Today marks 100 days since Xi Jinping assumed his full responsibilities as the President of the People's Republic of China. So we review how his new administration preformed in these key initial few months, what was enacted and what was encountered. The world's attention is increasingly turning to China and there is the possibility that the Xi period will mark the creation of, in the words of the European Council on Foreign Relations' Director Mark Leonard, “China 3.0”, the next China. If, as many have forecast, the 21st century is to be China's century, the Xi Jinping premiership will be of critical, foundational importance.
Foreign Visits and Visitors
Soon after assuming his position as president of the people's Republic of China, Xi Jinping went on a four-country international tour through Russia, Tanzania, South Africa and Congo-Brazzaville. The visits were about reiterating alliances and signing trade agreements, culminating in the BRICS talks. One big deal to emerge from the tour was the agreement to build a deep-water port on Tanzania's coast, adding one more 'pearl' to China's Indian Ocean string of sea ports.
Since this first week of international visits, it has been premier Li Keqiang who has been charged with most of the duties of foreign visits, most recently to India, with whom old border disputes have resurfaced, and Pakistan, the original 'all-weather' friend. At the same time, leaders of and representatives of the world's nation-states have been queuing up to meet and sign trade agreements with the new leadership. In the last 100 days Beijing's Great Hall of the People has witnessed, amongst other events, John Kerry's call for a “special relationship”, and the Icelandic and Swiss governments' signings of free trade agreements.
At the beginning of this month Xi Jinping resumed his global travels with a tour of the Caribbean, Mexico and North America, which included the recent 'shirt sleeves' meeting with Barack Obama in California. Few solid agreements came out of the two-day meeting, but the leaders of the world's two most powerful economies appeared to get on well—Obama described their meeting as “terrific”—and showed signs that cooperation, rather than competition, is the order of the day. The cooperative atmosphere was somewhat marred, however, by the Edward Snowdon revelations of US secret service hacking activities.
The sheer numbers of agreement signings, foreign visits and foreign hostings makes it clear that China is now widely seen as one of the biggest political and economic players in the world. The visits have also indicated the mutual importance of, in particular, the Sino-African relationship and given some glimpse of US-Chinese cooperation.
Japan and the Islands
Reflecting this global acknowledgement of its status, China's foreign policy has become more confidant and assertive. In particular, the stand off with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dominated Chinese foreign affairs during the first 100 days. Ever since the September 2012 purchase of the islands by the Japanese government from a private owner, the two countries—and, on a few occasions, Taiwan—have pushed themselves as close to conflict as bluffing will allow.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine for the deceased soldiers of the Meiji Dynasty, including those of WWII, further ramped up tensions between the two governments. Last month Li Keqiang used his visit to Potsdam as a stage to express China's version of modern East Asian history.
The heated rhetoric between the two governments is unlikely to abate. At the same time, however, it is unlikely to manifest itself as anything more than words. The two countries are highly economically interdependent and neither are as prepared for war as their posturing intends to show.
China is also locked in disputes with most of its South East Asian neighbours over the (resource rich) South China Sea islands. The Chinese government insists that, in accord to the 'Nine Dashed Line', the whole archipelago is PRC territory. It has the economic, political and military might to bully the SE Asian countries out of their claims, and is aided by the reluctance of the U.S and its allies to involve themselves too heavily in the dispute.
Korean peninsula Crisis
Just as Xi Jinping assumed full power in March the also recently anointed leader of neighbouring North Korea, Kim Jong-un, decided to ramp up tensions with Seoul. Being an old ally from international Socialist brethren days, it is hard for a Chinese leader to do anything other than express mild support for North Korea. Xi's chastising of governments who throw “a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains” has, however, been understood as a masked reference to Pyongyang's actions. Thankfully for Xi, the situation on the Korean peninsula has quietened and the North Korean leadership appear to have swung to a new tactic of paying obeisance to, rather than testing, China. North Korea belatedly sent a representative, Choe Ryong-hae, to meet Xi Jinping in May. Xi will be hoping that the Korean peninsula's status quo ante holds.
Alternatively, a changed stance on North Korea, the world's number one rogue state, could radically boost China's position as a respectable member of the global community. Last week a White House spokesman commented that Obama and Xi had found much “alignment” on the North Korea issue. Could this signal the start of the melting of Cold War-era China-North Korean relations?
Crack Down on Corruption
It was in November 2012, when Xi Jinping assumed the position of Party Chair, that he announced his 'anti-graft' policy. Wide spread and endemic corruption in the Party is a widely known issue, particularly after the dramatic fall of Bo Xilai. Xi seized the opportunity to announce that wide spread corruption could “kill the party and ruin the country.” As early as December, a low level official, Li Chuncheng of Sichuan province, was ousted on corruption charges. Most recently, Liu Tienan, a more high profile figure, has been scheduled for trial.
