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2 November 2022

What Xi Jinping’s rhetoric reveals about China’s global aims

Beijing’s call for “fighters” in leadership roles signals a battle with the West for dominance in tech.

By Bruno Maçães

On 22 October, the last day of the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing, China’s state news agency Xinhua published a report unveiling how the members of the elite party bodies were selected. Whether factual or not, the report elucidates how the CCP conceives of party politics today.

Xi Jinping had sent inspection teams to visit every corner of the country looking for suitable candidates for the Central Committee and Politburo. One of the main criteria was whether they “were able to fight and [are] good at fighting”. Fight against what, exactly? Against all that endangers national security, the report said, with a specific reference to Western sanctions.

It is well known that Xi has built a team of acolytes. Among the six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful party organ, four are his former aides. The other two, Zhao Leji and Li Xi, are also intimately connected to him.

[See also: The future world order will be decided by the war over semiconductors]

What has merited less attention is that Xi desired a team of “fighters”. Like Russia, China is broadly divided between Westernisers – those educated at Western universities, and influenced by Western political and economic ideas – and those of a less international disposition. The former want to restore Chinese power at home and abroad, sustain preponderance over Asia and ultimately surpass the US as the pre-eminent world power. But they want to realise this vision by following the West’s own historical path to global primacy. The “national group”, on the other hand, wants to pursue a distinctively Chinese path to the summit of the international system.

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Someone like Li Keqiang, the outgoing premier, always accepted invitations from the World Economic Forum and touched on all the right themes when addressing Western audiences: market reforms, openness, global cooperation and structural reforms. There is no one to assume that role now. Wang Yang, the West’s favoured candidate to become premier, has been sent into early retirement.

On 27 October, a few days after the congress, Xi took his new Standing Committee to visit the town of Yan’an, the holy site of the Chinese Revolution, where Mao and his comrades found refuge in caves after the Long March in 1935 (Xi likes to say he was cast from the clay of the Loess Plateau there). It’s a Chinese political convention for a newly appointed Standing Committee to go on an excursion together after the party congress, but the destination isn’t always Yan’an. In 2012, when he first rose to power, Xi chose the exhibition “Road to Revival” at the National Museum, a positive account of China’s history on the way to prestige and prosperity.

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Revealingly, the Xinhua report highlighted the struggle against sanctions as an example of the new political spirit in China. Days before the opening of the congress, the US announced a suite of measures directed at curtailing China’s advanced semiconductor technology. Fighting the West is, for the time being, about innovation and gaining the technological advantage. Five of the 24 members of the new Politburo have backgrounds in technology.

[See also: Why are India and China failing to support Ukraine?]

When I spoke to a semiconductor expert in Beijing about whether Washington can stop China’s technological rejuvenation, he noted that chips are technology, not magic. To achieve its manifest destiny of regional and international supremacy, he said, Beijing only has to reinvent existing technologies, which is an order of magnitude easier than de novo invention. That is my view as well, but there should be no doubt that the measures Joe Biden’s administration announced on 7 October will slow down China’s mastery of advanced chip manufacturing by at least a decade.

The view in Washington and parts of Europe is different. Complacency about Chinese power seems to have now reached the point where officials in government and think tanks expect to see the country’s economy break up. Deprive it of access to the flowing blood of Western innovation, they reckon, and China will collapse like the Soviet Union.

As the Chinese economy sputters and decelerates, an old debate returns: can a centrally controlled economy allow for the experimentation that scientific progress and industrial innovation require? Some remain convinced that China can only copy or steal products and technologies invented by others.

This seems doubtful, but a key argument in this debate has nothing to do with realities in China. Let us look to European history. Were the foundational scientific discoveries and technologies that transformed England in the age of Newton into a global powerhouse derived from the institutions of liberal democracy? Was the epochal cultural flourishing of Renaissance Florence an outcome of liberal rights and parliamentary democracy under the Medici? Wherever creativity sprang from in these cases, liberal democracy had little to do with it.

Those who expect China to fail overlook that the distinction between success and failure can no longer be measured against Western rules and values. Failure and success will be determined by how much the two sides are willing to fight and how good they are at fighting. There are no clear rules organising the competition between China and the US.

Beyond bureaucratic appearances, this CCP congress was the most significant and consequential in recent history. China has changed. After what comes next, it will be unrecognisable.

[See also: Xi Jinping’s party of one]

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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak