In 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, Mao spoke at the Tiananmen Square and simply said, “China has stood up.”
Mao didn’t demonize foreign powers or his rivals. However, on the 100th anniversary of CPC (“CCP”), Xi Jinping’s speech was very different — defiant, combative, and foreboding. The populist and nationalistic speech was a big hit among the domestic audience, but how about in rest of the world?
Xi highlighted China’s impressive economic success to evoke pride and patriotism. He used the word “rejuvenation” 25 times in his speech — very similar to Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan. Xi pointed out that extreme poverty has been eliminated and assured that China’s progress is “inevitable.” The words “great” and “prosperity” were used numerous times to embellish the accomplishments of the government and the Party. Then Xi laid out the plan for the future prosperity — China becoming a “great modern socialist country” (by 2049).
However, Xi over-promised by claiming that China has an “unstoppable momentum toward rejuvenation.” Well, China faces numerous structural problems in the coming years, and nothing is guaranteed. After this year, China’s GDP growth rate will be 4-6% for the rest of the decade. Gone are the heady days of 10% growth.
Xi could have stopped here and stayed with a positive message. However, inexplicably, he went on to dig up historical wounds and connect the dots to portray dangers from the same sources.
He made direct references to the Opium War of 1840, Century of Humiliation, colonialism, imperialism, unequal treaties, and Japanese aggression. And the language was also very emotional: “The country endured intense humiliation, the people were subjected to great pain, and the Chinese civilization was plunged into darkness.”
Since the art of rhetorical speech demands repetition, Xi talked about the “subversion, sabotage, and armed provocation by imperialist and hegemonic powers.”
In the speech, Japan had the honor of being the only (enemy) country explicitly mentioned; and Japan is a trigger word that gets the Chinese patriots riled up.
The accusations are historically and factually true, but what’s the point in demonizing foreign countries now? The same foreign powers are also the reason behind China’s success in the last 40 years. Xi conveniently had an amnesia that in 1980, more than 80% of Chinese lived in absolute poverty. Without investment, technology, guidance, education, US-led framework such as the WTO, and much more from the West, China would have stayed as one of the poorest countries in the world.
Then, Xi warned ominously, “Foreign countries that dare to bully China will see their heads bashed bloody against the Great Wall of Steel forged by over 1.4 billion people.” The phrase “Heads bashed bloody” (Or, “broken heads and flowing blood”) became a trending hashtag on Weibo, with more than 900 million views. That nationalist sentiment was, of course, buttressed by militarism in the speech: “The people’s military is a strong pillar for safeguarding our socialist country and preserving national dignity, and a powerful force for protecting peace in our region and beyond.” (The use of “beyond” represents China’s new global ambitions).
Xi also mentioned Taiwan four times, boasting that China will take “resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward Taiwan independence.” And Xi put himself in a box by claiming that Taiwan “reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment.” This likely means war before Xi leaves office — within 10-15 years.
Of course, every country creates its own myth and whitewashes its history. So, it wasn’t surprising that Xi presented CCP’s history as just 100 years of amazing success. Not a single mention of the civil wars, economic failures, power struggles, ideological extremism, and catastrophic mistakes of the Party.
The word “Party” was mentioned more than 100 times in the one-hour speech. And the centrality of CCP in Chinese society was emphasized numerous times: “We must uphold the firm leadership of the Party. China’s success hinges on the Party.”
After Mao’s decade of irrational and destructive cultural revolution, Deng Xiaoping severely curtailed the Party and its dogmatism. From 1980 on, pragmatism became the North Star. However, under Xi, the Party has resurfaced as the omnipotent force that controls every institution in China.
Also, the speech mentioned Marxism and socialism numerous times but never once mentioned or thanked capitalism, which has been the bedrock of China’s prosperity in the last four decades.
Xi Jinping also indirectly gloated about the end of America’s primacy by talking about the “once-in-a-century changes taking place in the world.”
Chinese leaders may be too eager to assume the mantle of global leadership. A multipolar world is emerging but America still has far more allies and influence around the world. And the world is not ready to accept China as the new hegemon or Xi as the new supreme leader.
As noted in a previous article, China’s image is quite awful all over the world — from North America to Europe and India to ASEAN countries. Africa is the only region where China does well, but even Africans prefer the U.S. model to China model.
Here are the results from a new Pew Research poll: