Anyone searching for a blueprint of Chinese development in the next five years should look no further than the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party.
President Xi Jinping set the tone of last month’s meeting in his keynote speech, while the Congress ended with the announcement of seven new members of the Party’s top-ranking Standing Committee. Xi’s speech was rich in content while the new Standing Committee members, except for Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, are all new and relatively young faces.
Clearly, the 19th CPC Congress was a watershed moment for China’s new era.
Of course, with some 2280 delegates and 78 special invited representatives and a week of intense dialogue, there was much discussion on the bread-and-butter business of Communist rule in the next five years. To me, three points stood out loud and clear.
First, there were ample discussions about the principle of “about the principle of “gòng shang, gòng jiàn, gòngxiang” – or shared growth and prosperity through discussions and collaborations. This is the guiding principle of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) first proposed by Xi in 2013.
It is worth underscoring the two underlying principles of sharing here.
1. In order to “share”, there must obviously be someone to share with. Such a direct and palpable Chinese pronouncement aims to look both outward and inward, with the intention of understanding and appreciating the history, the civilisations and the ways and means of people inside and beyond Chinese borders. While there is obviously great room for improvement for China here, this may mark the first epoch-changing effort to reverse a millennium-long Chinese mindset.
2. While it is not explicitly stated, the process to carry out the BRI requires mutual consultation, collaboration, while importantly, nations involved must enjoy the fruits of the effort in bi- or multi-lateral wins. In a scenario where national benefits are often blended in a convoluted and nationalistic manner in a way that fails to address real global challenges, the BRI proposition seems to offer a positive tone and direction for humanity’s future.
Second, the Communist Party Constitution is the supreme law and blueprint for China’s development. As such, when the Belt and Road was announced, there was understandable concern both within and beyond China over whether its future is tied to Xi being leader.
After nearly four years of BRI, those concerns have been alleviated with Belt and Road’s inclusion in the Communist Party constitution. This also means that after the 19th National CPC Congress, BRI will garner much deeper national attention, resources as well as human energy.
Third, Xi’s vision or era – “Xi Jinping’s New Era of Socialism with Chinese Special Characters” – has also been enshrined in the constitution.
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, this is only the third such era after those of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
The three eras are depicted by phrases that are progressively more complex.
The first phrase is borrowed from Mao’s famous pronouncement on October 1, 1949 on Tiananmen Square that “The Chinese people have stood up”. It signalled an end to several centuries spanning the late Qing dynasty and then the Republic of China when Chinese people were literally beaten down by foreign and internal forces.
Deng era opened with his pronouncement “the Chinese will grow with wealth”. After the devastating decade of Cultural Revolution, giving citizens the means to prosper was an obvious priority for the Chinese government.
The third era announced by Xi needs a deeper understanding.
It is notable that in the 60,000 words uttered by Xi during his keynote speech on October 19, not once did he proclaim that China would be “first” or “number one” in anything.
However, the past few decades has seen a surge in China’s economic and military might, and China cannot be deflected from its profound historical sense and perspective. One may claim that shying away from being “number one” is simply be due to Chinese knee-jerk humbleness. But I do not believe so. More likely China has learned from its own history, in which it was once the most powerful nation in the world before witnessing the West rise to military and economic and dominance. China now realises that in the 21st century, gentleness, modesty and integrity are the preferred way. In his speech Xi also said that between 2020 and 2025, China would become a nation of “small comfort”. From 2025 to 2050, it intends to become a nation of “harmony”. These are certainly gentle aspirations, not forceful ones.
Xi’s approach was perhaps best described by leading Chinese economist Liang Haiming, who offered four characters that can be translated thus: “Immense and gentle growth to grandeur!”
Unquestionably a nation’s future is tied to its leaders’ vision and approach. Leaders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson oversaw the founding of a United States that grew to great power and integrity in the 20th century.
Will China emulate that stature in the 21st century and beyond, both for its own people and humanity in general? Time will tell. Perhaps Xi Jinping’s parting words at the 19th CCP Congress, where he quoted ancient verse by Yuan Dynasty poet Wang Mian, offer us a peek into the future of China:
“Not angling for compliments, I would be content that my integrity fills the universe.”
Feng Da Hsuan is a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and a senior adviser to the China Silk Road iValley Research Institute.