How Xi Jinping’s “New Era” should have ended U.S. debate on Beijing’s ambitions

Relations with China World politics Communism International relations Totalitarian systems China

Does China seek an alternative global order? What would this order would look like and aim to achieve? How does Beijing see its future role differing from the role the United States enjoys today? What impact does the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) ideology and its invocation of “Chinese culture” play when talking about its ambitions to lead the reform of global governance? This essay will address these questions by dissecting the meaning of the “new era for socialism with Chinese characteristics” that Xi Jinping proclaimed at the CCP’s 19th National Congress (afterwards “19th Party Congress”) in October 2017.

Why should we focus on this specific speech? In China’s Leninist-style political system, the report delivered by the incumbent general secretary at a Party Congress once every five years—the same venue selects a new Central Committee, Politburo, Politburo Standing Committee, and the leaders of other high-level party organs—constitutes the most authoritative statement of the party’s aims. It begins by assessing China’s progress in the past five years (or the full tenure in office of the incumbent general secretary if he is stepping down at the Party Congress). Then it evaluates the internal and external environment China faces, adjusts the party’s guiding ideology in light of new conditions, and lays out goals, not only for the next five years, but frequently also much longer-term objectives which are further clarified and adjusted over time. Finally, the report addresses the party’s strategy in nine major policy areas.

This report will briefly address what Xi’s speech tells us about the CCP’s strategy and its ambitions for the global order with respect to each of the three areas he identifies: (1) development designed to change the status of the Chinese nation in the world as the primary aim of the party-state, (2) the role of socialism in the party’s strategy, and (3) the party’s desire to make a specifically Chinese contribution to the future of humanity as a whole (or, in another phrase of Xi’s report, to “keep contributing Chinese wisdom and strength to global governance”).

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