For many businesses the anti-graft policy is, at least in the short term, a downside of Xi's first 100 days. China's most expensive and prestigious alcohol, Maotai, has seen sales drop by 23.8% in the first quarter of this year, whilst luxury Swiss watch companies have seen a similar fall in demand of 24%.
The question analysts are asking is whether this clamp down on corruption is for show, to oust certain rivals—as such campaigns have traditionally been used within the CCP—,or whether it will genuinely reorder the Party and the state. It is far too early to answer all these questions, but what is of interest is that 42% of corruption cases so far this year have been initiated by public complaints. These public tip-offs, however, are limited to the realm of local officials. High level officials will continue to remain sheltered from the public sphere. Local officials have already begun to complain of being unfairly stigmatised for party corruption. The tension between local and national officials will be something to watch over the coming decade. Indeed, the anti-graft campaign can be viewed as a running test of Xi's grip on power at the top of the CCP.
Another means through which Xi Jinping is attempting to reconnect party and people is through the new rhetoric of the 'China Dream'. In a way its definition is still in flux. However, the party's vision of the dream does contain one strong current, that of national pride and a Chinese 'renaissance'. The Xi Jinping administration is defining its era as the one in which China will regain its former glory and rightful place as a major world power.
At the same time, the concept is being understood by many as relating to upward social mobility. “What is your China dream?” is a question now frequently asked on TV and radio shows, and is normally responded to in terms of individual or familial wealth, status and well being. 'The China Dream' has become the tag line for China's new aspirational society.
The Lushan Earthquake of April 20th presented a—unscheduled—set of challenges for Xi Jinping’s fresh premiership. The response to the earthquake, which resulted in 196 fatalities, was minutely scrutinized by both domestic and foreign commentators. The authorities, however, clearly learnt lessons from the disastrous handling of the tragic 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The local government quickly implemented an emergency response plan and thousands of PLA troops were sent to aid relief efforts. Prime Minister Li Keqiang also took the opportunity to bolster party-people relations by paying a goodwill visit and spending a night in a tent with those affected by the disaster.
Despite doubts about donating to the Chinese Red Cross after a series of scandals, domestic and foreign coverage of how China handled the disaster was generally positive in tone, and the Xi Jinping administration successfully managed to avoid the humanitarian disaster and political legitimacy crisis the earthquake could have caused.
On April 24th, 21 people were reported dead following clashes between the Chinese authorities and the Uyghur ethnic minority in the western province of Xinjiang. Due to restrictions on journalists in the area, the precise events of the incident and the numbers of dead and injured remain unclear. The official account states that the incident occurred following resistance to a police search for illegal weapons in the houses of 'gang members'. Regardless of the circumstances, the conflict is a troubling indication of the unremitting ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in China's far west.
Xi Jinping's call for stability in the region and the arrests of 19 suspects indicate that the local authorities will be following the tradition of using force to contain dissent. This works in the short term, but tensions remain, and the withdrawal of U.S troops from neighbouring Afghanistan in 2014 may well raise new, destabilising complications for the whole Central Asian region. Xi will undoubtedly be nervously following developments in this volatile border region. But with Xinjiang scheduled to be the wealthy oil and gas capital of China, it is also essential for the Xi leadership to initiate a less reactionary and more productive handling of such incidents.
Successfully taming China’s economy may be the greatest challenge for Xi Jinping’s administration, as well as its biggest legacy. Growth in the first quarter of 2013 fell short of government targets, standing at 7.7%. This follows 7.8% growth in 2012; impressive for most countries but paltry for China. Taking into account the weak world economy and slowed global consumption, the government has set the 2013 growth target at 7.5%. These adjustments have fed worries about the future of world’s second biggest economy. However the economic outlook for China is far from bleak. Unemployment has remained at a stable 4.1% and the service sector has now grown to the same size as the industrial sector. There are also signs that China is moving towards a more stable system based on domestic consumption. China's rapid growth is long overdue a check, and many argue that a slow, gradual decline is the best option available.
Even if Xi successfully manoeuvres a soft landing, issues still remain. Decades of rampant growth have led to social inequality, and many are now starting to question whether the degradation of the environment and its effect on human health was worth double-digit growth. At the same time, the legitimacy of the government has been based on an implicit agreement to provide economic expansion. If this deal is broken, severe social and political repercussions could follow. Xi Jinping’s legacy and China's place in the world may be determined by how well he balances these two forces.
China has reached a crucial period in its phenomenal, rapid rise. Many of the ingredients which enabled its remarkable economic growth and emergence from obscurity have changed and it is the administration of Xi Jinping which faces the responsibility of addressing China's new situation. But in these problems lies the potential to transform 'developing' China into one of the world's pre-eminent powers. If Xi Jinping plays his cards right by effectively managing China's intractable and sometimes flammable regional relations, its slowing economy, internal tensions, party cronyism, and whatever other issues get thrown his way, he has the opportunity to create not only the next China, but also the next global order. His first 100 days have been played well. China and the world await Xi's next moves.