Xi Jinping's Big Seven-O
The Apogee of His Reign?
Senior resident fellow William C. McCahill Jr. shares observations on China’s 70th anniversary National Day spectacle, the upcoming fourth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, and potential “black swans” on China’s horizon.
On Tuesday, October 1, Communist party general secretary Xi Jinping presided over the People’s Republic of China’s 70th anniversary celebration. The huge Beijing pageant was designed to project, to Chinese and foreigners alike, the country’s might, its achievements under party rule, and, above all, its leader’s majesty. Extolled like Mao Zedong as “the People’s Leader,” Xi will soon convene a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee plenum meant to confirm his personal style of governance and show party consensus behind his policies. In this seventh year of his reign, Xi appears to be at the zenith of his power. But the wheel of China’s fortunes continues to turn, bringing to Xi myriad tests of his Marxist mettle: “known unknowns” are accumulating even as “black swans” glide across his horizons. The next big anniversary that Xi wants to celebrate, far more important than this year’s events, will be the CCP’s 2021 centenary. Before then, Xi faces a difficult and uncertain two years. Observers and investors should bear in mind that old cliché: “what goes around, comes around.”
MAJESTY AND MIGHT
China’s October 1 National Day, “the day the nation was founded,” commemorates the moment when Mao Zedong declared the CCP the rulers of China. Since October 1, 1949, through seventy years of tragedy and triumph, the Communists have persuaded many, maybe a majority, of the Chinese people that the party is China. Like fans at a soccer match, spectators at Tuesday’s Beijing pageant sported PRC flags stuck to their cheeks, while honor guards displayed a triptych of flags—party, nation, and People’s Liberation Army—to symbolize the essence of the Chinese party-state.
Tuesday’s spectacle ran three hours under smoggy skies and deployed tens of thousands of performers, military and civilian. It began promptly at 10 a.m. when the politically marginalized Premier Li Keqiang announced from the Gate of Heavenly Peace that party general secretary, military commission chairman, and state president Xi Jinping would “make an important speech.” (To remind: Xi Jinping does not make unimportant speeches.)
Dressed in the somber grey Sun Yat-sen suit that signals solemnity, Xi delivered a passel of patriotic platitudes, promoted his signature “China dream,” triumphantly welcomed China’s inevitable return to global preeminence, and, in a timely reference, repeated Beijing’s commitment to Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.
Xi then left the rostrum to reappear moments later in his custom-built, moon-roof Red Flag limo, and proceeded, like the emperors of yore, out the Gate of Heavenly Peace and east along the Avenue of Eternal Peace to review the People’s Liberation Army troops and their weapons massed in a thick column that stretched to the old city moat. Following the script set by Deng Xiaoping in 1984, Xi, as he passed each unit, intoned, “Greetings, Comrades,” and the troops bellowed back, “Greetings, Chairman.” “Comrades, work hard,” went Xi’s next line. “Serve the people,” came the troops’ reply. As Xi reviewed the party’s army that as military commission chairman he commands, the helmeted soldiers’ doe-eyed gazes followed him as if in a socialist realist tableau. The carefully vetted spectators along Xi’s route would have seen none of this detail. But the party’s China Central television captured the adulatory images with production values that Leni Riefenstahl would have envied.
Upon Xi’s retracing his route and remounting the Tiananmen rostrum, military and paramilitary units paraded before him, with initial contingents goose-stepping in dress uniforms and jackboots while follow-on formations in battle gear motored through on their vehicles, from simple jeeps to massive missile carriers. Foreign analysts will be scrutinizing the mock-ups of drones, ICBMs, and tactical missiles for clues to their capabilities. For less expert observers, the military hardware and soldiers on parade offered an eye feast of colorful camouflage schemes and costumes, fashioned like video game versions of the U.S. military at war. (The PLA has not seen combat since its misbegotten 1979 foray into Vietnam.)
With the military review and a PLA aircraft flyby concluded, the civilian portion of the pageant, a “parade of the masses,” began, and fell into five parts, one for each of China’s rulers since Mao Zedong “founded the nation” in 1949.
