China Takes the Xi Show on the Road
From November to early next year, 30-plus groups of envoys will spread out to five continents to introduce the spirit of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party to foreign political parties, political organizations, think tanks and media.
The unusual move - announced by the nationalistic tabloid Global Times - marks the first time the Chinese Communist Party plans to dispatch publicity-related groups on such a large scale across the globe, going much further than the select number of countries, such as Vietnam, Laos and Cuba, visited in the aftermath of the past political meetings.
The new concepts brought up at the 19th congress -- such as "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" -- will be introduced by the envoy groups, as well as the Belt and Road initiative and the idea of building a community of common destiny, according to Global Times sources.
That is not so very surprising. Since assuming power, President Xi has launched extensive measures to enforce and enhance the party’s image at home and abroad. New actions range from a return to the Mao's "mass line" methodology and ensuring the leading role of the Communist Party in all aspects of life, to the promotion of the Chinese system oversea as "a new role model for political and economic development" with the inadvertent help of the new American isolationism under President Donald Trump.
In the last few years, Xi has taken on the mantle of globalization and environmentalism, and led diplomatic efforts to resolve issues in the global dossier such as the Israel-Palestine Conflict and the Iran nuclear deal.
Unexpectedly, this international vocation has affected one of the murkiest political events in the world. Generally speaking, the National Congress, held every five years, is the venue for the deployment of major strategic decisions. Once concluded, the meeting usually enshrine a symbolic leadership reshuffle after months of internal discussions and political fighting under the blanket. The 19th Congress was no exception as the process was conducted even more secretly than usual. Still, it shifted to a more inclusive narrative to deliver a global, not just a domestic, message: China is back and the century of humiliation is over.
Many diplomacy-related concepts are now written into the revised Party Constitution, including upholding an "independent and peaceful foreign policy," carrying out the Belt and Road initiative and the idea of developing ties between the Communist leadership and other foreign parties based on "independence, equality, mutual respect and non-interference ideals." "Global community" and "shared future," terms previously used by the Chinese leader at international summits, surfaced in the final speech delivered to the press at the Great Hall of the People. Meanwhile, Deng Xiaoping's tao guang yang hui (“keep a low profile”) attitude in diplomacy seems now too "old-fashioned" for the world's second-largest economy.
"Never has the country been stronger, richer, more respected, more feared. This Congress will contribute to that confidence," King’s College professor Kerry Brown wrote recently in the South China Morning Post. And the elevation of China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi to the 25-member decision-making body (no foreign affair officer has got so high since 2003) is an unequivocal sign of President’s ambitions for the country as a rising global power.
At the same time, two of the five new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Wang Huning and Li Zhanshu, have accompanied Xi on all of his recent visits abroad and are well-positioned to help drive Beijing’s foreign policy strategy. But the question now is: can China rise peacefully?
The insistent recurrence of the word qiangguo ("great power") gave Xi’s three-and-a-half hour speech to the Congress sinister nuances. China, according to the president, not only will be a leading nation in terms of national power and global impact by the middle of the century, but will also “basically realize socialist modernization” and complete the modernization of its armed forces by 2035, so to achieve a world-class military by 2050 able to fight and win wars across all theaters. It is only in this way that China will truly succeed in safeguarding its sovereignty (in Tibet, Xinjiang and the South China Sea) and defeating "separatist attempts for 'Taiwan independence' in any form.
Interestingly, many of these points were previously raised at the 2014 Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs, when Xi introduced the concepts of a "new era" and "two strategic goals:: to double China's GDP and per-capita income from 2010 levels by 2021 (the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China), and make China a "modern socialist country" – “prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious" – by the middle of this century (in conjunction with the centenary of the People's Republic of China).
During the last Congress, Xi reaffirmed his conviction that "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will become a reality in the course of reform and opening-up." This basically means that only by engaging with the rest of world and addressing its domestic shortfalls will the Asian country reach great-power status.
As Yang Jiechi remarked six years ago, over the centuries, China's diplomacy has always served domestic economic and social development, not the pursuit of hegemony by military means. The Belt and Road initiative itself is both a channel to strengthen Chinese presence abroad (sometimes controversially) and a strategy to pacify the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and export China's industrial overcapacity, one of the main economic headaches for the Chinese leadership.
That is why putting it at the center of China's first global Congress – along with "Xi Jinping Thought" and "a peaceful foreign policy" - is finally not so strange.
Alessandra Colarizi (email@example.com) is a Beijing-based journalist and a regular correspondent for Asia Sentinel