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Xi's ambitions and concerns: 5 takeaways from centenary speech

Chinese president offers clues about 2022 national congress and beyond

A massive screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping during a show commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party at Beijing's National Stadium on June 28.   © Kyodo

BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping used the occasion of the Communist Party's 100th anniversary to hail economic achievements and lay out China's ambitions without failing to warn foreign rivals from interfering in the country's domestic affairs.

The CCP's centenary on July 1 was deemed so important that his government in Beijing mobilized some 70,000 people to gather at the capital's Tiananmen Square for a 90-minute event.

Founded by 13 leaders including Mao Zedong in 1921 during an era of upheaval and poverty brought by civil war, the CCP has grown into a gigantic political organization of over 95 million members. Its Marxism-centered socialist governance is deeply entrenched in the government, overshadowing every rung of society, including business.

Here are the take-aways of Xi's hourlong speech delivered on the centenary.

Prologue to Xi's third term and China's next centennial

Xi waves at the end of a 100th anniversary event in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on July 1.   © Reuters

Thursday's celebration was used to mark one of two centennial goals set in 1997 by party leadership under Jiang Zeming, who envisioned building a "moderately prosperous society" by 2021.

Efforts were accelerated under Xi, who came into power in 2012. In particular, he oversaw poverty eradication programs that were fast-tracked through lavish fiscal spending in rural areas.

Consequently, nearly 100 million people were lifted out of absolute poverty in November as measured by Beijing's poverty line of 1.60 yuan per day ($1), lower than the World Bank's threshold of $1.90.

"We have realized the first centenary goal of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects," declared Xi.

It is also an achievement needed by Xi in his quest for a third term, which will be officially determined next year when the CCP holds its once-every-five-years national congress. If he is given a third term, which will be decided by the party's powerful Central Committee, Xi will break the norm of a maximum two, five-year terms set by former leader Deng Xiaoping to avert human-made disasters as seen by policy failures during Mao's lifelong rule.

"Today, [the CCP] is rallying and leading the Chinese people on a new journey toward realizing the second centenary goal," said Xi, who removed the two-term clause in a constitution change in 2018.

The goal calls for China to be the world's most powerful economy by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.

Xi, who turned 68 last month, may not be around at that time but he certainly wants that to be part of the party's legacy.

History stands out

Xi and other leaders stand above a giant portrait of the late Chairman Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen Square event on July 1.   © Reuters

Xi's speech was dotted with references to the country's past failures and successes.

"After the Opium War of 1840, however, China was gradually reduced to a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society and suffered greater ravages than ever before."

Xi also drew attention to the wars against the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek-led Nationalist Party, paying tributes to revolutionary leaders include Mao, Zhou Enlai and Deng.

"Through the Northern Expedition, the Agrarian Revolutionary War, the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, and the War of Liberation, we fought armed counterrevolution with armed revolution ... establishing the People's Republic of China, which made the people masters of the country."

Little was said about CCP-led policies such as the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution or June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown that collectively resulted in millions of casualties.

Ahead of the July 1 centennial, Xi officiated the opening of a new museum in Beijing dedicated to showcasing the history of the Chinese Communist Party. Across the country similar facilities were either built or refurbished, as recalling the party's 100 years of achievements has been a recurring narrative.

"Only socialism could save China, and only socialism with Chinese characteristics could develop China," Xi said in his speech.

He went one step further, calling the 2049 goal as the "great rejuvenation" dream or the ultimate redemption against the humiliations brought by foreign forces.

The call of the 'wolf warriors'

Police raise a warning banner in Hong Kong on July 1 after authorities denied permission for a protest rally during the 24th anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule.   © Reuters

There was also a bit of wolf warrior diplomacy in Xi's speech. While saying China is eager to learn from the achievements of other cultures and welcomes helpful suggestions and constructive criticism from the outside world, "we will not, however, accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us," he said.

Xi spoke on Hong Kong, where a growing pro-democracy movement that gained steam in 2019 has largely been stamped out. The president reminded the special administrative region that Beijing now has rights on overall jurisdiction with the implementation of the controversial national security law last year.

"We will stay true to the letter and spirit of the principle of 'one country, two systems,' under which the people of Hong Kong administer Hong Kong, and the people of Macao administer Macao, both with a high degree of autonomy," Xi insisted.

Taiwan was not spared. "Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China's complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China."

Xi vowed to crush any attempt to declare independence in Taiwan, which Beijing regards as its renegade region.

The U.S. and its allies, too, were on Xi's radar, though they were not named. "We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress or subjugate us," he said. "Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people."

In China, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, and friction with ethnic minorities is growing. The U.S. and others have criticized China's control over majority-Muslim Uyghurs as a human rights issue, but Xi did not directly address it in his speech.

"Looking back on the path we have traveled and forward to the journey that lies ahead, it is certain that with the firm leadership of the party and the great unity of the Chinese people of all ethnic groups, we will achieve the goal of building a great modern socialist country in all respects and fulfill the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation."

Are the people with Xi?

Military aircraft fly over Beijing during anniversary celebrations on July 1.   © Reuters

The president called out in particular to the youth of the nation to make it "their mission" to contribute to making China the world's dominant economic power by 2049.

It is tough to gauge how many are listening given China's one-party authoritarian rule that controls media.

A peek through relatively open social media suggests growing frustration among Chinese youths against the rat race for a better life, so much so that they coined the term tangping, or lay flat. Lay-flatters are typically self-centered and less ambitious, alarming China's government as it struggles with the country's declining birthrate and uncertain economic growth.

Is China's strong image projection winning friends?

Xi's speech was preceded by the aerial display of advanced weaponry such as J-20 stealth fighter jets and attack helicopters.

A majority -- or 69% -- of  the public in 17 developed economies, including Germany, Japan and Singapore, hold unfavorable views of China and of Xi's leadership on the world stage, according to U.S. Pew Research Center's latest survey on June 30.

Similarly, 62.4% of respondents in China's neighbors in Southeast Asia expressed concerns over its militarization in the South China Sea, according to a February study by Singapore think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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