Float-borne portraits of each ruler—their pictures ironically akin to those seen in Chinese funeral processions—announced each man’s epoch and distinct contributions to the CCP canon. Last in the long procession came the “New Era of Xi Jinping Thought.” The Xi era’s achievements—to date, as Xi has reigned only seven years—required eighteen floats and 30,000 boisterous marchers to explicate. Xi waved back as his image, right hand raised in a wave, rolled past.
In 1999, the author attended the 50th anniversary Beijing National Day events and was seated in the barbarian bleachers next to a distinguished European diplomat. That year’s pageant foreshadowed this year’s in every respect save its length: there was no “New Era of Xi Jinping Thought” in 1999. As those 1999 proceedings drew to a close, the European envoy sniffed, “Looks like fin de régime to me.”
He spoke too soon.
FOURTH PLENUM, “KNOWN UNKNOWNS,” AND “UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS”
In the coming days, as the sugar high from the National Day spectacle wears off, Xi will convene in Beijing the fourth plenary session of the current, 19th, Party Central Committee. Even though Xi has arrogated to himself far more power than his immediate predecessors held, he will still want to have the plenum’s blessing of his policies and actions. For a plenum remains the party’s supreme decision-making body.
In announcing the long-delayed Fourth Plenum, party media gave its agenda as “internal party governance.” That elastic subject may well be on the docket. But of more immediate concern to the 376 committee members and alternates will be China’s slowing economy, ongoing trade and other disputes with the United States, turbulence in Hong Kong, disaffection on Taiwan, and the increasingly dire threat to the economy and social stability presented by the African swine fever pandemic.
The plenum will likely endorse Xi’s and his advisors’ current “one foot on the gas, one on the brake,” “make it up as we go along” practices for dealing with the economic slowdown. There will be little talk of “reform” except in the word’s literal sense of changing shape, and Xi’s efforts to insert the party ever deeper into the private sector will be applauded. The Central Committee will sanction “whatever it takes” to continue to support the property market, in all its regional variety, as real estate remains the burgeoning Chinese middle class’s chief store of value amid other, less tangible, assets. At this juncture in China’s economic development, collapse of the property market could well endanger the party’s overriding goal of maintaining social stability.
Foreign investors and stock market players will focus most closely on the plenum’s instructions to Politburo member and vice premier Liu He, Xi’s lead trade negotiator with the United States. Liu is due in Washington for a new negotiating round in mid-October. With the “Trump trade war” now manifestly reducing economic growth worldwide, and particularly affecting the Chinese and U.S. economies, and both Xi’s and Trump’s accumulating domestic woes—albeit of different character—one would imagine Liu He empowered to seek at least a truce while deeper, probably irresolvable, Sino-U.S. conflicts get addressed on a longer timetable. But as one young Chinese official recently acknowledged to an American friend with career-killing candor: “Who knows? Trump is totally unpredictable, and Xi listens only to himself.”
Investors and business people have been similarly stirred by the increasingly violent protests that have swept across Hong Kong in the past three months. While the demonstrations’ proximate cause may have been ill-considered local legislation, their deeper reasons lie in Beijing’s steady encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms. For the moment, Xi and his cohort seem prepared to let “Hong Kongers govern Hong Kong,” as the terms of the territory’s reversion to China were stated. But Xi’s patience will find its limit if the protests continue and the Hong Kong authorities cannot tame them. Like his party mates, Xi’s instincts run to the authoritarian—viz., Xinjiang—and he cannot be seen to concede to the Hong Kong protestors’ demands, not least for the precedent that would set for his aim to “reunify” Taiwan, where voters have seen all too clearly what autonomy means in Xi’s dictionary.
HAS THE “SON OF HEAVEN” DISPLEASED THE HEAVENS?
This past summer has seen freakish weather exaggerate the longtime pattern of “drought in the North, floods in the South”; but Chinese media have been banned from reporting these anomalies that are fast becoming the new normal of Chinese meteorology. Nor have the party media reported accurately and fully on the plant blights that, along with extreme weather, have damaged grain and other crops across the country.
