By Omkar Bhole;
China’s President Xi Jinping has undertaken his first overseas visit after nearly 32 months for the 22nd Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Heads of the States summit in Uzbekistan. A variety of theories have been circulated in the media regarding his hiatus on foreign visits since the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020. Apart from the strict Covid restrictions enforced by the Chinese government on overseas travel, the growing discontent that Xi’s policies jeopardize the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) authority, was largely considered as the crucial reason behind his ‘bunker mentality’. However, all these theories have been put to rest with Xi’s Central Asia tour starting with Kazakhstan. However, in contrast to the pause in foreign visits, Xi continued to travel within China and reaffirm his position ahead of the Party Congress.
Why are Xi’s visits important?
During his visit to Kazakhstan, Xi Jinping highlighted the achievements of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in a signed article published in a local newspaper. It is highly symbolic since Kazakhstan is the birthplace of the BRI Programme where Xi aims to reassert global applause for this project, especially after a recent backlash in some regions. This visit is also crucial for Xi Jinping as it comes just a month before the 20th Party Congress where Xi is all set to secure an unprecedented third term as the supreme leader of China. Hence, it arguably demonstrates his confidence in his status and authority to both domestic as well as global audiences. On the domestic front, among many visits to various provinces in the last one year, Xi Jinping has made high-profile visits to three provinces where separatism has been prevalent, namely – Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. These visits aimed to ensure that policy initiatives to curb separatism are implemented effectively in these regions. Hence, analysis of these visits is necessary to understand Xi’s hold over domestic affairs. Similarly, based on the precedent set by Deng Xiaoping through his famous Southern tour (南巡) before the 14 Party Congress in 1992, Xi’s visits to other provinces like Liaoning and Hubei (Wuhan) also become important in the run up to the 20th Party Congress. Thus, it is pertinent to analyze Xi’s travel logs in order to understand his current tactics of power consolidation as well as his future plans.
Reaffirming Xi’s position in ‘Disturbed’ areas
In July 2021, Xi Jinping made a surprise visit to Tibet to celebrate 70 years of the 17-point agreement which proclaimed Tibet’s “peaceful liberation”. Surprisingly, Xi Jinping visited Tibet for the first time since his accession to power and began his visit from Nyingchi prefecture instead of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet Autonomous region. It is noteworthy since Nyingchi is still dominated by indigenous Tibetans where the Chinese government suspects the presence of anti-government elements. During his speech, Xi Jinping stressed upon ‘ethnic unity’ (民族团结) andreviewed developmental projects in Tibet like the Sichuan-Tibet railway which are crucial for China’s border security. His emphasis on ‘unity of motherland’ coupled with the development of Tibetan Buddhism indicated that the ‘Sinicization’ process (Buddhism with Chinese characteristics) in Tibet will be continued relentlessly. One of the Politburo members and Director of the National Supervisory Commission (NSC), (highest anti-corruption state agency in China) Yang Xiaodu, accompanied Xi which could have alarmed ‘double-faced cadres’ in Tibet. Some predictions also suggest that Wu Yingjie, the current party secretary of Tibet who also accompanied Xi, might earn a seat in Beijing for his years of dedicated service in Tibet. His association with the communist youth league faction will also help Xi to strike a balance in factional politics of China.
In the last three months, Xi Jinping undertook four more important visits, starting with Hong Kong which also marked his first visit outside mainland since 2020. He visited Hong Kong on July 1 to celebrate 25 years of Hong Kong’s handover to China. Importantly, Xi Jinping insisted on continuing with this visit despite rising COVID cases in Hong Kong since it was important for him to personally reinforce China’s control over Hong Kong before the 20th Party Congress. In his speech, he emphasized Hong Kong’s transition from chaos to order, which subtly advocated the necessity and success of Beijing’s crackdown against the 2019 pro-democracy protests. However, all public activities in Hong Kong were virtually paused before and during his visit which suggest that anti-government sentiments still prevail in Hong Kong society. Stringent Covid restrictions and subsequent economic stagnancy might have added to these sentiments recently. During his speech, Xi Jinping warned dissenters indirectly as he threatened to punish anyone who challenges China’s sovereignty. This indicates that the struggle is not yet over for Beijing which might intensify its quest for control once the lockdowns are lifted completely in Hong Kong.
