Bookshops across China have lately been flooded with what are called "Books on Xi Jinping." It feels as if the work to manipulate public opinion in order to establish "Xi Jinping thought" at the next Party Conference (planned to be held in the autumn of 2022) has already started. When I visited a bookshop in Beijing in mid-March, I saw a middle-aged woman taking a selfie against a backdrop of piles of Xi Jinping books while talking to her smartphone saying, "we have become rich and we are a rich and strong country thanks to Chairman Xi Jinping," which was rather confusing.
China's current domestic and external situation seems to me to refute her optimism. Domestically, intellectuals have repeatedly questioned the politics of Xi Jinping. As for the external relationship, we still do not know what will come of the US-China trade war that was started last year. While China keeps making concessions, as the US is not satisfied, there have already been adverse effects on China’s substantial economy and anxiety, and dissatisfaction is on the increase, particularly among some entrepreneurs.
As per usual, the National People’s Congress (the Thirteenth National People’s Congress, the second meeting, hereafter the NPC) was held in March this year. Likely reflecting these recent developments, the governmental activity report by Premier Li Keqiang contained a stern assessment of the situation, which is rare in recent years, in particular regarding the economy.
This article focuses on the governmental activity reports from last year and this year, and aims to identify features in the political/diplomatic areas in this year’s report by means of a comparison of the keywords used.
Xi Jinping making concessions to be considerate to the US
The Foreign Business Protection Law, the only law that was adopted at this year’s NPC, was adopted no more than three months after the start of the debate at the Seventh NPC Standing Committee in December last year. Recalling that President Trump had strongly demanded the development and protection of the investment environment for US companies, the adoption of the law symbolizes that trade with the US was one of the major foci at this year’s NPC. Needless to say, the report by Li Keqiang was no exception, and the basic message of his report was to make concessions (or to pay consideration) to the US.
First, the 2019 report uses the term "the US-China" on three occasions, a term that was not mentioned in the previous year’s report (in Chinese, "China-US"). This in itself shows that this year’s report is highly aware of the US but what we need to pay more attention to is its argument. Li Keqiang first looks back at 2018 as "there were turns and twists in economic globalization, multilateralism was shaken, and the international finance market was unsettled. In particular, China-US economic friction adversely affected the production, management, and expectation for the market of some companies. In this context, we dealt with China-US economic and trade friction in a stable and appropriate manner." As for 2019, he emphasizes that China is to contribute to the promotion of regional collaboration and economic globalization "to accelerate the building of a high-quality free trade area network, to accelerate negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the China-Japan-South Korea FTA, and the China-EU investment agreement, and to continue to promote China-US economic and trade negotiations." He avoids criticizing the Trump administration directly, and it is noteworthy that China’s stance is to continue negotiations while this is not a quarrel that they started.
Second, the report goes out of its way to exclude terms that could irritate the US. The most notable is the concealment of the critique of "protectionism." When Mr. Trump assumed the presidency in January 2017, international society, including China, expressed their deep alarm against his "America first" policy and protectionism. International society was very supportive of the claim to "protect economic globalization" by the leadership of communist China which was the driving force of the world economy. In the report delivered at the 2018 NPC, when international opinion was in favor of China, Li Keqiang positioned himself as the guardian of the free trade regime, while delivering the following criticism of the US. First, he summarized that "over the last five years, the global economy failed to recover, the international financial market faced repeated turmoil, and protectionism has clearly been on the rise." As for 2018, he assessed that "the global economy’s recovery of its robustness is still desired, but there are many unstable and uncertain factors. There is a variable of policy adjustment by major economic entities and by its ripple effects, protectionism becomes entrenched and geopolitical crises are worsening. In this situation, China argues for the resolution of trade conflict through negotiation among equals, opposition to protectionist trade, and the insistence on its own legitimate interests." However, in the 2019 report, he looks back on 2018 as "the growth rate of the global economy went down, protectionism and the ‘own-country first’ policy were on the rise, international commercial prices fluctuated wildly, unstable and uncertain factors clearly increased, and external pressure was strengthened"; as for 2019, the use of the term "protectionism" was avoided.
Another major feature is the suppression of important policy goals. As for "Made in China 2025," a major focus of the current US-China conflict, in the 2018 report, the term "Made in China 2025" was used twice as seen in "to implement 'Made in China 2025', to promote major projects in the files such as industrial infrastructure, intelligence, and the environment, and to accelerate the development of advanced manufacturing." In contrast, while the 2019 report contains the expression (to accelerate) the "strengthening of manufacturing power," the use of "Made in China 2025" is carefully avoided. In addition, in discussing diplomatic policies, China is to avoid adopting terms that could irritate the US. For example, when looking into the construction of "new international relations" which were defined as the core idea in "big country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics" by Xi Jinping in the political report for the nineteenth National Congress of CCP in October 2017, the 2018 report declared that "we promote the building of new international relations this year." However, in the 2019 report, while there is a reference to the previous year’s outcome as "we promoted the building of new international relations in 2018," there is no mention of whether it will be continued this year. As for the protection of "maritime interests," which the US has grown increasingly alarmed about, the 2018 report stated that over the last five years "we resolutely protected state sovereignty and maritime interests" and that in 2018 "we will expand the maritime economic sphere and resolutely protect the state’s maritime interests." However, the 2019 report does not contain the expression "maritime interests" itself.