Those meteorological and agricultural setbacks, serious though they may be, pale in comparison to the African swine fever that has swept like a biblical plague across China’s pig herd these past six months.
The Chinese character for “meat” represents a pig, its porcine ribs splayed into unforgettable calligraphy. All other animal protein is defined against pork as a linguistic and cultural standard: hence, Chinese say “chicken meat,” “bull meat,” “lamb meat,” and so on. It is no exaggeration to claim that pork has almost mythological status in Chinese culture: when Chinese say that they want to eat meat, they mean pork.
Since early spring at least, when reports of African swine fever began to appear in China and in foreign commentary on Chinese agriculture, Chinese and foreign epidemiologists began to register their anxiety about the disease. As they did during the SARS epidemic of 2002–3, Chinese health officials suppressed accounts of swine fever’s spread through China’s enormous pig herds, even as courageous Chinese scientists warned of the disease’s consequences. Today, while official figures report that roughly half of China’s 500 million–plus pigs have been slaughtered to halt the spread of the fatal disease, objective observers reckon the number to be much higher and confirm that the disease has sickened pigs across all 31 of China’s provinces. In other words, it has become pandemic. The Chinese animal health authorities, understaffed and ill-equipped as they are, cannot stop the disease, even as they understand that rebuilding the national pig herd will take years of scrupulous scientific effort and fiscal commitment.
With Vice Premier Hu Chunhua in the lead, the State Council has ordered the release of frozen pork from China’s “strategic pork reserves” (what other country keeps a “strategic pork reserve”?), promulgated quarantine measures, and directed replenishment of the pig herds. Imports, including from the United States, have been increased in an effort to control skyrocketing pork prices.
The politics will not wait, however. Maintaining a stable, variegated, affordable food supply, particularly to China’s 450 million urbanites, remains key to the Communist party’s right to rule. Long gone may be the days of ration coupons for pork, grain, eggs, edible oils, and the like. But many Chinese (and even some of us aged foreigners) remember those days of basic food shortages. The party recognizes the risks it would face if urban living standards regressed from their current level. As a senior Chinese agronomist was reported saying of the swine fever pandemic in mid-summer, “the political, economic, and social impacts are nothing less than war.”
Even more apocalyptic, but not to be discounted, are new concerns for the safety of China’s infrastructure crown jewel, the Three Gorges Dam on the mid-reaches of the Yangtze River. These worries surfaced among Chinese engineers in July when drone photography appeared to show stress marks in the dam’s facade. Needless to say, official media never reported this news, and social media comments were quickly deleted. But one highly credible engineer raised the alarm in a series of video interviews appearing on a diaspora website.
The soothsayer is Li Nanyang, the daughter of Mao’s longtime private secretary Li Rui, who died in February. Ms. Li, self-exiled to the United States, has delivered her father’s papers for safekeeping at the Hoover Institution and begun speaking of their contents to trusted Chinese journalists and scholars. In her interviews, Li reminds viewers that in the 1950s her father had warned Mao against damming the Yangtze gorges and that Mao had taken her father’s advice, never again mentioning the project in public. Deng Xiaoping revived the scheme in the early 1980s, Li contends, and, despite objections from engineers and senior military officers, pursued it. The Three Gorges Dam, with its water management and hydroelectric components, became fully operational in 2012.
Now, claims Li, design flaws and shoddy construction have begun to show their ill effects, even as the Yangtze’s downstream ecology has been severely damaged by the dam. Chinese engineers, including the now deceased chief engineer on the Three Gorges project, have expressed their fears that only by dismantling the dam can catastrophe be averted. But these technocrats realize that removing the dam, potentially to save hundreds of millions of lives, poses to party leaders a Hobson’s choice that they would be incapable of making.
Li Nanyang may speak like a Cassandra, and she has her father’s reputation to defend. Still, her insider accounts should be taken seriously, as were doubts about the Three Gorges project when a full third of the National People’s Congress abstained or voted against it in 1992.
One wonders whether Xi Jinping spotted this black swan on National Day as he surveyed his realm from atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
William C. McCahill Jr. joined NBR as a Senior Resident Fellow in July 2016. His work focuses on Chinese politics and policy.