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World View: Will China’s progress help human rights record?

Xi’s ‘middle-income power by 2021’ will be monitored on ‘seven unmentionables’

Chinese president Xi Jinping: “It’s my conviction that the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will become a reality.” Photograph: How Hwee Young

Xi Jinping has emerged much strengthened as China’s political leader from the Communist party’s 19th congress this week. He thus has an enhanced opportunity to implement his thinking for China now written into the constitution. Assessing his prospects involves judgments on that programme as well as on his personal political role in reinforcing recent authoritarian trends.

Xi’s thought refers to “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”, and “following the principle of achieving shared growth though discussion and collaboration and pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative”. That is the vast infrastructure development programme China is rolling out with Asian, African and European partners to connect the Eurasian continent over the next three decades by land and sea. Known popularly as the new Silk Road, it points China decisively towards its west, complementing the Pacific focus to its east which brings it into competition with the United States and its allies there.

The new era reference is to ideas put forward under the heading “China’s Dream” and attributed to Xi since he became leader five years ago. It should become a “moderately prosperous society and a middle-income power” by 2021 (the party’s 100th anniversary), a “fully modern nation” in the period to 2035 and a “rich and powerful nation” and “a global leader of composite national strength and international influence” by 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the party taking power).

At the congress, Xi spoke of growing Chinese global influence, an end to corruption and “a decent, even comfortable living for everyone in a clean environment”. Referring to the 40 years of reform and opening up from the 1980s, he said: “It’s my conviction that the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will become a reality.”

Historical mode

These objectives are cast in a deeply historical mode with constant reference to China’s modernisation, market and international opening, escape from national humiliation by European powers and Japan under imperialism, and the assertion of a restored global role by the middle of this century. The ruling party’s legitimacy is completely bound up in achieving these tasks. Its worries about not succeeding because of corruption, inequality, tension between centralised and localised power, environmental degradation or loss of control over media, independent criticism and social movement suffuse its debates and actions.

Despite the secrecy and neo-authoritarianism surrounding the congress, it is not that difficult to understand these expressed priorities or why they should be made into slogans for the party’s 88 million members and its next period of rule. The remarkable achievements since the 1980s in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty by industrialising and urbanising on the basis of foreign investment, market reforms and state capitalist corporations give it a continuing output legitimacy, reflected in high public polling approval from citizens. Projecting those achievements forward is equally in tune with fundamental Chinese values.

One of the five new members of the party’s seven-person Politburo standing committee is Wang Huning, a theorist and close adviser to Xi and his two predecessors. Before becoming a full-time politician in 1995, he was a political scientist who published prolifically on problems of governing China’s modernising transition and how that compares with western liberal democracy.

Political meritocracy

He acknowledges the problems of combining central, local and market power but argues strongly that a competitive party system is inappropriate for China. A close observer, Daniel Bell, a Canadian political theorist teaching in Shandong, agrees, arguing in a recent book that its long tradition of political meritocracy exposes the limits of democracy there.

Managing the transition towards becoming a rich and powerful nation involves overcoming the trap demographic pressures and corruption cause for other middle-income countries. Hence Xi’s stress on technical and scientific innovation. The hugely ambitious new Silk Road initiative makes China’s international outreach part and parcel of that by absorbing its surplus industrial capacity and putting the $4 trillion external reserves built up since 2001 to effective use. The resulting surge of Chinese investment all over the world recently heralds a new era in international affairs.

A notable theme of Xi’s first period in office, supported by Wang Huning, was a party campaign about the “seven unmentionables”, which should not appear in party discourse: universal values; press freedom; civil society; citizens’ rights; the party’s historical mistakes; a privileged capitalist class; and an independent judiciary.

Sympathetic critics of China’s extraordinary progress will watch with interest Xi’s success in keeping them unmentioned over the next five years.