Xi’s coronation ceremony opens on date of China’s first atom bomb

Oct. 16 occupies a special place in communist China’s history. It is a date regarded by many Chinese as glorious and historic, which helps to explain why President Xi Jinping chose it to open the Chinese Communist Party’s national congress.

A Chinese intellectual in Xi’s age group recalls jumping up and down, shouting with joy in a rural town on Oct. 16, 1964, when he heard the news of China’s first successful atomic bomb test.

Any time there is a party history exhibition, the nuclear test 58 years ago at the Lop Nur site in the western part of the country, features prominently.

Chinese regard the test as the event that broke the nuclear monopoly of a handful of powerful states. For China, possessing an atomic bomb meant being able to counter American imperialism and Soviet hegemonism.

Chinese Communist Party propaganda exhibitions always play up China’s first successful nuclear detonation 58 years ago.

It was Chairman Mao Zedong, communist China’s founding father, who called for the development of an atomic bomb in the mid-1950s. He believed China needed heavy air power, strong ground forces and the nuclear bomb to avoid being bullied by others.

Oct. 16 this year fell on a Sunday. Despite the previous two national congresses, in 2012 and 2017, opening on weekdays, Xi chose the date to open the latest session, which is expected to affirm his third term at the national helm.

In his opening speech, Xi repeatedly spoke of strength — “a strong nation,” “a strong military” and of bringing about unification with Taiwan to safeguard “national security.” But his renewed calls for more military muscle sent chills across the world.

Xi described the unification of Taiwan with mainland China as “a historic mission” of the party, and threatened to use force, if necessary, to achieve it.

“We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary,” he said.

References to the use of force were missing from the speech he gave to congress five years ago. The choice of date may also have been intended to appeal to elderly party cadres who remember the distant breakthrough nostalgically.

In the autumn of 1964, Xi himself was 11 years old, and his father, Xi Zhongxun, had been purged two years earlier. Despite a youth spent in harsh circumstances, Xi went on to rise through the ranks and ultimately become China’s top leader. Only someone with such perseverance and determination can build a strong nation that can stand up to the U.S. and achieve unification with Taiwan, Xi’s logic goes.

This storyline, which includes the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, is Xi’s justification for his long-term rule.

A giant screen in Hong Kong shows Chinese military exercises near Taiwan in early August. © Reuters

Although Xi’s report to the congress was abbreviated, he still spent an hour and 44 minutes delivering it. That made him compliant with an official COVID-19 requirement that all meetings be restricted to less than two hours.

Shorter meetings actually suit Xi, since these limit the chances of any party member voicing an objection to his policies or the direction in which he is taking the country.

While Xi talked tough on national security, his speech offered little new in terms of foreign policy, and made no mention of Ukraine. It was also short on policies directly related to daily life. This was very different to 2017 when Xi was more expansive and made an effort to excite his people.

The most notable element in 2017 was the goal of attaining socialist modernization by 2035 — bringing forward that target by almost 15 years. It reflected a passionate desire to catch up with the U.S. economically and to overtake it.

The 2017 speech also set 2035 as the target for the modernization of China’s military. Implicitly, Xi was saying that China would be strong enough to take on the U.S. in battle by that time.

There was a strong global reaction to the 2017 speech. Steve Bannon, an adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, was said to have read it eight times. The startled Trump administration became more confrontational, stoking the trade war with China.

Xi delivers a speech at the opening of the national congress on Oct. 16. (Photo by Yusuke Hinata)

Perhaps recalling that reaction, Xi’s latest speech was drafted with more caution. It omitted the notions of “a strong maritime nation” or advancing “military-civilian integration” that so riled the U.S. Xi also skirted sensitive topics like the South China Sea and the U.S.-China battle for technological supremacy and the race for advanced semiconductors.

Significantly, when state-run China Central Television reported Xi’s remarks about the Taiwan issue on Sunday’s evening news, it deleted the president saying “we will never promise to renounce the use of force.” That edit could not have been unintentional.

Yet, these are no more than presentational adjustments. As long as the party keeps Xi in place, fundamental policies remain intact.

Xi’s speech did contain a number of ideas for domestic consumption: strengthening party guidance, common prosperity, self-reliance and dual circulation.

On Monday, Xi joined delegates from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region for a discussion and advocated Chinese-style modernization as the country’s unique development model.

But none of these lofty ideas do much to boost the struggling Chinese economy, and the report contained hardly any numerical targets.

As recently as autumn 2020, Xi said it was “completely possible” for China to double the size of its economy or its per capita national income by 2035. For that China needed average annual economic growth of 4.73%. The doubling target was not mentioned this time, reflecting newfound doubts about achieving that level of growth each year.

President Xi Jinping, left, and former President Hu Jintao seen at the kick off of the Chinese Communist Party’s national congress in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Oct. 16. (Photo by Yusuke Hinata)

Xi also made no mention of average growth in the past decade, because the numbers pale in comparison to his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

As for housing, Xi said nothing about a property tax, an idea his aides had previously floated. With slumping property sales, it will be a hard idea to launch in the next five years.

On Tuesday, China delayed the release of its gross domestic product figures for the July-September quarter, probably in deference to Xi.

All in all, the national congress was confronted with certain realities. While Xi still wants to build a nation that can counter the U.S. on all fronts, the economy is stuck in the doldrums with declining growth — neither of which is going away any time soon.

Many questions linger. How long will China’s present economic malaise endure? And if Xi were to run for a fourth term in 2027 — when he will be 74 — would he be willing to change course on economic policy?

Author: Katsuji Nakazawa, NIKKEI Asia

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