This attempt is apparent in his classification of China’s journey since 1921 into three stages, namely ‘standing up’, ‘growing prosperous’, and ‘becoming strong.’ And making China strong is the desired legacy Xi intends to leave behind. This effectively confers upon him an ‘epoch-defining’ and ‘transformative’ role in China’s history and hands him a place among the ranks of Mao and Deng. To further emphasise the significance of this phase, Xi underlines that while China is closer and more capable than ever before of accomplishing its goal of national rejuvenation, the last leg of the journey only marks the halfway point and that “it would take more than drum beating and gong clanging to get there.”
Similarly, a direct corollary of China’s designated guiding philosophy in the New Era—the Xi Jinping Thought, is the legalisation of Xi’s position as the core of the Party, to which he was elevated in 2016. The ‘two establishes’ adopted at the sixth plenum of the 19th Party Congress in 2021 further entrenches Xi and his philosophy as the kernel of the Party and makes any opposition to either of these a legal violation.
At a deeper level, the narrative around the ‘New Era’ appears to be crafted to create a compelling foundation for strong leadership centred around Xi. By emphasising that unprecedented times and challenges besiege China both internally and externally, Xi is making a case for extraordinary measures, which in this case means his personalistic-authoritarian rule for an indefinite period.
Lastly, the renewed emphasis on party building, a key priority of the Party since Xi’s accession in 2012, is meant to enforce strong political, ideological, and organisational alignment of the cadres in accordance with Xi’s preferences and beliefs. To ensure this, Xi has strengthened the regulatory and political oversight over the members and called for observing strict self-governance, self-criticism, and self-reform. The exercisehas culminated in the investigation and punishment of thousands of party, government, and military officials since 2012.
All of these above factors contribute to the enormous power Xi has wielded around himself. And however compelling it might seem to think that coercion is what largely sustains an absolute regime, its foundation is always built on a persuasive narrative. In this light, the ‘New Era’ is the meta-narrative that serves as the moral, intellectual, and foundational justification upon which Xi bases his legitimate right to authoritarian rule.
Evaluating the progress
Although the narrative around the New Era aided Xi’s rise to become the most authoritative leader since Mao, its effectiveness and sustainability hinges on his ability to deliver on the lofty goals and missions set for this period. However, on assessing Xi’s progress against the domestic and global aspirations set out for the New Era, one finds that the policies have been counterintuitive and detrimental to the goals.
Nationally, his crackdown on the private enterprises and tech sector has led to a slidein their respective market cap, which is bound to adversely impact the innovation sector. Similarly, the zero-COVID policy was reported to have reversed the gains in poverty alleviation that Xi boasted at the Party’s 100th anniversary in 2021. It threatens to delay Xi’s much-coveted goal of ‘common prosperity.’
On the international front, Xi has managed to evoke the animosity of all the major players—the United States (US), India, Japan, Australia, and Canada—all at the same time. A report released by Pew Research Center highlights that an unfavourable view of China has hardened in 19 countries surveyed that included the US, Japan, Canada, Australia, Germany, the UK, France, Italy, and South Korea. Reasons include its territorial aggression against its neighbours, the secrecy with regard to COVID origins, human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet, and interference in the domestic affairs of others. This has forced the European Union to recalibrate its policy on engagement with China. Certainly, these developments do not represent the success of Chinese major-power diplomacy.
Moreover, apprehension of China’s willingness to weaponise trade and engage in economic coercion has forced serious contemplation on building a resilient and alternative global supply chain that is not severely dependent on China. The intent is evident in a growing convergence on excluding China from cooperation on critical and emerging technology, particularly in the 5G space. Any attempts at reducing dependency on China, if realised, would hurt China’s economy that heavily depends on exports, especially at a time when it is already slowing down. China’s secrecy about the handling of COVID during the initial days and its record on human rights hasn’t helped either.
Xi’s actions, especially during his second term, have accounted for the deliberate construction of a hostile environment around China. While this may serve as a useful tool to amass legitimacy, its adoption as a continued political strategy is unsustainable, as it will rarely yield the same results as before. Alternatively, for the vision of the ‘New Era’ to succeed, a prosperous economy is a prerequisite. Either way, now that Xi is destined to secure an unprecedented third term, one shall expect a change in policy course in alignment with the objectives of the ‘New Era’.