What future for China?
In the third mandate of Chinese President Xi Jinping, China will take three distinct paths, which depend on each other and are interconnected
Every direction taken by a government implies choices and actions. In the third mandate of Chinese President Xi Jinping, China will take three distinct paths, which do not intersect, but the one depends and influences the next. In a sort of centripetal spiral that from the inside shows positive effects to the outside, the policies promoted by Beijing must be coherent and reflect the Chinese characteristics of the ‘national rebirth’ proclaimed by Xi a few years ago. Many challenges and problems could lead to the failure of the objectives set by the government and included in the Chinese constitution: a direction that Beijing cannot afford to take.
In the last century, when heads of state and strategists desired to understand the international trend and where global politics was heading, it was usual to look to the West, the United States of America. However, after the exploit of Chinese growth in the last decades of the 20th century, everyone now looks to the East, including the U.S. hegemony.
And to be more precise, we observe which directions and trajectories Beijing’s policies, both domestic and foreign, can modernize, without westernizing, its country so that this new Chinese era leads the country to a “tremendous transformation of the Chinese nation in which it has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong”. Xi’s election to ‘president for life’ paved the path out towards its third term. Since there are no political enemies (at the moment), this factor gives time and strength to look out of his imperial palace in three distinctive directions.
Inside: a massive challenge to be ready outwards
Covid, Beijing Winter Olympics and corruption. Indeed, these challenges present on the national territory are the most difficult, and they are the ones on which Xi is focusing more: this is why he recently did not physically show up at the G20 in Rome and the COP26 of Glasgow.
The end of 2021 (Western calendar) saw an explosion of cases in the ancient imperial capital of Xi’an, in Shaanxi. According to the "zero Covid" policy, the city was temporarily put in lockdown and its inhabitants quarantined beforehand, taking part in a huge tampon campaign.
Since the Chinese Communist Party cannot afford any errors, the government had to punish Wang Bin and Cui Shiyue, Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the District Committee of the CCP in Xi'an, and several other officials to regain a firmer grip on the control and prevention of Covid19. However, not only Xi'an but also Hong Kong found 164 new cases, thus confirming the highest daily number of infections ever recorded so far in China.
This policy that has already seen punishments and punishers may not be adequate to the following commitment that sees the Chinese capital as the protagonist. Even Beijing has seen the first contagion of Omicron, the origin of which, according to the Chinese authorities, should be attributed to a mail sent from Canada with a stopover in California.
Despite the retraction from Toronto, Beijing has something else to think about: the Winter Olympics begin on the 4th of February, and all the policies adopted so far indicate that it will be crucial for the credibility and stability of China as an alternative model to the Western one and bearer of ideas and attitudes different from those adopted by the European states.
No one can sabotage the closed-doors show in Beijing. If this cannot happen from the outside by those Western countries that will not send their government officials as a sign of protest for the case of the Uyghurs, just think within the borders with instances of corruption and bad faith among the ranks of the party.
Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is constant, and while it sometimes slows down and seems to stop, like a machine, it rekindles at the most critical and relevant moments of the Chinese President’s mandate. Nothing is tolerated anymore when this machine starts again, not even the slander. This is the case of a group of five neo-Maoists who on WeChat (the Chinese specular app of WhatsApp) have criticized Deng Xiaoping, defaming one of the most determining Chinese leaders of China’s growth. However, these are isolated events compared to the corruption cases found by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. A few days ago, Zhou Jiangyong, former secretary of the Hangzhou Municipal Party Committee, was accused of being disloyal to the party and conniving with private companies for "disorderly expansion".
This event, together with the cases of covid and the incoming Beijing Winter Olympics, force China to look inside and to unravel any kind of conflictual knot, taking advantage of the various international disputes that push other global actors to look at their own home, such as the European Union with the possible Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Abroad: as far as the eye can see
Although these challenges come after the domestic ones, that does not mean they are less critical: they just have a different priority. As for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s champion foreign project, several spines in the flanks hamper its development and enlargement.
First of all, looking at Central and South Asia, the institutional instability of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s disagreeable climbdown and the energy problems affecting some areas of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan concern the leaders of CCP about the future functioning and solidity of the BRI. From a historical point of view, these were the main roads of the Ancient Silk Road. If these are not safe or do not convince the same countries that have seen pilgrims and merchants pass by for centuries, it means the foundation of the entire political narration is weak and creaky. However, these problems are not limited to the ground level: they also extend by the sea where the 21st century Maritime Silk Route should sail to Africa and dock the European coasts.
How can we expect China to command the oceans through its foreign policy if Beijing is not currently able to govern its own ‘garden’? Not being able to advance militarily beyond the Taiwan Strait and not do whatever military manoeuvre in the South China Sea represents one of Beijing's deepest shames. That is why from a narrative and ideal point of view, the Chinese gaze rides the seas and intersects with other oriental countries but pragmatically does not go beyond its horizon. Moreover, it is clear that if China desired to extend it beyond its sphere of influence, it should deal with the four allied powers in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), which are the USA, Japan, India and Australia. The anti-Chinese containment ring is a strategic issue for the Beijing government, which, whether it became tighter and more assisted by other countries across Southeast Asia, could unleash the wrath of the ‘Dragon’ and force the hand to pursue its direction. Although it seems unlikely given the Chinese pacifist nature, for now, Beijing is forced to look up, an environment in which China arrived late while other powers have already manifested their political intentions for decades.
Upward: China’s long march to space
While in the other two directions, on the one hand, there are internal challenges and, on the other hand, external impediments, the race towards space is open to all, and there you do not have to make war.
China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) has grand ambitions, ranging from suborbital tourism to new military space weapons. The Chinese space company has announced that by 2025 will inaugurate the point-to-point travel to step into the new space tourism market inaugurated last year by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. And this is undoubtedly a new duel that we will assist in the following decades between the USA and China within this area. However, it cannot be equally said about the New Orbital Weapon, which are tools that both the USA and Russia have already developed for centuries. This is also confirmed by the words of the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, who stated that “there are many companies all over the world that have conducted similar tests”, indicating that the nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles launched in recent months are nothing new and should not alarm anyone.
Besides, Chinese military activity has always followed similar manoeuvres from American and Russian tests since the true Beijing’s spirit towards space has always been exploratory and cognitive. Indeed, the CASC has stated that, after the 48 successful launches in 2021, it will target more than 40 orbital launches, including the completion of the Tiangong space station.
Although the failed re-entry of Long March 5B, the Chinese space company insists on the production and launch of this rocket family: in fact, in the coming months, the company will send into space the first Long March 6A and, for the second time, the Long March 8, which will be supervised and put into operation by the China National Space Administration.
Overall, China’s launches rocketed to 55 times in 2021, and 2022 may involve more activities beyond CASC.
Wherever China looks, it finds challenges and difficulties along its path, both towards the horizon and towards the stars. However, we can be sure that these three directions observed by Xi Jinping will be walked so that there will not be any detours or plan b.
China follows its own path and has its direction to cover, which is indicated by the historical memory and forged in the Chinese constitution.
Nobody and nothing can hinder the Chinese people towards its Chinese dream: the governmental continuity exalted in the third term of Xi leads to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and it has been repeated so many times that now it has become a historical truth. However, this long march in the direction of the Chinese greatness is not a “walk in the park”, as Xi Jinping recalled in the end-of-year speech, but "only through vigorous and determined endeavour can we fulfil our responsibility to history”.