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Chinese President Xi Jinping and a theatrical performance of the Long March. Xi has invoked the historic struggle to unite his party in its long-term battle with the U.S. (Nikkei Montage / Getty Images)
China up close

The new Long March -- Xi's 15-year battle plan with the US

Chinese leader adopts a 'talk and strike' strategy until eventual win in 2035

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visit to Jiangxi Province, the starting point of the 1934 -1936 Long March, has sparked an intense debate in the country.

Laying a floral basket at a monument on May 20, Xi said China is now on a "new Long March" to overcome "major challenges at home and abroad."

The new Long March is Xi's strategy to deal with U.S. President Donald Trump. Days after the Jiangxi visit, Trump was in Tokyo, telling reporters that Washington is "not ready" for a trade deal unless Beijing bends over backward to accommodate his requests.

One Chinese policy researcher offered an eerie analysis. "It would be wrong to simply think Xi has shifted to a hard-line stance against the U.S. The real goal is to ultimately win a '15-year war' with the U.S. that would continue until 2035."

This war would come with an option of temporarily retreating, thus avoiding a head-on war with Trump, the researcher said.

Not long after the Chinese Communist Party was formed, the Red Army, the predecessor of the People's Liberation Army, established a stronghold in the Jiangxi city of Ruijin.

But as the army of Nationalist Party, which was trying to encircle its foe, gained ground, Red Army generals decided to abandon the stronghold and set out on a two-year odyssey.

The Red Army first headed west, then north, eventually covering a distance of over 12,000 km.

After ending the Long March, the Communist Party survived in its new stronghold, in Yan'an, Shaanxi province, and eventually won the civil war against the Nationalist Party.

The Communists founded a "new China," the People's Republic of China, in 1949, 15 years after the Long March began out of desperation to avoid a head-on confrontation with a more powerful enemy.

When the retreat ended in Yan'an, the Red Army's forces had been significantly depleted.

Applying the Long March metaphor to current U.S.-China relations, one can see the party facing an equally troubling situation. While publicly maintaining that the U.S. will be hurt more by the trade war, in reality, Washington's tariffs and crackdown on major Chinese companies, particularly Huawei Technologies, puts China at a disadvantage.

During his joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Monday, Trump said, "You know, businesses are leaving China by the hundreds, by the thousands -- going into areas that are non-tariffed."

One certain result of the tariffs: A wave of job cuts has started spreading to Chinese manufacturers, the e-commerce sector and to foreign companies operating in the country.

If workers lose their city jobs, many will have no choice but to return to their hometowns. Nothing strikes fear into the party more than the thought of an uprising by unemployed migrant workers.

Alarmed at the prospect, the State Council, China's government, on May 14 abruptly inaugurated a new body to help the suddenly unemployed find jobs. Vice Premier Hu Chunhua was tapped to head what has been dubbed "a leading small group on finding employment."

The talented Hu is politically distant from a group of aides close to Xi. Although Hu is a vice premier in charge of economic affairs, he has so far not been assigned a lot of work. His appointment to head the employment group marks his return to political center stage.

The vice premier belongs to the Communist Youth League faction, a rival to Xi's camp. He was chosen because there are few aides close to Xi with sufficient experience. This shows Xi is responding to the crisis with an "all-Communist Party approach."

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who also belongs to the Youth League faction, held a national telephone conference on May 13 to help future university graduates find jobs or start businesses.

The "new Long March" concept is convenient for Xi in two ways.

First, invoking the historic struggle would help unite a party that is increasingly torn over Xi and Vice Premier Liu He's handling of trade negotiations with the U.S.

The other motive is to prepare the public for a compromise with Trump. Packaging it as a "temporary retreat" to avoid a head-on clash -- in the spirit of the Long March -- would make any concession sound calculated.

In a surprise move, China's State Council Information Office on May 22 held a news conference for foreign media outlets in Beijing. There, Zhang Yansheng, the chief researcher at the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, predicted an ultra-long-term war between the U.S. and China.

The two countries will "negotiate" on the one hand and "fight" on the other until 2035, said Zhang, who is also secretary-general of the Academic Committee of China's National Development and Reform Commission.

Earlier in May, another researcher belonging to the same organization said publicly that the U.S. and China would "negotiate" on the one hand and "fight" on the other.

This phrase is expressed as tan tan da da in Chinese, which literally translates as "talk-talk, strike-strike." The awareness of the need to prepare for war lasting through 2035 is beginning to spread throughout China.

2035 is the target year the party set at its last national congress, in 2017, for basically realizing "socialist modernization." To put it plainly, it is the target year for China to overtake the U.S. economically and technologically.

There are 15 and a half years to go before the deadline, matching the 15-year period the party spent between the start of the Long March and the founding of a new China.

Xi has, in effect, declared that China will negotiate on the one hand and fight on the other during the new Long March and eventually defeat the U.S.

Time is on Xi's side. Even if Trump is reelected in 2020, he cannot remain in office beyond January 2025. But Xi has been able push through a constitutional revision that allows him to remain China's top leader for life.

For China, the current clash with the U.S. is still the opening skirmish of the ultra-long-term war. Xi does not need to feel pressed, as long as he can avoid friendly fire from within his party.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold a news conference in Tokyo on May 27.   © Reuters

Trump, meanwhile, was full of energy during his joint news conference with Abe in Tokyo on Monday.

Referring to the trade negotiations with China, which are now on the brink of collapse, Trump voiced a sense of displeasure about China's unilateral scrapping of important sections in the draft of a deal compiled during five months of painstaking negotiations.

In early May, China deleted as much as 30% of the draft, slashing it from 150 pages to 105 pages. The about-face came after party higher-ups criticized the draft's legally binding measures as being tantamount to "an unequal treaty."

On Monday, Trump brandished the tariffs, "We're taking in tens of billions of dollars of tariffs," he said. "And that number could go up very, very substantially, very easily. But I think, sometime in the future, China and the United States will absolutely have a great trade deal. And we look forward to that."

It will take some time for Xi to contain the "unequal treaty" criticism, but his Long March rhetoric could help him to eventually restore the draft back where it was, or at least close to where it was.

Are the "leader for life" and optimistic U.S. president maneuvering to get back on the same page?

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has 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.

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