While China’s economy has shown recent signs of deceleration, Xi Jinping’s speech at the 40th anniversary of the nation’s landmark reforms has attempted to reaffirm confidence regarding its global ascension.
This week Xi Jinping has stated that ‘no one is in a position to dictate to the Chinese people what should or should not be done’. This comes amid pressure from the international Western community regarding the establishment of alleged ‘re-education camps’ for Uighur Muslims, President Trump’s erratic instigation of a US-China trade war, and omnipresent complications with Taiwan.But President Xi’s recent constitutional abolishment of presidential term-limits has embodied him with greater political autonomy to foresee China’s destiny. Whether investing in projects in Africa, developing the One Belt, One Road initiative, or promising further tax cuts, President Xi’s position has provided him with ample opportunity to determine China’s global trajectory. Though his rhetoric has seemingly contrasted with Deng Xiaoping, the instigator of China’s great reforms following the death of Chairman Mao Zedong.
Deng Xiaoping succeeded the premiership as China’s paramount leader following Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 after a brief leadership struggle. By 1978, with a willingness to upend the Maoist centrally-planned economy, Deng’s measures envisioned a policy of ‘reform and opening-up’ which inaugurated boundless changes to China’s economy. In 1978, 10% of China’s GDP relied on foreign trade; by 2001, this figure had risen to 38%. ‘Special Economic Zones’ were established in 1979 which allowed greater free-market control in pertaining to cities such as Shenzhen. By the 1990s, foreign direct investment was permitted in almost every sector of the economy. In 1992, Deng proclaimed this transformation as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, justifying ideological yet somewhat nominal adherence to the Communist Party for a socialist market-oriented economy.
Expectedly, China’s GDP skyrocketed under such economic policies, and with it came an increase in living standards: between 1981 and 2005, approximately 600 million people were lifted out of poverty. Following Deng’s death, China continued to adhere to these measures with its ascension to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and numerous ramifications of preferential trade agreements with regional partners shortly thereafter.
But while Deng undertook a benign approach to China’s rise by avoiding to upset the American hegemony as well as distancing himself from once previous dictatorial leadership (‘tao guang yang hui’), President Xi’s recent remarks have seemingly upended this rhetoric. Not only avoiding to place the spotlight of the grand architect of China’s reform in his speech, Deng’s son – Deng Pufang – elicited a rather audacious comment regarding China’s growing status: ‘we must know our place and not be overbearing’. We can infer from such remarks that China still follows the ideas of Deng’s reforms yet with a more prominent, arguably aggressive, trajectory interjected by the presence of President Xi.While China continues to enhance its market forces, clamp down on corruption, and instigate state-run stimulus packages, it has since done so cautiously to defend the integrity of the Communist Party. Leaders since the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989 have shown reluctance to foment political reform as it has done economic reform. But with living standards and incomes drastically improving, the prospect of a democratic China seems needless given enhanced economic stability, a situation which has exerted displeasure for the liberal world order. As such, President Xi has reasserted his confidence in China’s rise. While the economy has seemingly stagnated, most pundits are reluctant to address this situation as a foregone conclusion.
President Xi’s consolidated position has enumerated him with the necessary powers to command China’s political course – if the country does not predicatively surpass the American economy by 2035, the sheer mantra, willingness, and magnitude of the Chinese people can determine this fate in due time. By inferring from Deng’s reforms of the 1980’s and 90’s, continuing gradual and evolutionary economic reform could allegedly seal these assumptions of a potential Chinese hegemony. China has time, which is why it needn’t worry about its current domestic and foreign constraints, and with President Xi’s recent remarks, there are no signs that China will be externally influenced in its bid for the number-one superpower. While the rhetoric has diverted, the trajectory of China’s policies has remained.