The celebration of the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary in Beijing on Thursday was not just about the past; it was also about its future under Xi Jinping. The CCP’s achievements in unifying the Chinese nation, promoting its prosperity, and elevating its international position are indeed historic. That there was little room for a critical reflection of the party’s past failures and current problems, however, suggests deepening Chinese insecurity in Beijing rather than self-assurance. No one defines the anxiety more than Xi, who took charge of the CCP in 2012 and as president of China in 2013.
Under Xi, any questioning of the leadership or its policies is now equated with “political nihilism”. Xi has tightened CCP’s control over all state institutions. By leveraging the new digital technologies, Xi’s party-state has also crushed all political expression of difference, let alone dissent, within the society. Whatever the political justifications for the CCP’s current approach might be, there is little credibility to Xi’s decision to discard collective leadership, concentrate all power in his own hands, and promote a cult around his persona. On top of it all, Xi has signalled the determination to perpetuate himself in power by removing the constitutional two-term limit on his office. At first glance, these point to the current strengths of Xi. But they might well prove to be the greatest vulnerability of the CCP in the coming decade. By dismantling the rules designed to facilitate smooth political succession, Xi is courting future instability in the CCP.
Xi’s strategy to overcome the natural play of intra-party politics is rooted in whipping up assertive nationalism and presenting himself as the champion of China’s great rejuvenation and the architect of its transformation into the world’s strongest nation. Securing national sovereignty in the restive provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet, fully integrating Hong Kong, and completing Taiwan’s unification with China are top priorities for Xi. In his address at the Tiananmen Square Thursday, Xi declared that the Chinese people will never allow foreign forces “to bully, oppress or enslave us”, and warned that whoever tries do so “will crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people”. While this rhetoric plays well at home, China is losing friends abroad with its aggressive approach to disputes with other nations. Xi’s claim that it does not bully other nations rings hollow among its Asian neighbours, including India, that have been at the receiving end of China’s land grab. China’s long-standing admirers in the US and Europe are increasingly wary of its predatory economic policies and wolf warrior diplomacy. Xi’s claim to offer his repressive system as an alternative to liberal democracy has locked him in an ideological fight with the West. The triumphal moment of the CCP’s centennial can’t hide the dangerous path that Xi has put the party on at home and abroad.
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