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China's Xi reinforces modern socialism while expanding footprint

Xi Jinping opens 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress on 18 October 2017. Source: Chinese government

Chinese President Xi Jinping has told the 19th gathering of the ruling Communist Party that the global economy remains his focus along with continuing to stabilise government at home.

While the 64-year-old is only guaranteed one more term as president with the age limit set at 67, he’s been able to strengthen his internal power by positioning loyalists in key roles in the leadership.

He was a compromise candidate when he came to power in 2012 and has spent the last five years ensuring that his vision remains China’s main political and economic philosophy in the future.

Xi faced his 2,287 delegates in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People while the People’s Liberation Army played the Welcome March in what is a five-yearly gathering of the most powerful people in China.

He said "to achieve great dreams there must be a great struggle", which was the key tenor of his speech.

"The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is no walk in the park or mere drum-beating and gong-clanging," he said. It must also "be prepared to make ever more difficult and harder efforts".

While the opening of the party congress was public, the discussions are not. Once he’d concluded his 3.5-hours long speech, journalists and diplomats were asked to leave and business is now taking place behind closed doors.

Delegates are to select the 200-person Central Committee, which includes a 25-member Politburo and up to nine others in the Standing Committee. After a week these names will be released publicly.

While Xi told delegates that markets would play a “decisive role in deepening supply-side reforms” he also painted a picture indicating some change was likely in relaxing market-entry restrictions and treating international companies “fairly”.

Beijing has come under pressure by international companies which say that the Chinese government is forcing joint ventures to release intellectual property secrets as part of agreements, and subsidising and supporting local companies to the detriment of international corporations.

The visual signs of change were clear to journalists in Beijing with the portrait of Mao Zedong, which had hung over the Forbidden City being replaced with the image of a yellow crane.

According to the Xi’s plan, the country is aiming at reaching a host of goals by 2050 including:

- Becoming a global leader in innovation (currently that’s the US).

- Citizens are to be treated as equals while the law won’t change.

- China will modernise governance (but no human rights messaging was used).

- Chinese culture will appeal to a global audience.

- Disparities in rural and urban income will be be reduced.

"The Chinese nation will become a proud and active member of the community of nations," said President Xi.

He told the delegates that he wanted to "further enrich Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, and the Scientific Outlook on Development, (representing) the latest achievement in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context".

China's 1.4 billion people will await their new leaders over the next seven days, but it's highly likely that Xi will be back in 2022 when the next congress takes place.

Xi has been instrumental in cracking down on civil society, arresting and imprisoning human rights lawyers and opposition leaders while shutting down parts of the internet as his government sought to reinforce state control.

The country has emphasised its global reach in recent months and Xi repeatedly spoke about Beijing’s effect on the globe as a positive influence.

While Xi seeks to increase China’s global significance, the history of the country is one of repeated expansion and contraction based on economic and political changes with internal stability affected by periods of unity and disunity.

But it's in the development of China's military strategy that global interest can be seen. This began with the installation of its first military base overseas in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa on the day the People’s Liberation Army turned 90 earlier in 2017.

This is a highly strategic position based close to oil-producing areas of the world and one of the main routes between India and Europe via the Suez Canal.

It’s also used construction as a policy of expansion, subsidising hundreds of projects around the globe where Chinese state-owned companies use Chinese workers in order to develop infrastructure.

In Africa, particularly countries with high commodity resources such as Zambia, Mozambique and Angola, China has imported workers in order to develop oil, copper and other resources so as to ship these back home.

China has been active in wholesale and retail, where many items in South Africa, for example, are sold for cash which is then, in turn, shipped back to China by expat workers.

While this has fuelled local protest action in the copper belt of Zambia and smaller towns in Southern Africa, Beijing has ensured that it continues to develop through infrastructure projects by reinforcing relationships with African politicians.

It’s also expanded aggressively into the South China Sea, and has laid claim to most of this ocean expanse by developing islands sometimes thousands of kilometres from its shore-line. This has been opposed by countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

As Xi sits down to negotiate his new leadership this week, many will assess just how far he’ll go in ensuring that his allies all are voted into top positions.


Zheng He the eunuch

But Xi Jingping's government is not the first from China to attempt to expand into the world.

In the time of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th-century, the majority Han Chinese tired of Mongolian-led Yuan Dynasty rule and overthrew the regime, forcing the Mongols back onto the steppe.

The story of this period of expansion by the Chinese was through the eunuch known as Sānbǎo, who was brought to the court of the emperor of the time as a gift.

Mǎ Sānbǎo became one of Emperor Yong-le’s closest advisers and was renamed Zheng He. The eunuch then set about forcing every known kingdom in the region to pay tribute to the new emperor and sent forces as far afield as Thailand and the Philippines.

He also assembled a fleet many times larger than others of the day – eventually amassing a navy of more than 317 ships. To understand the size of this fleet, the US navy has around 270 ships on active duty today.

Zheng He led his fleet of ships, which included large 120m/50m vessels, that sailed as far as Africa, while also travelling to Indonesia, India, Persia and Arabia. The idea was for this Chinese navy to make first contact with people across the globe and to bring new ideas back home while at the same time displaying the pure power of Chinese technology to the world.

He attacked a pirate king in Sri Lanka and after visiting modern day Kenya's coastline, returned home. By 1424 when Yong-le died, the huge navy was destroyed in a fire and since then China returned to inward-looking political development.

Xi has indicated that the policy of expansion will now be revisited in his speech in Beijing on 18 October as he seeks to build a new view of his people while the US remains mired in the troubled leadership of President Donald Trump.

Migration from China to the rest of the world has increased in the last decade, after centuries of steady emigration based on economic and other factors.

Many nationals fled China after the 1948 revolution when they set up an alternative state on the Island of Formosa, which became known as Taiwan.

The growth of Chinese business interests globally has created a footprint for the Communist Party to increase its focus on external relations while it seeks to reinforce a message of stability and development. It's that message that Xi Jinping echoed during his long speech at the People’s Assembly on 18 October 2017.