President Xi’s “Struggle” and the Future of U.S.-China Relations

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the Central Party School’s opening ceremony.

(Photo Credit: Liu Bin/Xinhua)

By Robin Fu.

On September 3rd, President Xi Jinping of China delivered a speech at the opening ceremony of a training program for young and middle-aged officials at the Central Party School in Beijing. Xi highlighted the need to struggle with strength and spirit. Xi warned of “unthinkably challenging” tests to China in the future and stressed the need to persevere to uphold the country’s socialist system and to pursue the goals of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Ostensibly simple, Xi’s statement carries important implications for China’s approach to economic integration, global cooperation, and responses to Western pressures.

Xi delivered this speech to stress the ultimate goal of achieving two centenary goals of the CPC and the People’s Republic of China. The first goal is to finish building an economically prosperous society by dramatically increasing per capita income by 2021, the 100th anniversary of the founding of CPC. The next goal is to transform China into a modern socialist country defined by its prosperity, power, democracy, and cultural advancement by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

It is always easy to declare national goals but difficult to achieve them. The significance of this speech is that Xi seems to have decided the most effective means to accomplish these lofty goals is to adapt to swift changes in the world. This includes China’s struggle against the international and domestic hostile forces that are trying to undermine the CPC and prevent it from restoring China’s glory and dominance. Xi says in the speech, “For those risks or challenges that jeopardize the leadership of the Communist Party and China’s socialist system; for those that endanger China’s sovereignty, security and development interests; for those that undermine China’s core interests and major principles; and for those that deter China’s realization of a great national rejuvenation, we will wage a determined struggle against them as long as they are there. And we must win the struggle…”

Xi’s emphasis on the need to pursue nation-building through long-term struggles with courage and mettle is a significant departure from the policy of Hu Jintao, his predecessor. Hu’s policy was characterized by domestic harmony, peace across the Taiwan Strait and friendly relations with countries near and far.  Xi’s speech, however, reminds Chinese people and China watchers of the Mao era — an era that stressed the philosophy, rhetoric, and practice of “struggle.” What does this return to the doctrine of “struggle” mean for China’s foreign policy?

Many observers are worried about what Xi’s speech forecasts for China’s future approach to foreign policy. Even prior to the speech, suspicion of China has been brewing in the West with concerns regarding human rights, intellectual property rights, and the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Fear of a “new old war” and a “Thucydides Trap” scenario that would put China and the U.S. on a path to war is growing as observers worry that China’s hardline stance will escalate the trade war to a critical point. Wu Qiang, a political commentator based in Beijing, described the speech as a “fundamental political statement” and a “political declaration of antagonism.” Wu said, “China will adopt an antagonist stance, position and approach to handle the deterioration in China-U.S. relations.” Wu also believes this stance applies not only to the U.S. but all others who want to change China’s model of government. Pradeep Taneja, an expert on Chinese politics and international relations at the University of Melbourne, noted that Xi’s speech and specific use of the word “struggle” reflects a “siege mentality.” Taneja explained that the leadership in the CPC believes that China is under siege. This can create issues when China attempts to compromise and cooperate with other international powers.

Some experts hold a different opinion. Li Mingjiang is an expert in international studies at Nanyang Technological University. Li explained that although the word “struggle” was frequently repeated throughout the speech, Xi’s primary goal was to bolster morale within the CPC in the face of deteriorating relations with the U.S. According to Li, those who are concerned that China will engage in unilateral coercion to achieve its goals missed the nuance of Xi’s speech and CPC’s goals. China’s goals will not be achieved by a purely confrontational strategy to try and gain the upper hand against its rivals. Li said that the art of Xi’s “struggle” is one that promotes flexibility to reach compromises that are necessary to move China towards the completion of its goals.

Li’s argument can be observed in China’s actions. Despite Xi’s determination to struggle against any evil force that desires to weaken China, China’s response has been relatively moderate. President Trump’s policy against China is fierce and ruthless. While Trump delayed tariff increases to China out of “good will,” he has also openly declared that his trade war can destroy China’s economy. China, however, may be leaning towards reaching a compromise on the trade war. China’s recent decision to stop importing oil from Venezuela and remove some of the tariffs on U.S. imports indicates a significant softening of its policy toward the U.S. In particular, China will exempt American soybeans and pork from its latest round of tariffs in response to its rising pork prices. This represents a significant move to ease tensions in anticipation of upcoming trade talks with the U.S. President Xi’s rhetoric appears to be hardline and intimidating, but these statements do not entirely reflect China’s relatively moderate trade restrictions so far. This dichotomy is very characteristic of China’s politics.

The U.S. has maintained its hardline approach to the trade war. On September 1st, the U.S. began to impose tariffs on over US $125 billion worth of Chinese imports. As the tariffs begin to target nondurable goods (such as food products), economists note that the trade war will have an increasing impact on consumers. Kirill Borusyak, an economist at University College London, observed that these price increases will disproportionately affect poor families in the United States. Shortly after the tariffs, however, the China Ministry of Commerce confirmed that the US and China will be having its 13th round of trade negotiations in early October. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a tabloid under the official newspaper of the CPC, stated that there is a possibility of a breakthrough in these upcoming negotiations. Hu has a record of accurate predictions on recent developments in the trade war and is followed by many Wall Street traders looking for insights into the war. A similar testimony was made by Taoran Notes, a blog run by a state-owned newspaper agency called Economic Daily. Taoran’s commentary said that new developments are very likely as both sides prepare for “meaningful progress” in the October trade talks. Such productive developments have not even been mentioned since May, Taoran notes.

It is hard not to associate Xi’s advocacy of “struggle” with the increasing anti-China sentiment in the U.S. and President Trump’s policy designed to seek concession from China. Xi likely will not “struggle” against America’s tough trade policy against China because the continuation of the bilateral trade conflict will further slow down China’s economic growth. The CPC’s legitimacy in the past decades has been largely derived from unprecedented economic growth. If China’s economic growth stagnates, its political and social ramifications will be devastating. This idea is further supported by the fact that China plans to exempt key American exports (soybeans and pork) from its latest tariffs. China may also choose not to “struggle” against the protesters in Hong Kong as the city is still a financial service hub, too important for China to abandon. It is unclear how China will “struggle” against the U.S. and other powers that are calling on China to drop its harsh policy towards the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang. It is certain, however, that China’s “struggle” against American efforts to support Taiwan’s independent national status will remain decisive. Carefully monitoring how China “struggles” in dealings with the US will help manage this volatile bilateral relationship, a relationship imperative to maintaining peace and prosperity in the Asia and Pacific region.

Robin Fu is an intern at The Carter Center’s China Program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent those of The Carter Center.


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