A whirlwind of high-level meetings chaired by President Xi Jinping in the past 10 days suggests there are no big policy changes ahead for China, analysts say, despite speculation he could have faced a more determined pushback from senior figures at the Communist Party’s summer gathering in Beidaihe.
Xi has held at least four high-level party meetings since August 16, when the country’s political leaders re-emerged from their two-week session at the Beidaihe beach resort in Hebei province. The annual gathering allows the leaders to break from their day-to-day work and engage with each other in a relaxed, informal setting where they can socialise and have discussions.
It has taken on an almost mystic status in Chinese politics, known as the place where major decisions are made while the country’s two dozen most powerful people are on their summer break. This year, amid an escalating trade war with the US, a slowing economy and growing discontent at home, some China watchers were expecting Xi would face more pressure to make changes.
“Some people are saying, we are getting ourselves into trouble because we have been too tough, or we have been overly ambitious, we have become too impatient in showing that we are strong enough to resist US pressure,” said Wang Zhengxu, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Nottingham’s China campus in Ningbo.
But Wang and others agreed that signals coming out of China after the Beidaihe retreat showed that Xi had things tightly under his control.
First, the president called a meeting with the country’s top generals and demanded that the military show absolute loyalty to the party. He also vowed to deepen the anti-corruption campaign to clean up the world’s largest fighting force. Two days later, Xi chaired a five-yearly propaganda and ideological work conference. Speaking to top officials, media chiefs and editors, the president called on them to close ranks around the “party core” and unify minds.
He followed this with another key meeting last Friday on law and order, asking officials to deepen reforms and safeguard the constitution. That call came after major constitutional revisions were made in March, including the controversial move to scrap presidential term limits.
On Monday, Xi chaired a meeting on his signature “Belt and Road Initiative” at which he defended the trade and infrastructure strategy against criticism from Western countries.
Amid this flurry of activity, there have been subtle changes indicating a softer tone, but there has been no sign of any fundamental change to Xi’s key policies.
Analysts said it showed that Xi had successfully rallied the party around him at the Beidaihe meetings.
“So far, it hasn’t gotten out of control. After Beidaihe, [Xi] needs to continue to signal that things are still in order – that I am still in charge, and the direction the party points to is still the right direction,” Wang said.
While the trade war has given his critics more leeway to articulate their concerns, Xi remains the most powerful leader in China for decades, and any political dissent is too weak to substantially change the policy direction, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.
“When things get tough, some noises will be made, but it doesn’t change the basic equation of the power balance,” he said. “Xi is still very, very powerful. What I think we may be seeing is that because these kinds of noises are now being heard – and much sooner I think than Xi was expecting – he will probably do even more to tighten up his power.”
After Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun criticised Xi’s administration in a widely circulated article, Beijing rolled out an extensive campaign to promote a “patriotic striving spirit” among Chinese intellectuals.
Meanwhile, the latest commentary from party mouthpiece People’s Daily on Wednesday said Xi “profoundly analysed the domestic and international situation” and had taken the right steps to safeguard the country’s security during a “critical period in China’s national rejuvenation”.
Analysts say Xi’s rhetoric appears to be an effort to play down China’s technological advances – given US fears that Chinese industrial policies will allow it to overtake America – as well as the belt and road plan amid “debt trap diplomacy” fears, particularly after the Malaysian government suspended two key projects.
“The Belt and Road Initiative is an economic cooperation initiative, not a geopolitical or military alliance,” Xi was quoted as saying by state news agency Xinhua. “It is an open and inclusive process, and not about creating exclusive circles or a China club.”
But while Beijing has sought to allay suspicions about the belt and road plan, even softening its outward posture on the strategy, observers say it is unlikely the government will make any substantial policy changes to Xi’s pet project – or to China’s approach to the trade war with the US.
In fact, his recent speeches “indicate that he’s not satisfied with progress and wants tighter party control and better management of propaganda, the military, the legal system, and the belt and road”, said Michael Kovrig, senior adviser for the International Crisis Group.
Zhang Baohui, a political science professor from Lingnan University in Hong Kong, also said there had been no major changes.
“People who were expecting policy adjustments were proven to be wrong,” Zhang said. “Xi cannot afford to admit mistakes in his policies – that would further embolden his critics.”