Xi Jinping, the man shaping a new Chinese era according to his vision of Communist Party greatness, strode onto the massive stage of the Great Hall of the People and bowed twice, once to the thousands of party officials gathered to hear him speak, and again to the elites whose ranks he is about to remake.

Then, for a moment, he directed his words to the rest of the world.

China’s way can be your way, too, he said, offering the Chinese system of authoritarian capitalism as an alternative to Western democracy, in a landmark speech in which he looked back on his first five years in office, and sketched a vision for what is to come.

“Socialism with Chinese characteristics is now flying high and proud for all to see,” he said.

The Chinese model has blazed “a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization. It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence; and it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.”

Mr. Xi’s comments came early in a speech to open a party congress, held every five years, that will endorse a new generation of party leadership with him at the helm. Claiming success abroad has often been a way for leaders to enhance their standing at home.

But Mr. Xi also offered clear confirmation that his vision extends far beyond his own country’s borders as he positions China’s illiberal model as a competitor to Western systems of democratic governance and open markets – particularly at a time when the West is seen as fragile and vulnerable, buffeted by demagogic leaders and fractured social structures.

Mr. Xi calls it “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” an ideological banner meant to fly over his vision of renewed authoritarian control at home and “a new type of international relations” abroad, he said.

He cast himself as a promoter of peace, although China’s actions have suggested a more divisive attempt to promote its own interests: “We have seen China seeking to exploit divisions between Europe and the United States, aiming to prevent unified Western positions on matters such as discriminating against foreign companies and growing protectionism in China,” one western diplomat said Wednesday.

He spoke barely 24 hours after Xinhua, the country’s central news agency, published a stinging rebuke to world democratic powers in an editorial headlined: “Enlightened Chinese democracy puts the West in the shade.”

The echoes of Cold War ideological competition were accompanied by assurances that China will work for global good.

But the Chinese president, already a strongman at home, is seeking a legacy that places him in the pantheon of the country’s greatest leaders. Burnishing and promoting China’s own system would accomplish that.

“The people who initiate new phases often get the most recognition. Mao [Zedong] set up this country, that was a new phase. Deng [Xiaoping] launched the reform and opening up policy, that was another new phase,” said Shan Wei, a specialist in China’s political development at National University of Singapore, referring to China’s two most notable leaders.

Indeed, Mr. Xi’s leadership vision has been difficult to distinguish from his own ambitions for power – and his speech did little to quell speculation that he may intend to remain in control for longer than the two terms that has become customary among recent leaders.

“With all his big talk and longer term plans and visions, it seems like he is maybe laying the ground work to stay on,” said Christopher Balding, a professor of economics at Peking University.

Mr. Xi does not appear to have succeeded in gaining a named theoretical contribution, which would enshrine his name in the party’s constitution, an indication that he has not achieved unrestrained internal power.

What is clear, though, is that Mr. Xi intends to make China a country that, by building strength at home, takes an increasingly prominent role on the world stage.

“He’s put out a blueprint for the Chinese Communist Party and for China for the next 33 years,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “And it’s an ambitious set of goals that are designed not only to raise the living standard in China but also China’s profile and influence around the globe.”

Those goals include becoming, by 2035, a cutting-edge innovator and making the country’s soft power “much stronger,” while at home improving the environment, setting in place better rule of law and swelling the ranks of the middle class.

By 2050, Mr. Xi wants to ensure “China has become a global leader,” he said.

That work is already in progress: sensing weakness in the West, China has already “become much more assertive, pushing its version of globalization, meaning globalization with Chinese characteristics,” said Michael Clauss, the German ambassador to China.

Mr. Xi spoke for nearly three and a half hours, colouring his words with soaring rhetoric delivered before the party’s assembled elders, including his predecessor Jiang Zemin, who repeatedly glanced at his watch as time slowly passed. At one point, former president Hu Jintao left the room, not returning for nearly 10 minutes. In the cavernous audience gallery, men in uniform dozed and diplomats struggled to keep their eyes open. In Chinese, the printed version of his remarks stretched to 68 pages.

Still, Mr. Xi’s comments distilled his vision, including for extensive party control of the country’s life. Religions “must be Chinese in orientation”; core socialist values should “become part of people’s thinking and behaviour”; works of art should “extol our Party”; students should be “well-prepared to join the socialist cause”; and the party’s influence in the military should strengthen.

“The Party exercises overall leadership over all areas of endeavour in every part of the country,” he said.

He also promised to abolish shuanggui, the abuse-prone system used by party investigators to interrogate graft suspects without charges. It “will be replaced by detention,” Mr. Xi said, as part of reforms to the party.

But he offered no indication that he would ease a clampdown on dissent that has become a hallmark of his tenure.

“We must oppose and resist various erroneous views with a clear stand,” he said.

It was an “affirmation of tighter control on freedom of speech, intellectual and media freedom,” said Lynette Ong, a scholar of authoritarian politics at the University of Toronto.

Indeed, though China may see its experience as a useful model for others, human rights advocates caution about following its lead.

“By its own admission China’s economic achievements are still fragile, and its environmental and human cost remains deliberately hidden,” said Nicholas Bequelin, east Asia regional director for Amnesty International.

“It is too soon to tell whether it constitutes a model or not, and its top down nature can lead to severe rights violations if it lack strong safeguards.”

Mr. Xi gave no corner to critics: “No one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests,” he said, a forceful rebuttal that underpins the appeal he hopes China’s “new socialism” will hold for others.

“The idea that nations can reject western universal values in favour of developing their own exceptionalism may be very persuasive to other nations,” said Mike Gow, an expert in state propaganda at Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University.

“We need to view China’s international activity as less about exporting an ideology and more in terms of building regional and global alliances which necessarily undermine and weaken the dominance of western systems,” he said.

Asia Correspondent
The Globe and Mail, October 18, 2017