Bolstered by the Chinese Communist Party’s plenum, the president seized the occasion and sent two positive signs about his relationship with Washington, giving the impression that Beijing would like to continue the dialogue.
In case there were any doubts, things are clear now. Xi Jinping will continue to lead China following the 20th meeting of the Chinese Communist Party Congress, which will meet again in the second half of 2022. The full meeting of the central committee, held behind closed doors Nov. 8-11, sent an unambiguous message. He is the one that party leadership is entrusting with the job of “realiz[ing] the Second Centenary Goal” of making China a modern country by 2035, twice as rich as in 2020.
By having the party adopt a resolution on its major successes since its creation in 1921, Xi had just one goal — to reinforce his own power and guarantee his succession. It is a done deal. His place in the party is similar to that of Mao Zedong.
Officially, the party is carrying out the reform and opening up that Deng Xiaoping brought after Mao’s death, but this has led to problems — rising inequality, corruption, ideological sloppiness — that, according to the resolution, could have been devastating if Xi had not addressed them as soon as he came to power in 2012. Western leaders know what to expect from now on: “The Communist Party of China and the Chinese people have shown the world that the Chinese nation has achieved the tremendous transformation from standing up and growing prosperous to becoming strong,” we read in the resolution. Those who, these past few years, worried about a totalitarian and nationalist turn in China will see confirmation of their fears in this text.
No Other Choice
But another reading of this plenum is possible. Two directly related external events happened during these four days. Overnight on Nov. 10-11, the United States and China put out, to everyone’s surprise, a joint statement on fighting climate change. In addition, the American media revealed that Joe Biden and Xi will hold a virtual summit the week of Nov. 15. Either the Chinese president, knowing that the resolution’s adoption was no longer in doubt, decided to send a reassuring message to Washington quickly, or this mixed message was meant to reassure a faction of communist leaders who were worried about rising tensions with the United States.
In both cases, the consequence for Westerners is the same: Beijing wants to pursue dialogue. Incidentally, when it comes to Taiwan — the question that is currently the most delicate — the resolution is rather restrained. Nowhere does it indicate that reunification should not be left to future generations, as Xi has stated. On the contrary, emphasis is placed on the country’s modernization and its stability. Yet, everything indicates that a war to reunify with Taiwan would put these goals in danger.
In the United States, hawks believe that the “engagement” with China that has been going on for the last 50 years is a mistake. History cannot be changed. China is henceforth a powerful nation that is not on a path toward democracy. That is a fact. But Westerners have no other choice but to carry on a dialogue with the world’s second largest power, a country whose self-congratulatory statements go hand in hand with pragmatic compromises.