One of the fiercest allegations made during Xi Jinping’s rule has been the genocide and human rights violations carried out in Xinjiang. Thus, Xi’s visit to Xinjiang a few months before the Party Congress had a great significance. This tour was particularly important as it was Xi’s first visit to Xinjiang after the allegations of suppression of Muslim minorities began to gain global traction 2017. His visit began in mid-July where he continuously stressed upon abiding by the party’s strategy for the Xinjiang governance. His other focus was maintaining social stability (社会稳定) and ethnic unity for which three forces (Terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism) have to be curbed. However, Xi Jinping avoided using these words in his speech, thereby indicating the success of government policies in rooting out these forces. Many scholars observed that Xi Jinping wisely choreographed his meetings with local minorities where Xi Jinping could be seen happily interacting with the Muslim community members who wearing their prayer caps and traditional costumes. These symbolic gestures tried to downplay allegations of ethnic suppression in Xinjiang. It is interesting to note that Ding Xuexiang, who is considered as a close associate of Xi since his days in Shanghai, accompanied Xi Jinping on his Tibet tour as well as the Xinjiang visit. If we had to read between the lines, Ding might get an important position that deals with these sensitive regions and a seat at the Politburo Standing Committee too.
Gaining support of common citizens
The Hong Kong tour was preceded by a short visit to Wuhan, the origin of the deadly pandemic. Xi Jinping wisely chose to defend his dynamic zero-covid policy in Wuhan. Speaking about China’s measures during the pandemic, Xi reiterated that the dynamic zero-Covid policy adopted by Beijing was based on prevailing national conditions (国情). He also criticized the ‘herd immunity’ approach of many Western countries and maintained that such policies would have had catastrophic effects for the most populous country in the world. At the same time, he also acknowledged the temporary consequences of anti-pandemic policies on the economy, but refused to make any further concessions. Thus, Xi Jinping tried to stifle allegations against him for mishandling Covid situation through this visit. There could have been no better place than Wuhan to justify his anti-pandemic policies.
His most recent tour after the annual Beidaihe retreat was to Liaoning province in Northeast China. His tour began with a visit to the Liaoshen campaign memorial in Jinzhou city which symbolizes CCP’s struggle against the Kuomintang (KMT) forces during the last phase of the civil war between Nationalists and Communists. In front of the war veterans present in Jinzhou, he mentioned the importance of constant transmission of ‘red gene’ (红色基因), symbolizing China’s national unity under CCP authority. He also emphasized the importance of Northeast China in the initial industrial development of China and advocated his policies for the revitalization of this region. During his tour, he also visited Donghu forest park where he interacted with citizens and reminded them of the achievements of his policies towards building an ecological civilization. This was symbolic as this forest park (transformed from marshy wasteland) is one of the success stories of Xi’s battle against environmental degradation, one of the three battles of the CCP. He also visited a robot company where he emphasized the importance of self-reliance in key core technologies, which will be a critical focus area for Xi Jinping in the upcoming years.
The 20th Party Congress will be one of the most important events in Xi Jinping’s political career as he is set to embark upon a historic third term. Over the years, Xi Jinping and his associates have ensured full control over the party. However, there are still some non-party elements which pose a threat to his authority in China. Xi Jinping, through his recent visits, guaranteed that these elements in Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang will not become obstacles in Xi’s path to 20th Congress.
On the other hand, Xi Jinping has undertaken many ambitious projects like rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, building an ecological civilization, common prosperity, military modernization, etc. for which he requires unchallenged support of common citizens. Thus, Xi Jinping reaffirmed this support by visiting symbolic landmarks of these projects. However, Xi’s failure to sustain economic reform and transformation is also reflected by the fact that Premier Li Keqiang visited Guangdong at the same time of Xi’s Liaoning visit and reassured all stakeholders of China’s commitment to economic revival. If we are to believe in the theories of Xi-Li split, Li Keqiang’s visit to the South might indicate his indispensable position in China’s economic policymaking. Thus, many challenges lie ahead for Xi and his team going into the 20th Party Congress. In a nutshell, these visits made by Xi in recent times aimed to assure the public and the Party that these challenges will not turn into major obstacles. Along with this, Xi Jinping’s resumption of foreign tours will also send a positive message to his domestic opponents and to the world as he prepares for further consolidation of power at the upcoming 20th Party Congress.