The future of China: Muscle

China is on a mission. That much at least one can conclude from the nearly three-and-a-half hour speech that President Xi Jinping gave in Beijing at the start of the 19th Communist Party Congress.

“Mission” is an all-important word that Xi used many times, often beside the other familiar term, “modernization.” China has a mission to be a rich, strong, powerful place in the next two to three decades, Xi said Wednesday. This is a potent message. It is not surprising that Xi devoted so much time to conveying it. It is also probably about the only single message he can speak to with his diverse audience and not receive any dissent in response — at least domestically.

In speaking so much about China’s role in the world, the most senior leader of the party running it is also admitting that China also needs that world — needs better-quality intellectual, trade and security dialogue with it.

The problem with this message also creates a shrill nationalist tone — and that grates with the outside world.

When it came in particular to Hong Kong, Taiwan and dealing with the South and East China seas, Xi’s language was categorical and strong. No space for anything looking remotely like it would lead to separatism, he said. No engagement with ideas of compromise and pluralism. There is a hint of jubilation in the way Xi talks about these issues now.

In the era of Trump and US distraction, Xi can, and did, speak with a latitude and openness about China’s global role no previous leader has ever deployed. No wonder predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao looked on enviously (though one of them was spotted looking at his watch).

On issues of foreign relations, Xi focuses less on specifics and more on a common humanity — one that has an interest in China working with the world, and the world working with China. But this occurred after some tough language on the role of the military, and the subliminal message that for China, there was no question that it had the right to not only look strong, but, through its army and weaponry, to be strong.

Such a long speech, laying out over a dozen objectives with such thematic broadness (culture, ideology, morals — Xi addressed them all), cannot but be taken as a sign, in itself, of ambition. The whole performance bespoke a leader with a sense of historic occasion. The moment of Chinese realization of modernity is imminent. And it is happening increasingly on Chinese terms. Or at least, that’s the way it seems to many in the outside world.

But a more reflective interpretation of the speech might see the generous amounts of time devoted to military issues and international affairs in a different light — as a sign that the achievement of China’s dream relies as never before on a world that will at least cooperate with it — even if they don’t proactively support it.

A China with a global vision will either get its way through enforcement — which will be immensely disruptive and risky — or consent. And consent takes at least two.

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