By Jude Blanchette —
As President Donald Trump and other world leaders gathered for the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), decided to skip the event and remain in Beijing, where he presided over a meeting of the powerful Political Bureau (Politburo) to discuss efforts to boost patriotism in China. According to the official readout from the Party-run People’s Daily, the meeting stressed that “patriotism is the core of the Chinese national spirit” and that improving “patriotic education” was necessary to guide the Chinese people to “unremittingly strive for the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
The scheduling conflict between the two events was no mere oversight. One of the most important formal functions of the general secretary’s role is sole responsibility for convening meetings of the Politburo and its Standing Committee. The choice to schedule this meeting at the same time as the United Nations General Assembly was, therefore, Xi’s alone to make. So too was the decision to select “patriotic education” as the main topic of discussion, the first time “patriotism” has been a focus of a Politburo meeting since Xi came to power in late 2012.
In the lead-up to this week’s Politburo meeting, China’s propaganda machine was already at full throttle churning out patriotic messages. Stories of national heroes fill the airwaves while patriotic songs are played on subway cars. Even the grand opening of Beijing’s newest airport this week was framed as a great patriotic achievement. (In his speech this week celebrating the airport’s opening, Xi stressed that the construction of the airport in less than five years was “a display of the political advantages of the CCP leadership and China’s socialist system that can mobilize all sources to make great achievements.”)
Taken together, events this week tell us something important about Xi’s current priorities and concerns as the CCP prepares to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1. For Xi Jinping and the CCP elite, this is no time to sit back and admire the achievements of the past — there are pressing issues to deal with if they are to secure the party’s future dominance. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the coming 12 months will be the most challenging period for Xi since he took power in 2012.
From a broader historical arc, the position of the CCP on the seventieth anniversary of the PRC’s founding looks like a success story. Just 71 years earlier, in October 1948, the Party was still locked in a bloody civil war with the Kuomintang for control of the country. Today, despite mounting internal and external challenges, the CCP’s rule is firmly entrenched, and as it nears one hundred years since its own founding in 1921, the Party can claim to be bigger, stronger, and better organized than at any time in its history. Yet, while that makes for a compelling argument, and Xi has a long list of achievements to point to, there is growing uncertainty, and with it, vulnerability to the simple test for popular support posed by Ronald Reagan during his 1980 campaign against Jimmy Carter: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
Globally, China’s reputation has deteriorated significantly since 2012 stemming from a perception of financial, diplomatic, and military bullying as well as blowback from the increasingly naked geostrategic ambitions of the current regime. The CCP’s protectionist “Made in China 2025” plan for state-driven technological upgrading took the once complex story of Chinese industrial policy and boiled it down to a bumper sticker slogan, allowing the mere mention of “2025” to send shudders through corporate boardrooms around the world. The Belt and Road Initiative betrayed its initial pledge to include robust participation by foreign companies and instead devolved into a rent-seeking binge for the country’s massive state-owned enterprises. Unprecedented political intervention in Hong Kong and Taiwan has drastically tipped the scales of local public opinion against Beijing and its long-term plan of territorial assimilation. U.S.-China relations have likewise cratered, and irrespective of a possible narrower resolution of trade tensions, there is a growing consensus in capitals around the world that the two countries are entering a protracted period of direct and indirect conflict. As a result, from Canberra to Kansas, China’s rise is no longer viewed with indifference or seen as largely benign.
Domestically, the economy continues to edge downward, with expectations that growth could fall below 6 percent in 2020. While an enviable number in most countries, CCP leaders since Deng Xiaoping have tied core parts of their popular appeal to the ability to deliver a rising standard of living and an expectation for a better tomorrow. The arrival of more normal economic growth rates and a looming demographic crisis will eventually force a reckoning within China’s leadership, but for now, the Xi administration has decided to muddle along the same basic economic trajectory, albeit with some more serious efforts to attack financial risk. In the short run, regulators are dealing with a spike in the price of pork, the country’s most popular meat, which rose by nearly 40 percent in August alone as a result of an outbreak of swine fever. While this might not seem cause for political concern in most nations, inflation for food staples has been the spark for previous bouts of popular unrest, most importantly in the summer of 1988, when demonstrations broke out across Beijing after retail prices rose nearly 20 percent in one year.
This leaves China bristling with uncertainty. Once overtly and organically confident, such unequivocal sentiments are left to the stilted declarations of the Propaganda Department or the faux encomiums of everyday citizens who increasingly resemble Václav Havel’s greengrocers , displaying official slogans in their shop windows in an effort to feign support for leader’s latest political campaign. Elsewhere, outside of Xi‘s earshot, concerns about the country’s future infuse private discussions.
Of course, none of this will be apparent during the spectacular display this coming Monday, where Xi will address the nation, and Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Peace in Beijing will shake with the People’s Liberation Army’s latest military hardware. But as the extraordinary security measures already put in place to clear the capital of any potential threats indicates, this will not be a moment for unalloyed celebration. As Xi warned his fellow Party members earlier this month, “The risks we face on the road ahead will become increasingly complicated and the storms we face will be unimaginable.”