China’s domestic issues may hinder global ambitions

By Colin Heseltine, Former Australian Diplomat

The key conclusion to draw from China’s party congress is that the country’s greatest challenges are overwhelmingly domestic ones and Xi Jinping’s success in meeting them will determine the fate of his leadership, writes Colin Heseltine.

A few years ago, noted American foreign affairs specialist Robert Kaplan wrote “only China can defeat China”. His point was that foreign policy in any country is an outgrowth of its domestic conditions and, in China’s case, if harsh, inward-looking domestic policies were maintained, would this mean its external aspirations might be called into question?

It’s a point worth considering when evaluating the recently concluded 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Much of the external commentary has focused on the increased emphasis in Xi Jinping’s 72-page report to the Congress on national security and ideology when compared with reports at previous congresses. Word counts show greater frequency of words and phrases such as “national security”, “struggle” and “Marxism”, but lesser frequency of “economy” and “reform”.

While helpful, such analysis doesn’t provide a full picture of Xi’s long report, which covered virtually every significant aspect of public policy, foreign and domestic. There is a tendency among foreign commentators on China to analyse one or two issues in isolation, such as national security and ideology, while overlooking the totality of domestic and foreign issues with which the Chinese leadership must deal. Hence the relevance of Kaplan’s words.

There is no doubt the congress confirmed Xi’s dominance of the CCP and the end of the collective leadership style introduced four decades ago by Deng Xiaoping. All of the senior leadership are Xi loyalists. Those who might have offered a more liberal approach on key policy issues, such as former prime minister Li Keqiang and former Politburo members Wang Yang and Hu Chunhua, have been retired or demoted.

Xi came to power 10 years ago with an absolute belief that, after years of unbridled economic growth, corruption and moral decay had brought the CCP to a crisis point that threatened the country. For Xi, survival of CCP rule equates with the survival of the Chinese nation. His personal experience with the chaos of the Cultural Revolution embedded in his own ideology the belief that only a strong, united and centralised party could save China. This belief overrides everything, even economic growth and prosperity. Indeed, Xi’s report, despite acknowledging the past great achievements won by reform, was devastating in its criticism of “weak, hollow, and watered-down party leadership” before his time.

Xi’s ideology as described in the report is replete with references to Marx, but it is a Marxism integrated with populism, nationalism and China’s own conditions and cultural traditions such as Confucianism. Xi has almost defined Marx out of Marxism. But the Leninist part of his ideology – leadership by a strong vanguard, a single party – is very much present.

But herein lies Xi’s dilemma – and contradiction. In his report, Xi reaffirmed the CCP’s commitment to deepening reform and opening up and “imbuing China’s socialist modernisation with fresh dynamism and vitality”. He set his government the unprecedented task of achieving massive, wide-ranging goals of economic growth (with per capita GDP to reach that of a mid-level developed country by 2035); improvements in education, the environment and health; becoming a world leader in science and technology; and “ensuring that people are leading better and happier lives”. All this is to happen at a time China faces major structural economic and demographic challenges, along with other economic headwinds, including the deadening effect of its Covid zero policy.

The central question now is, can the CCP, which abandoned a collective leadership approach for one based on a single strongman surrounded by loyalists, many of whom lack much central government experience, pull this off? Achieving the CCP’s goals will require enormous creativity and flexibility in governance and policy-making. But if it continues to pursue a statist, centralised approach to economic governance that inhibits the dynamic and innovative impulses of China’s private sector, the economy will surely falter. Xi cannot afford to let this happen. Failure would be a CCP failure. Xi’s own leadership would be challenged.

The next few months leading to the National People’s Congress in March, when the substance of China’s domestic policies will become clearer, will be critical.

On global security, some commentators saw dark warnings of looming threats in Xi’s report (“preparing for the storm”) and noted the greater focus on protecting China’s national security, including plans to enhance the military’s strategic capabilities and combat preparedness. But there was nothing remarkable about these pronouncements. The reality is that China, surrounded by 20 land and maritime neighbours, and with rapidly growing global and regional economic interests, will have increasing concerns about global strategic challenges and, like any major power, will see the need to be able to meet these. Given the global strategic environment, including the recently released US National Security Strategy that highlighted China’s intent to reshape the international order in its favour and its ambition to become the world’s leading power, it is hardly surprising that national security would be a focus in Xi’s report. On Taiwan, Xi expressed China’s determination to reunify in standard terms, emphasising peaceful reunification but not renouncing the use of force, and stating that this was directed solely at the “few separatists” seeking Taiwan independence and not at “our Taiwan compatriots”.

The key conclusions to be drawn from the 20th Party Congress are that China’s greatest challenges are overwhelmingly domestic ones; that it will continue to meet them in China’s own way; and its success in doing this will determine the fate of Xi’s leadership. More than ever, China will need a stable and peaceful external environment to enable it to deal with its domestic challenges. This is not to say we should be at all complacent about the potential for conflict involving China but, in assessing the risks and developing our policy approaches to China, we should also look at the domestic constraints influencing its actions and take heed of Kaplan’s wise words. Colin Heseltine is a former deputy ambassador to China and head of mission in Taiwan.

This article was published in collaboration with Asialink, University of Melbourne.

Image: Jan 17, 2017: President of the Peoples Republic of China Xi Jinping during a meeting. Credit: Shutterstock