Xi Jinping’s desperate southern tour 3.0|Wang Zhin-sheng

Published (HKT): 2020.10.19 10:26

While the election battle between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is intensifying, Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Part (CCP), the “best supporting actors” of the play of the U.S. election, are also very busy. On October 12, Xi inspected Chaozhou and Shantou in Guangdong Province. In the morning of October 14, he attended a gathering marking the 40th anniversary of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and delivered a speech. This “southern tour 3.0”, allegedly cut short to four days because Xi was ill, was an interesting event.

For one thing, it was Xi’s third trip to southern China since he took office eight years ago. Each of the three southern trips apparently took place at a time when Xi’s grip on power was not stable and he had to bolster the legitimacy of his political power and garner greater support.

In December 2012, less than a month after he became the top CCP leader, Xi set off to four cities in Guangdong, namely Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan and Guangzhou. At that time, he had just weathered through the ferocious power struggle involving Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai and ascended to the top position of the party. He was quick to visit the south, just like Deng Xiaoping visited Guangdong in 1992, because he wanted to highlight the legitimacy of his political power and to seek greater support and recognition in the name of “reform”.

Chinese people have to tighten their belts

In October 2018, Xi Jinping made his second southern China tour, six years after his first one. On the face of it, the trip was meant to commemorate the 40th anniversary of China’s “reform and opening up”. But it was obvious that it had to do with the fact that Xi was coming under the harshest criticism in and outside the party because of his controversial move to abolish term limits on the presidency in March that year and the beginning of the U.S.-China trade war that broke out in May. By visiting southern China and claiming that China would adhere to the reform and opening up policy, Xi sought to achieve two objectives: to reassure the U.S. that China would stay open, and to invoke the late Deng’s opening up policy to maintain the legitimacy of his regime .

As for his latest southern tour, it took place only two years after the previous one. Once again, Xi invoke Deng’s opening up policy. That effectively reflects the precarious situation Xi has found himself in. As he admitted at the Shenzhen gathering, “we are witnessing major changes never seen in a century, and the coronavirus pandemic will accelerate the changes”. The question we should ask is: is brandishing Deng’s legacy of any use?

To analyze Xi’s southern tour, one should not just focus on his speech in Shenzhen but also take a macro view on the itinerary of his three-day whirlwind trip.

From a publicity point of view, the tour was played up by Xinhua News Agency before it took place. That was different from the CCP’s usual practice of releasing pictures and speeches of Xi after he has visited a place. The change indicates that Xi badly needed to use the trip to ramp up the propaganda machine, garnering people’s attention and support and maximizing the efficiency of the promotion effects of the southern tour.

Second, the first stop of Xi’s tour this time was Shantou. He first inspected the 73rd Army Group of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy Marine Corps before meeting with crowds of locals in Chaozhou. Afterwards, he went to Shenzhen for the anniversary gathering. Some believe Xi inspected the PLA first because he wanted to demonstrate Beijing’s resolve to pose threat of force to Taiwan. But a more possible reason is that he wanted to ensure PLA is “absolutely loyal, pure, and reliable” and to stabilize his military power.

On the face of it, Xi’s tour of Chaozhou was just a gesture to show that he cares about the people. The real deal perhaps lies in his call for “taking the road toward a higher level of self-reliance”. For people familiar with the CCP’s policies and history, the notion of “self-reliance” and “standing on our own feet” brings back profound memories of the past. When Mao Zedong severed ties with “imperial America” and fell out with the Soviet Union, China was isolated. It was then he came up with the idea of “self-reliance” and “standing on our own feet"” to bolster China’s confidence. Now as all countries are against China and the country is “witnessing major changes never seen in a century”, Xi chants the old slogan. This seems to suggest the Chinese people will have to tighten their belts and face a hard time.

As for the term “higher level”, it reveals the CCP’s anxiety. In fact, back in September 2018, when the U.S.-China trade war began, Xi visited northeast China and remarked that “internationally, advanced technology and key technology are more and more difficult, forcing us to travel the road of self-reliance”. Now Huawei and SMIC, which specialize in “higher-level” technologies, are being sanctioned, and the CCP cannot but “take the road toward a higher level of self-reliance”.

Hong Kong’s gloomy prospect

After Chaozhou, Xi moved on to Shenzhen to attend the gathering, which was the main reason why he made the southern trip. He delivered a speech that lasted for nearly 50 minutes and contained more than 6,000 words, but apparently there was no highlight other than his coughing fit that has sparked speculations. Despite the fanfare surrounding the economic policy he was expected to unveil in this southern tour 3.0, not much substance was delivered. The whole thing can be summarized in one sentence: create a new development pattern with a big domestic cycle as the main body and with the domestic and international fronts reinforcing each other in a dual circulation. In a more vernacular way, it just means “self-reliance”.

However, it should be noted that in his speech, Xi stressed the need to “actively promoting the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area”. That is tantamount to foretelling the gloomy future of Hong Kong, which will be merged by Shenzhen and become one with Shenzhen.

Standing at the crossroads of “self-reliance” and “reform and opening up”, how far can Xi go at the Fifth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee that is to be held in less than 10 days? His desperate move to tour the south has not offered any answer to this question but has actually increased the suspense.

(Wang Zhin-sheng, Secretary-General of the Asia-Pacific Elite Interchange Association)

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