Xi Jinping’s argument
However, not all core ideas and policies of Xi Jinping’s big country diplomacy have been abandoned.
First, the promotion of the "community of a shared future for mankind" idea, which constitutes big country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, together with "new international relations," has been declared. In the 2018 report, Li Keqiang loudly declared that for the last five years, "China has been promoting the construction of a community of a shared future for mankind" and that "China will not cease to make efforts, together with other countries, to build a community of a shared future for mankind" this year. In the 2019 report he also said that China "promoted the construction of a community of a shared future for mankind" in 2018, and that "we will be actively involved with reforming the global governance system, resolutely protect an open global economy, and promote the construction of a community of a shared future for mankind" in 2019. The leadership led by Xi Jinping has been propagating the "community of a shared future for mankind" idea that has been included in the UN resolutions and the UN Security Committee’s resolutions since February 2017. The term itself is very banal, but under the banner of the UN endorsement, public opinion is being manipulated into accepting that "the building of a community of a common future for mankind is a core idea of Xi Jinping's diplomatic thought."
The second feature is the promotion of the "Belt and Road Initiative." Li Keqiang boasted the following outcomes in the 2018 report: "The outcomes of the construction of 'One Belt One Road' are outstanding. China has proposed and promoted the joint construction of 'One Belt and One Road,' proposed to establish an Asian Infrastructure Bank, established the Silk Road Fund, and contributed to the completion of many major traffic and communication networks and economic/trade projects. We also made sure that the first ‘Belt and Road’ International Co-operation High-Level Forum concluded successfully." Furthermore, he stated that in 2018, China "will promote 'Belt and Road' international co-operation, firmly maintain the policy of joint consultation, joint construction, and joint benefit, and will implement the outcome of the 'Belt and Road' International Co-operation High-Level Forum." These active attitudes remain unchanged in 2019. He stated that in 2018, "opening-up has expanded in all directions and there has been major progress in the joint construction of 'One Belt One Road.' The pulling effects of the joint construction of 'One Belt One Road' has continued to open up, the co-operation system with countries along the belt has continued to consolidate, and the promotion of economic/trade co-operation and human and cultural exchange has accelerated." Buoyed by this understanding, he argued that in 2019, China "will promote the joint construction of 'One Belt One Road.' We will hold a successful Second 'One Belt One Road' International Co-operation High-Level Forum. We will not miss the important opportunities of the joint construction of 'One Belt One Road' and the construction of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area to make the best of our own strengths and to support Hong Kong and Macao in their efforts to comprehensively deepen co-operation with the mainland."
On March 23, coinciding with the visit by Xi Jinping, China and Italy signed a memorandum on the promotion of the joint construction of 'One Belt One Road.' This indicates that China has thwarted Western countries’ efforts to put forward a united front vis-à-vis the Belt and Road Initiative. China will continue to fly the flag of the Belt and Road Initiative and will keep working to construct a regional order centered on China and its values, which may extend to the construction of a world order.
Xi Jinping is mindful of domestic public opinion
This year’s governmental activity report is clearly more conciliatory towards the US than last year’s report, but as for domestic challenges, the intention continues to be "strong" leadership or leadership "that serves people."
The first feature is the promotion of the building of a "strong military." In the 2018 report, Li Keqiang summarized recent performance, noting that "we have developed a new dimension over the last five years in reference to a strong military. We have made considerable progress in regard to the construction of a politically excellent military, a military that engages with reform, and a military which excels in science and technology and military management based on law. We have made steady progress in the strong military area with Chinese characteristics." Following this, in the 2018 report, he stated that "using the Party's strong military goal in the new era as a driving force, we will strengthen and establish the leadership status of Xi Jinping’s strong military thought in building national defense and a military, and will resolutely follow the path of a strong military with Chinese characteristics." On the other hand, in the 2019 report, he reflected on 2018, noting that "there have been many events and actions in the development of the strong military project." He then stated that in 2019, "using the Party’s strong military goal in the new era as a driving force, we will strengthen and establish the leadership status of Xi Jinping’s strong military thought in building national defense and a military and will resolutely follow the path of a strong military with Chinese characteristics." In reference to the establishment of "Xi Jinping’s thought," which the current government is pushing forward, it appears that "Xi Jinping’s strong military thought" has been accepted in the Party together with "Xi Jinping’s diplomatic thought." This suggests that the "strong military" is a banner that cannot be lowered domestically.
