Dec 11, 2020 - World
Expert Voices

China has politics too: Xi Jinping prepares for make-or-break decade

Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

While Americans were fixated on the U.S. presidential election, another major political event was happening in China: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee’s crucial Fifth Plenum meeting.

The big picture: The plenum underlined a further consolidation of Xi Jinping’s political hold on the party, lauding Xi as China’s “great navigator and helmsman,” a term last used for Mao Zedong. It also approved the outline of China’s all-important next Five-Year Plan for 2021-2025, and set 15-year goals out to 2035.

Why it matters: This 2020 plenum meeting will go down as a major political and economic turning point for China, and the world.

  • Xi accelerated targets to at least double China’s GDP by 2035, years ahead of schedule, likely surpassing the U.S. as the world’s top economy.
  • Beijing doubled-down on giving state-owned enterprises a leading role in transforming China into a “self-reliant” technological powerhouse.
  • The CCP adopted Xi’s new “dual circulation” economic strategy to transform China’s massive market into a “huge gravitational field” to capture global imports and pull other countries into its political orbit.

Xi prioritized national security to an unprecedented degree, describing “security as the precondition for development,” as well as hyping popular nationalism and pushing China’s military to fully modernize by 2027.

  • Xi also launched a new “party rectification” campaign for 2021 to purge anyone in the security organs of the party suspected of political disloyalty in the lead-up to the Party Congress of 2022, which will formally decide on Xi’s long-term tenure as China’s paramount leader.

Between the lines: Xi started the year off badly, with missteps on the economy and COVID-19 generating doubts in China about his leadership. But now his position looks stronger than before.

  • Amid a wave of promotions for Xi loyalists, no potential successor emerged at the Fifth Plenum — as has occurred in the past — providing the strongest sign yet that Xi will remain in power for the foreseeable future.
  • In 2035, Xi will be the same age as Mao at his death (82). He seems to be aiming, if successful in his ambitions, to have firmly cemented his legacy as equal to the Great Helmsman in party mythology.

The bottom line: Xi’s China looks radically different from the China of the past 40 years. With the U.S. and the rest of the world in disarray from COVID-19, Xi believes history is on his side and is growing more bold, not less.

  • President-elect Biden will face a formidable China in the years ahead. The 2020's loom as the make-or-break decade for the future of China, America, and the global order.

Go deeper: This article was adapted from a speech I delivered at a special Asia Society Policy Institute event this week. Read the full prepared text or watch the discussion that followed with former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.

Kevin Rudd was the 26th Prime Minister of Australia and is President of the Asia Society Policy Institute and Chair of the International Peace Institute in New York.

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