The writer, a former prime minister of Australia, is global president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and author of ‘The Avoidable War’
Chinese president Xi Jinping’s work report to the 20th Communist party congress this week provides a framework for understanding the underlying ideological direction of China’s domestic and foreign policy for the next five years. Indeed, it is more ideological in tone and content than any that we have seen in the past 40 years. It underscores the Marxist-Leninist worldview that drives Xi’s ambition of making China the pre-eminent regional and global power by mid-century.
The document also makes clear that the shift in economic policy direction over the past five years will continue over the next half-decade. It suggests a continuing drift away from market principles towards the more comfortable disciplines of state direction and control. While it does make reference to an earlier party mantra of “giving full play to the role of the market in resource application”, this continues to be tempered by reference to the need for “a decisive role being played by the state”.
Also notable is an emphasis on national self-reliance in science and technology, the “strategic” allocation of resources for the development of new technologies and the central deployment of human capital, rather than allowing talent to move according to the competitive opportunities of the market. Add to this a call to “increase the security and resilience of China’s own industrial supply chains” in anticipation of future national security interruption.
There are some references in the report to market measures, including China’s desire to bring about “the increased internationalising of the renminbi” — part of a more general strategy to reduce the country’s future dependency on global financial markets, which continue to be denominated by the US dollar. China is mindful of the sanctions applied against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine and what might happen in the future if there is Chinese military action over Taiwan.
But the most disturbing feature is the analysis of China’s rapidly evolving external strategic environment. In previous party congress reports dating back to the 1990s, there has been a standard reference to “peace and development” as the major underlying trend of our times. Until now, a benign external environment was long seen by Deng Xiaoping and his successors as underpinning China’s ability to focus almost exclusively on economic development. Reports since 2002 also maintained that “China was experiencing a period of strategic opportunity”. The absence of external threat was seen as fundamental to an almost exclusive emphasis on growth.
The emphasis of Xi’s latest report is very different. These standard phrases have been dropped. It is now clear that the Chinese Communist party no longer rules out the possibility of a major war in the foreseeable future. Xi describes a “severe and complex international situation”. The party, he says, must be “prepared for dangers in peacetime” as well as “preparing for the storm”. And in doing so, Xi calls on the CCP to continue to adhere to “the spirit of struggle”.
The next five years, he declares, are “critical” for the continued building of a powerful Chinese nation. He calls for “an increased capacity for the army to win”; an “increased proportion of new combat forces”; and for the promotion of “actual combat training for the military”.
However, Xi’s language on Taiwan is relatively conciliatory, restating the party’s preference for resolving the Taiwan issue peacefully, while not renouncing the use of force. Xi nonetheless reminds his audience that the forces of history grind inexorably towards the “inevitability of reunification”.
The central message to take away from the report is that Xi’s definition of national security has replaced the economy as China’s central focus for the future.
We still await the final formalisation of the future political status of Xi’s leadership titles (with the likely addition of a Mao-like designation as “people’s leader”) and the further cementing of “Xi Jinping thought” in the party’s canon of ideological orthodoxy — as well as the other new appointments to be made to the politburo. But it is clear that Xi’s work report lays the ideological foundation and political claim (accepted, however reluctantly, by his colleagues) for his elevation within the CCP pantheon above Deng. And he is on his on his way to being effectively designated as coequal with Mao Zedong. This report therefore marks the return of “ideological man” — both to Chinese domestic politics and the international system writ large.