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President Xi Jinping drinks tea -- and perhaps sends a message -- at the opening session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5.   © AFP/Jiji
China up close

Analysis: Xi Jinping's two cups signal there's plenty of hot tea left

With play on 'cold tea' idiom, president signals that retirement is nowhere in sight

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

TOKYO -- In China, there is the four-character idiom, ren zou, cha liang, which means "Tea turns cold when people move away."

In the summer of 2015, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily published a highly symbolic article that encouraged "ren zou, cha liang," in effect telling retired party elders to quietly step down and stay out of politics.

"Some retired officials are not willing to accept the post-retirement 'cold tea,' so they do everything possible to extend their powers and try to keep their cups of tea always hot," it noted.

But "ren zou, cha liang" is the norm, the signed article said.

What then are we to make of an unusual sight at this year's National People's Congress, China's parliament?

In front of President Xi Jinping were placed two teacups.

The six other Politburo Standing Committee members, including Premier Li Keqiang, had only one teacup in front of them.

It was as if to say, not only is Xi's tea not getting cold, approaching 10 years in office, there is another hot cup of tea waiting for him to sip.

The 3,000 or so deputies attending the session, forced to sit through hours of speeches, cannot but have noticed each time the cameras landed on Xi.

Neither President Xi Jinping nor Premier Li Keqiang appears to be paying any attention to what the teacups in front of them might be saying.   © Reuters

The two teacups first appeared during the annual gathering's opening ceremony. Then, the double teacup reemerged in all other rooms in which Xi attended separate meetings.

There was more than a numerical difference. Xi's cups appear to have been specially designed for him, different from those served to the other members of the leadership.

It is a phenomenon not seen in previous years.

Indeed, it is just a cup of tea. But in Chinese politics, symbols, status and protocol have important meanings.

Altogether, more than 5,000 people from across the country, including the 2,000 members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, gathered for the "two sessions" in Beijing.

After returning home, they will probably whisper -- and speculate -- about the changes in the power structure they witnessed.

Xi came to power as the party's general secretary in the autumn of 2012. He assumed the post of Chinese president just before the spring of 2013.

If the first of the two teacups implies his first two five-year terms, from 2012 to 2022, the second teacup could imply his continued reign as China's top leader beyond the party's next national congress, in 2022. And for how long? Another five years? 10? A de facto president for life?

About six years ago, sharp-eyed security guards began to be deployed at the annual NPC sessions with one task: to keep a close watch on Xi's teacup. A male staffer was later deployed to serve tea to Xi, while female staffers carried tea to the other leaders.

The latest change, that second cup, might be related to security measures, perhaps the coronavirus outbreak.

Yet the fact remains that the special treatment was afforded only to Xi. It just confirms what everybody knows, that China's traditional collective leadership system has in effect crumbled.

Servers carry tea before the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People on March 4 in Beijing.   © Getty Images

One more topic should be kept in mind while contemplating Xi's teacup gamesmanship. It is related to the future of China's economy, the world's second largest, after that of the U.S.

Five-year plans remain important in a country that retains some remnants of its socialist planned economy. This time, however, China did not include any average annual economic growth target in its 2021-2025 plan.

All previous five-year plans compiled after China introduced the "reform and opening-up" policy under then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s included such targets.

It is not that China has abandoned setting numerical goals.

Last autumn, at the fifth plenary session of the party's 19th Central Committee, Xi declared that doubling China's per-capita income by 2035 was "completely possible."

Yang Wei, deputy director of the economic committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said that if China were to realize this, an average annual economic growth rate of at least 4.73% would be needed.

The collective leadership system that Deng Xiaoping encouraged in the 1970s has effectively crumbled.   © Getty Images

But there are myriad incentives to keep growth targets unpublished. For one, Politburo Standing Committee members would have no reason to squirm or take responsibility should one be missed.

And given the uncertain situations at home and abroad, Xi himself sees little merit in specifying figures. Doing so would only result in China losing policy flexibility and facing increased risks.

It has become clear that China's economic relations with the U.S. under President Joe Biden will not improve as easily as Beijing had expected. A lack of published numerical targets does not change this dynamic.

China's national strategy to catch and overtake the U.S. by 2035 in terms of economic might, scientific and technological capability, and comprehensive national power is clear.

There are also indications that China might overtake the U.S. earlier than expected considering how deep a battering COVID-19 has dealt the reigning superpower.

The Biden administration, like its predecessor, has no choice but to brace for this potentiality.

Both sides will gauge their options when senior officials meet for the first time in the Biden era on March 18 in Anchorage, Alaska. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet with China's top two diplomats, Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the State Department announced Wednesday.

On March 10, at the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, there was only one teacup in front of Xi.   © AP

The meeting will take place following Blinken's visit to Tokyo and Seoul.

"It was important to us that this administration's first meeting with Chinese officials be held on American soil and occur after we have met and consulted closely with partners and allies in both Asia and Europe," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

For China, it will not be easy to maintain annual economic growth of just under 5% over the next 15 years. Beijing has no choice but to take a wait-and-see attitude for the time being while publishing achievable targets each year.

And that's exactly what the premier, Li, did on Friday, when he announced a growth target of more than 6% for 2021.

China is playing it safe while taking into consideration the difficult domestic and overseas situations.

Speaking of which, on Wednesday, at the closing session of the CPPCC, Xi was seen -- for the first time at this year's gathering -- with just one teacup in front of him. Was there internal pushback against such a brazen display of power?

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