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Xi Jinping’s great rejuvenation
Sensemaker audio

Xi Jinping’s great rejuvenation

Xi Jinping’s great rejuvenation

The Chinese Communist Party has just passed a landmark new resolution under Xi Jinping. But what’s really motivating him?


Transcript
Claudia Willams, narrating:

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, what Xi Jinping’s attempt to rewrite history tells us about China’s future.

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“The top leaders of China’s ruling communist party are holding a key meeting that’s expected to further tighten president Xi Jinping’s grip on power.”

News clip

This week, 370 members of the Chinese Communist Party gathered behind closed doors in Beijing.

And they’ve been discussing no less than truth itself.

At the heart of things is a document: one with a pretty long title.

“The Resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Major Achievements and Historical Experiences of the Party’s Hundred-Year Struggle.” 

And on Thursday it passed.

It may sound innocent enough but it was an extraordinary chance for Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, to get the CCP to rubber stamp his version of history.

The stakes are high here. 

This is a man who presides over 1.4 billion people – not far off a fifth of the world’s population.

And it matters to the rest of us too. Xi Jinping’s aim is not just to consolidate his own position but China’s as the globe’s most important power in the 21st century.

So what is that version of history? 

And what might it show us about where China’s going?

Today, the CCP is expected to wrap up its gathering in Beijing. 

It has been reviewing and has now passed a profoundly important resolution – a summary of the party’s history from its foundation.

“Among other things, his personal vision for China is likely to be entrenched in the party’s policy making.”

News clip

Now that isn’t unprecedented. But it’s pretty extraordinary.

Only two other Chinese leaders have issued these resolutions since the foundation of the CCP a hundred years ago.

There was Mao Zedong – or Chairman Mao – in 1945. 

Following a purge in the party, he asserted his authority.

And there was Deng Xiaoping in 1981.

He signaled a shift away from Mao’s philosophy and paved the way for the remarkable economic growth that China has seen over the past few decades.

And now, well, it’s the turn of 68-year-old Xi Jinping.

“Xi wants to show that he’s an equally important leader transforming China into a global power.”

News clip

He’s a president who in his nine-year rule has purged political opponents, persecuted Muslim minority groups and taken on billionaires like the Alibaba founder, Jack Ma. 

Or, if you believe state media, he’s a thoughtful leader who “visits farms, farmers’ houses, small eateries, supermarkets, factories, hospitals, schools and even inspects pigsties and toilets to obtain first-hand information of people’s livelihood”.

So what will Xi Jinping’s history look like?

“In China if you control the present you control the past. By controlling the present and the past, you control the future.”

Expert commentator

We don’t yet know the exact content of the CCP’s landmark resolution. The meeting, after all, happened behind closed doors. The full picture will emerge only in time.

But we can expect Xi Jinping to have something to say about the liberalisation that Deng Xiaoping set into motion.

The Chinese Communist Party has taken an increasingly active role in society, more reminiscent of Chairman Mao’s rule than Deng Xiaoping’s… even though Xi Jinping’s father was one of those persecuted by Mao.

In the past year Xi Jinping has called for regulation of excessively high incomes, curbed tutoring firms, and set limits on the time children can spend gaming.

We can expect Xi Jinping to centre himself in the narrative of China’s history, as the person who will lead what he calls “the great rejuvenation.”  

Deng Xiaoping said that Chinese leaders shouldn’t stand for more than two terms. He wasn’t a fan of personality cults like Mao’s.

But Xi Jinping has removed that limit and has laid the groundwork for a third term in power… a year before his second runs out.

So what does the adoption of the resolution mean for China’s future?

When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he promised to make China a “great modern socialist country” by 2049. 

Nearly a decade later, we have a better sense of what that is beginning to look like.

There is control at home: the Communist Party continues to hold sway.

“Chinese president Xi Jinping hasn’t left China for over 21 months partly because of Covid-19 but also because he’s focused on building his power base at home.”

News clip

And, increasingly, China is a global player too.

“The Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us. Anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed and bloodied against the great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Xi Jinping speech

Yes, China has pulled back… for now… on the belt and road initiative, the infrastructure development project that sought to cultivate soft power across Africa and other regions.  Still, China today is a major power. 

There is one great unknown among all this, which perhaps has the greatest bearing on China’s future. What’s really motivating this historic resolution?

We can’t be entirely sure whether it shows strength or weakness on Xi Jinping’s part.

It doesn’t look like there are any major competitors to his continuing rule.

And Harvard University surveys show Chinese citizens are pretty satisfied with the government. 

But Xi Jinping also has vulnerabilities. 

China’s economic growth is slowing. Its birth rate is falling. And income inequality between the richest and the poorest in the country is widening rapidly.

And from property market debts to a deepening energy crisis, China has issues it needs to resolve.

It may be that Xi Jinping’s attempts to cement his power succeed in the short term.

But might they also set in motion an internal sepsis – one that, in time, could prove fatal? 

Because Xi Jinping can’t be the only person in a country of almost one-and-a-half billion people to want to wield power.

Today’s story was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood.