Control, chaos, and the Communist Party of China at 100 - all you need to know

Welcome to The India China Newsletter.

It's been a busy week in China. The big anniversary that everything these past few months (and years) has been leading up to finally arrived on Thursday (July 1), the CPC marking its centenary. Xi Jinping gave an hour long speech on Thursday at Tiananmen Square. There is a lot to break down from what Xi said, and more broadly, what we should really make of the 100 year anniversary.

What I thought I would do in this issue -- unfortunately I couldn't send out an issue at the start of this week as I’d planned to (yet again), thanks to work commitments and coverage ahead of July 1 -- is put together some of the best analysis and writing that I came across that readers may find worth bookmarking and reading at leisure over the weekend.

The Xi speech was, of course, the main event. Before getting to the analysis, I would urge readers to read the full text of the original, which you can find here via Xinhua (It's a Word document that has to be downloaded, so do so taking adequate precautions.)

You can also watch the entire hour-long speech with English translations here, if you want some of the colour of Thursday's event:

For a quick and dirty overview, here is the crux, from the Wall Street Journal's very good report of the event (partial paywall):

With a martial message of triumph, Chinese leader Xi Jinping marked his ruling Communist Party’s 100th birthday with calls to rouse patriotic passions, repel foreign coercion and entrench one-party rule, signaling defiance against U.S.-led efforts to pressure Beijing.

Addressing more than 70,000 people gathered Thursday at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Mr. Xi struck strident tones in recounting the party’s successes in surmounting challenges at home and abroad—from eliminating rural poverty to resisting imperialist aggression. He insisted that China has irreversibly emerged from past humiliation by foreign powers into an era of pride and prosperity.

The Chinese people “will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or enslave us,” Mr. Xi said, dressed in a gray Mao suit atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace. “Anyone who tries to do so shall be battered and bloodied from colliding with a great wall of steel forged by more than 1.4 billion Chinese people using flesh and blood,” he said, drawing cheers and applause.

The centennial celebrations help Mr. Xi showcase his achievements as he confronts a sluggish domestic economy, frosty ties with the U.S. and other Western powers, and China’s souring international image. Officials have also used the grandiose festivities to underscore Mr. Xi’s clout as he prepares for a twice-a-decade party congress next year where he is expected to claim a third term as party chief and pick new lieutenants.

In The Hindu, I reported on some of the main points of the speech (partial paywall) and what seemed to get the biggest cheers of the morning:

He said “resolving the Taiwan question and realising China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment” for the party. China would “advance peaceful national reunification” but would “take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence’,” he said.

“No one,” he added, “should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity”, a statement that elicited the loudest cheers on Thursday from the crowd at Tiananmen.

The line about foreign forces trying to bully or oppress China crashing into "a great wall of steel" of 1.4 billion people was perhaps the biggest talking point, including how best to translate it. As I reported in The Hindu, the official English translation was quite sober, saying: “Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

This triggered a bit of a debate:

A reporter from Xinhua replied:

My two cents: It doesn't really matter in the big picture, translation quibbles aside. The phrase he used was a Chinese idiom "tou po xie liu", which would literally be translated as bash your head and have blood flow out, but it is true that as with idioms, that would be an awkward translation and the message in Chinese maybe won't conjure the graphic imagery as it would literally in English, as is the case with English idioms that you don't take literally. At the same time, I think this is a bit of a storm in a tea cup and has no great bearing on the broader message which is what we should focus on. Whether or not he meant it literally or figuratively, it is, no question, a very strong choice of words and a very strong message that Xi chose to send, and it was Xi that chose that idiom (or approved his speechwriters’ use of it).

Postscript: Also note this particular phrase from the speech is being circulated on Chinese social media and the hashtag had more than one billion views on weibo as a trending topic as of this morning. That is no accident. Blood or no blood, message delivered to the domestic audience, loud and clear.

Some of the other interesting readings that caught my attention:

Top of the list has to be this fantastic piece by James Kynge at the Financial Times (partial paywall) that inspired the title of this issue of the newsletter. Recommend reading in full:

During that convivial dinner, during which Cao had charmed us with his wit and insights, he said something that has stuck with me ever since. I came to view it as akin to a basic line of software code that has determined the ebb and flow of China’s fortunes since the CCP came to power in 1949. It has also set the tone for Beijing’s posture in the world. If the reforms are too fast, there is chaos. If the reforms are too slow, there is stagnation Cao Siyuan, ‘Mr Bankruptcy’ “If the reforms are too fast, there is chaos. If the reforms are too slow, there is stagnation,” Cao said.  In one sense, this mantra seems self-evident. Without the liberalisation of controls on the economy, growth may slow and eventually stop. But when the pace of liberalisation runs too fast, social and political chaos may follow. This has meant that China’s rulers are constantly navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis of growth and control. To get more of one, they often have to sacrifice a measure of the other. But too much of either holds the threat of perdition.

Also highly recommend this essay in The Washington Quarterly by Jude Blanchette and Evan Medeiros:

In some areas, Xi may well have strengthened the Party’s organizational foundation, and, in the case of his anti-corruption campaign, given the CCP a much-needed boost in popular support. Yet in other important domains, Xi has undermined the Party’s governing capacity by reducing local-level autonomy and placing ever greater ideological demands on government officials and cadres. The centralization of power around the CCP apparatus, and especially Xi himself, combined with his efforts to elevate his image above his leadership peers, has reduced the responsiveness of the political system. Xi has also developed and institutionalized an expansive vision of national security, a transformation that at its extreme has underlain the draconian surveillance dragnet in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the dramatic erosion of political and legal freedoms in Hong Kong. Taken together, these actions constitute a paradigm shift in the Party’s organization, priorities, and operations that will constrain Beijing’s ability to address both near- and long- term challenges.

A good read from Evan Osnos at the New Yorker on the party at 100:

A century after the Party was founded by a young Mao Zedong and other students of Marxism-Leninism, it aspires to achieve the ultimate dream of authoritarian politics: an encompassing awareness of everything in its realm; the ability to prevent threats even before they are fully realized, a force of anticipation and control powered by new technology; and economic influence that allows it to rewrite international rules to its liking.

Jun Mai at the South China Morning Post on how each generation of party leaders has sought to define what "legitimacy" means, and how Taiwan may or may not figure in this equation for the current leader:

Deng Yuwen pointed out that Beijing still needed to weigh the potential risks if it went down the path of taking Taiwan by force. “Once achieved, it would bring a huge boost to the party’s domestic legitimacy in the short term, something that can be compared with the founding of the People’s Republic of China,” he said. “But if it takes a war, then it could take resources rebuilding Taiwan,” he said. “The domestic excitement of unification will feel much different after a few years if Western sanctions sink in and affect the daily life of ordinary Chinese.”

The China Media Project on what a provincial party leader had to say about Xi's future:

As [Li Hongzhong] spoke about the “Two Centenaries” (两个一百年), the idea promoted by Xi Jinping that the China will 1)become a “moderately well-off” by the first centennial celebration, the Party’s anniversary this year, and 2) will successfully become a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and modern socialist country” by 2049, the centennial of the PRC, here is what Li actually said:

It is the good fortune of our Party, our country and the Chinese nation to have had General Secretary Xi Jinping at the helm and steering the ship on the new journey to realize the Chinese nation’s rise to strength. We have closely followed General Secretary Xi Jinping in seizing our great victory in struggling toward the first centenary goal, and now we will continue to unswervingly follow him as we strive toward the realization of the second century goal and the great leap to realize the strengthening of the Chinese nation.

This is a lofty compliment indeed from Li. He is essentially saying that having now led China to the achievement of the first centenary goal during his second term, Xi Jinping can continue leading the CCP toward the achievement of the second goal. That would necessitate Xi remaining in office far beyond the 20th National Congress of the CCP in 2022. To make the October 1, 2049, celebration of the PRC centennial, Xi Jinping would have to be well past his 96th birthday. For comparison, Deng Xiaoping was 92 years old when he passed away on February 19, 1997.

I interviewed Rana Mitter at Oxford for The Hindu on the party at 100, and I thought this was a great point he made that is sometimes under-appreciated (you can read the full interview here or listen to it as a podcast which has our entire conversation:

What is at the heart, in the end, of the aspirations of the Chinese Communist Party and the state they run, which is domestic stability and prosperity, but also fear, more than anything else, of the system somehow being overturned. So that domestic consideration will always be most important. I'd like to say it's not inevitably true, but I think it's broadly true that when Politburo member Xi Jinping or one of his colleagues gets up in the morning, they're not so much worried about what the Prime Minister of Japan is about to do as they're worried about what the Party Secretary of Hunan or the Party Secretary of Sichuan, is about to do, and then probably trying to stop him do it as well.

For The Hindu, I wrote about the Party at 100 and the changes under Xi, and why, in many ways, this anniversary is about going back to the future. I also reported about the awarding of 29 medals ahead of July 1. The selection is interesting, including one of the PLA soldiers who died in the Galwan Valley clash, and a Tibetan who has become a symbol of the border village construction program. You can read the report on the awards here (partial paywall):

The PLA, unique among militaries as the military of a political party, has held its own commemorations ahead of July 1, including a ceremony and series of activities by the Xinjiang Military Command “to learn how PLA heroes, including the martyrs of the Galwan Valley conflict, defended and guarded the country’s borders”, the Communist Party-run Global Times reported, adding that the troops took a vow saying, “If war comes, I will not hesitate to rush like you to dedicate my last heartbeat to our motherland.”

Mr. Xi used Tuesday’s occasion to call on the more than 91 million party members “to boldly advance toward the second centenary goal of fully building a modern socialist country, as well as the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation”, referring to the 2049 centenary of the People’s Republic of China.

Among those honoured was Zhoigar, a Tibetan resident of a model border village called Yumai, who had in 2017 received a letter from Mr. Xi praising her patriotism and saying her example “will motivate more herders to set down roots in the border area like galsang flowers, and become guardians of Chinese territory”. Mr. Xi has pushed a plan since 2017 to build “moderately well-off villages” in border areas, under which 628 villages would be developed mostly along the borders with India and Bhutan. Some of the new settlements have come up on disputed territory claimed by India and Bhutan.    

And finally, two important stories away from the anniversary:

From the Washington Post:

China has begun construction of what independent experts say are more than 100 new silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in a desert near the northwestern city of Yumen, a building spree that could signal a major expansion of Beijing’s nuclear capabilities.

Commercial satellite images obtained by researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., show work underway at scores of sites across a grid covering hundreds of square miles of arid terrain in China’s Gansu province. The 119 nearly identical construction sites contain features that mirror those seen at existing launch facilities for China’s arsenal of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

The acquisition of more than 100 new missile silos, if completed, would represent a historic shift for China, a country that is believed to possess a relatively modest stockpile of 250 to 350 nuclear weapons. The actual number of new missiles intended for those silos is unknown but could be much smaller. China has deployed decoy silos in the past.

On Tibet’s future, Manoj Joshi has a new paper out assessing the implications of the new white paper:

The latest White Paper adds emphasis on the importance of maintaining a tight hold on the region, ensuring Chinese control over the selection of the next Dalai Lama, and emphasising border management and development. It underlines “managing religion in the Chinese context” and guiding “Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to socialist society”—in other words, Sincising Tibetan Buddhism.  A day after the White Paper was issued, Wu Yingjie, the secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Tibet said that there was a need “to promote that Tibetan Buddhism has always been part of Chinese culture.”

That’s it for this issue. Thank you for reading. Have a good weekend, and see you next week!