Second, in reference to the military, following the establishment of the secretariat for retired military personnel in last year’s large-scale structural reform, more attention is also paid to retired military personnel in 2019. The 2018 report does not make mention of retired military personnel in its reflection on the last five years, but the following is found in the activity policies section: "We will encourage and support migrant workers from the countryside, who have gone back to their hometowns, graduates of two-year colleges and specialist colleges, engineers, retired military personnel, and industrial and commercial companies to engage in the modernization of agriculture and to contribute to the development of new ways of working and new forms in rural areas. We will ensure payment to manage and guarantee retired military personnel including their re-employment." On the other hand, the 2019 report summarizes the outcomes from 2018 as "we have strengthened the service management of retired military personnel and protected their legitimate interests." It is further stated that in 2019, consideration would be enforced as follows: "We will ensure employment support for priority groups, such as university graduates, retired military personnel, and migrant workers from the countryside. We will improve the entrance exam methods of higher occupational training schools in order to encourage applications by newly graduated high school students, retired military personnel, laid-off workers, and migrant workers from the countryside, we will expand this year’s capacity by one million places. We will ensure the implementation of status guarantee measures for retired military personnel and will improve policies related to basic elderly care and basic medical insurance which target retired non-commissioned officers and soldiers." It suggests that the appeasement of retired military personnel is a highly prioritized challenge for the current government which regards internal stability as important.
The third point is about the promotion of the "strong country" policies. There is no reference to the "strong country" policy in the reflection on the past five years in the 2018 report. However, in the section on policies for 2018, it says that "we make efforts to build digital China, a strong Internet country. We will speed up the construction of a strong manufacturing country"; the report concluded with "let’s make new contributions to build a strong, rich, democratic, cultural, harmonious, and beautiful, strong, modern, socialist country to realize the Chinese dream of a great revival of the Chinese nation!" On the other hand, in the 2019 report, as in the case of the 2018 report, there is no reference to a "strong country" in the reflection section, but powerful mention is made in the 2019 activity policies section. China "will speed up the construction of a strong manufacturing country" and "greatly develop the maritime economy, to protect the marine environment and to build a strong maritime country." The disappearance of the "strong Internet country" might be due to considerations toward the US, as mentioning both a "strong manufacturing country" and a "strong maritime country" would irritate the US. However, we can interpret the use of both terms with reference to consideration to domestic public opinion; in other words, the context in which they need to present a "still strong mother country, China." Thus, the "strong manufacturing country" emphasizes that they have not abandoned "Made in China 2025," and the "strong maritime country" conveys their intention to pursue it as an issue in the domestic economy. This year’s report also concluded with a powerful exaltation: "Let’s keep struggling to build a strong, rich, democratic, cultural, harmonious, and beautiful, strong, modern, socialist country to realize the Chinese dream of a great revival of the Chinese nation!"
In summary, the most significant feature in the political/diplomatic area in this year’s governmental activity report is consideration towards the US. The report first makes it clear that it contains important messages addressed to the US by repeatedly using the expression "China-US" which signifies the US-China relationship. It also shows more conciliatory attitudes towards the US from China who wants a swift resolution to the trade conflict by avoiding terms such as "protectionism," "Made in China 2025," and "maritime interests" which could easily upset the US.
Chairman Xi Jinping offered quite a bleak assessment of the current situation in reference to domestic and external economic situations in the speech he made on January 21 to high-ranking officials of ministries and departments: "In the face of unpredictable international situations, complex and sensitive neighboring environments, and the task to carry out difficult and important reform, development, and stability, we need to maintain a high level of alarm at all times, be alert to the 'black swan,' and to prevent the emergence of the 'grey rhino'." It is likely that the report by Li Keqiang is based on Xi Jinping’s speech. Based on the analysis of the situation, it can be speculated that the leadership is planning to heighten patriotism using the one hundredth anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, to forcefully contain any suspicious movement at the thirtieth anniversary of the June Fourth Movement (the Tiananmen Square Incident), and to stage a grandiose celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the foundation of the PRC.
There is a pre-condition attached to these plans to be realized according to the leadership's expectations. It is for Xi Jinping to at least draw even with Trump in the negotiations or to achieve a certain outcome from the US-China summit, rumored to be held soon, which allows them to provide such an explanation. The resolution of the US-China trade friction is about to be delegated to the top leaders, but if Xi Jinping fails in this negotiation, domestic dissatisfaction could easily focus on Xi, the only leader. It may be the case that Xi Jinping, who wants to be seen as a great leader such as Mao Zedong, is now facing the most serious test since assuming chairmanship.
8 National Cadre Training Textbook Review and Steering Committee Organization
(ed.) The Comprehensive Promotion of Big Country Diplomacy with Chinese
Characteristics, People’s Publishing House/Party Building Reading Publishing House, 2019.
9 For the construction of the "Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Bay Area", see “The State Council announces ‘Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area development plan'", People’s Daily, February 19, 2019.
10 “Joint Communiqué of the People's Republic of China and the Italian Republic on
Strengthening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” People’s Daily, March 24, 2019.
11 “Xi Jinping's main leading cadres at provincial and ministerial levels insisted on
bottom line thinking, focused on preventing and resolving major issues, and the seminar was held during the opening ceremony”, People’s Daily, January 22, 2019. “‘Be aware of the 'grey rhino’" – President Xi Jinping: reference to the debt problem?”
[https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXMZO40287060R20C19A1FF1000](last accessed on March 16, 2019.)