Throes of Xi-ismAt present, China is an uncontested global leader of merchandise exports. Its sworn political adversaries like the United States, Japan and India face huge trade imbalances, year after year, in China’s favour.
At present, China is an uncontested global leader of merchandise exports. Its sworn political adversaries like the United States, Japan and India face huge trade imbalances, year after year, in China’s favour. These countries clearly appear clueless in devising strategies to compete with Chinese products in the foreseeable future. The Chinese economy doubled in the past six years, from $6 trillion to $12 trillion, thereby effectively becoming the second largest economy in the world. This was made possible largely by its trade surplus with about 30 major economies of the world. Despite this, China so far had refrained, perhaps deliberately, from ‘exporting’ its political ideology even during the ideological heydays of Mao Zedong and his reformist successor Deng Xiaoping. The current economic success, led by manufacturing and exports, is also attributed to Deng’s carefully crafted ‘trade only’ strategy that avoided political meddling in the internal political affairs of other countries.
But this no longer seems to be the case. Chinese President Xi Jinping in his opening speech to the nineteenth party congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on October 18, made two historic departures. One, he introduced an improvised slogan—“Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” Although the phrase ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was officially introduced at the thirteenth CPC congress in 1982 and has since been a staple tagline signifying the abandonment of a controlled economy, Xi has now packaged it as a ‘thought’ and scoped it for the ‘new era’. Such prospecting of ideological eponymy shows Xi’s desire to stand on the same philosophical pedestal as Mao, who synthesized his ideas as ‘Mao Thought’ back in 1945. Two, unlike Mao and Deng who primarily focused their policy paradigms for domestic consumption, Xi has set out his clear agenda to ‘export’ this ‘thought’ to the world. The Chinese government mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, has claimed this new ‘thought’ to be appropriate for developing and smaller nation-states to prosper.
These developments are surely not trivial. First, China is now a seemingly invincible economic power, poised to be the largest economy in the world in less than two decades. Needless to say, power and influence come with money. Second, Xi will continue as the president of China for the next five years with more consolidated power as compared to his predecessors. Third, the impact of all this pecuniary and political muscle-flexing will naturally be felt first, and more intensely, in the immediate neighbourhood, like in countries such as Nepal, than anywhere else. Both mainland and maritime South and South East Asia are bound to feel more tremors.
This is a clear departure from Deng’s ‘trade only strategy’, which essentially meant opening the Chinese economy to the world, loosening the noose on government ownership of factors of production and, total export orientation of manufacturing with sole concentration on price competitiveness. Politically too, a debate was initiated to retain only a few desirable tenets of Marxism and to ultimately abandon the communist dogma. The 1997 inscription of these new features into the CPC charter as Deng’s ‘thoughts’ essentially heralded a new era of trust with China that resulted in the inflow of huge foreign investment and provided easier access in the global market for its goods.
The key question here is: what are the actual ‘characteristics’ of Xi’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ that mark this departure and how do they interact with the existing but rapidly changing global ‘democratic’ world order? Xi’s 3 hour and 20 minute-long speech was not all ramblings. Under the glare of global media, the messages about his roadmap—at least for the next five years—were rather loud and clear. Some of them are likely to have more pronounced and immediate effects than others. One, Xi’s increased assertion on sovereignty and the nationalism quotient is no doubt instrumental to consolidate his power grip domestically, but also sends unequivocal signals regarding China’s position on many contentious issues
ranging from the South China Sea to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, with Doklam-like hiccups in-between. Two, China’s ambitions to lead the world in climate change and free trade initiatives, at least theoretically, are a welcome dream. But, Xi’s plans to be an absolute leader with more clandestine manoeuvring on fiscal and monetary operations might soon prove antithetic to these ideas that warrant almost complete transparency. Three, the mercantilist narrative of Xi’s signature project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has not changed much since its inception despite Chinese government efforts to philosophise it as a benevolent instrument of greater global good. Unless corrected, BRI is sure to crop-up as an apparent conflict of interests issue as China proceeds to lead global free trade.
On the domestic front, there is no tangible hurdle in formalising this recipe of absolute rule as fresh political ‘thoughts’ or even to baptize it as Xi-ism, given his absolute control of power at present. But externally, Xi’s thoughts are certain to breed tension and face resistance, at least on two counts. Xi’s prescription for ‘developing’ countries to switch to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ for prosperity clashes head on with the global drive for democratic imperative. This seeks to change the entire narrative on economic growth, development and well-being. Another equally important pitfall of Chinese prescription is that political forces of smaller nations may be forced to adopt to Xi’s form of socialism to trade favours from economically mighty China. The prospect of Xi-ism, thus, wouldn’t be contingent upon its broad philosophical foundation and its usability, but on how Xi, as head of the new roaring power, can ‘sell’ it abroad.
Interestingly, for better or worse, Nepal stands prepared to be the first laboratory to test ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Nepal’s major communist forces are uniting but scrambling to find a narrative that fits into their communist indoctrination yet retains global acceptability. The Xi formula can fill this gap very well by leaving their ‘Left’ identity intact. Other geopolitical and geostrategic consequences of Xi-ism, too, are likely to be far greater than imagined today.
Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst