16 January 2024
Interpreting Xi Jinping’s New Year Address
Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping started giving annual New Year’s messages in 2013. While these are not as substantial or long as his once-in-five years Party Congress report or any number of other speeches made in internal party forums, they are nevertheless important for what the Chinese leadership seeks to communicate to the general Chinese public as well as the international audience by way of assessments of the year past and of challenges and ambitions for the year ahead.
Right off the bat, in his address at the end of 2023, Xi is at pains to communicate the impression of progress saying, China has “continued to forge ahead with resolve and tenacity”. It is also important for him to underline that the progress has been in the face of “the test of winds and rains” to portray his leadership and that of the party as capable of leading China through these challenges. As the wont of any authoritarian political party or system, the Chinese leader also tries to ignore inconvenient facts and to shape the narrative by saying China had “a smooth transition” from Covid-19, ignoring both the sudden end of its zero-Covid policies brought about by popular unrest at the end of 2022 and the country’s subsequent economic travails.
It is a reflection of the scale of China’s problems, however, that after a recounting of various achievements, Xi decided he could not ignore reality entirely and admitted that, “Some enterprises had a tough time. Some people had difficulty finding jobs and meeting basic needs.” He described these as “headwinds”, but these problems threaten to undermine what the Chinese leadership declared that the country had achieved at the ‘first centenary’ — in 2021, when the CPC completed 100 years of existence — the goal of a “moderately prosperous society” and the eradication of absolute poverty.
While the Chinese economy will continue to face problems because of the country’s political structure as well as the international context, what the rest of the world must pay attention to is how the Chinese leadership seeks to overcome these challenges. Xi’s reference to various key economic regions or projects at the forefront of the government’s reform efforts — such as the Greater Bay Area in the south or the Yangtze River Economic Belt — suggests that despite the increasing centralisation of power, Chinese growth depends on multiple regional drivers. Xi also referred to “China’s manufacturing prowess” regarding “trendy brands”, “latest models of Chinese-made mobile phones” and “[n]ew energy vehicles” among other things indicating a focus on innovation and capturing the global market for higher-end goods that has so far been Western-dominated. This is part of China’s process of promoting “high-quality development”.
International affairs were also prominent in Xi’s speech, with references to two key events in China — the China-Central Asia Summit in Xi’an and the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing. He did not elaborate on the outcomes of these forums suggesting that they were limited especially in the context of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, and growing international scepticism about China’s BRI projects.
Nevertheless, the address offered another opportunity to plug China’s so-called community of common destiny — to all intents and purposes an initial step in China’s attempts to reshape the global order away from dominant Western influence.
By referring to conflicts “still raging in some parts of the world”, Xi suggested that China had no responsibility in engendering such conflicts. But he was also laying out somewhat obliquely China’s foreign policy aspirations — that it had an interest in ensuring the conflicts either continued or ended in a manner that promoted China’s interests. This explains why China has backed Russia in the conflict with Ukraine, but has been quick to point fingers at Israel for its disproportionate response to the Hamas attack. The concern is less for the Palestinians than it is to ensure that the US as Israel’s ally, continues to be perceived negatively in the Muslim world.
While most observers will note the economic and foreign policy dimensions of Xi’s speech, they might dismiss his reference to China as “a great country with a great civilization” as nothing more than domestic grandstanding. The launch of the Global Civilization Initiative last year and the seeming bromides that the document is filled with might even mislead foreign interlocutors into thinking that this is just another Asian nation that seems to have rediscovered its roots and that there is nothing much of consequence that other countries need to worry about. That would be a mistake.
China under Xi is deadly serious about questions of civilisational heritage and greatness. After having practically overnight decided in the late 1990s that the length of its history was 5,000 years instead of 3,000 years, China has, today, taken to saying it is “more than 5,000 years” old. These changes are not unimportant — they refer to a sense of competition with other ancient polities like India and a desire to suggest being the oldest civilisation somehow confers on China a primacy also in international affairs.
More consequentially, the references in Xi’s New Year’s Eve speech to “many millennium-old stories” and to new discoveries at the archaeological sites in Chinese territory are also about subsuming other cultures and peoples into a greater Chinese whole. There are, for example, now references being made to ‘frontier archaeology’, that is, to archaeology in areas like Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, or Yunnan, which are really about Chinese claims on the histories and heritage of neighbouring countries.
India will have to keep an eye on developments in all three sectors — economic, foreign policy, and ‘civilizational’ — in China to bring its policies up to speed and to anticipate challenges not just in an election year but for the longer term.