Imagining Xi Jinping’s “State of the (Chinese) Union” Address

This fall’s 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress is expected to mark just the fifth peaceful political transition in the country’s modern history. No surprise, then, that it has generated the usual palace intrigue and speculation about leadership consolidation.

Even though no specific date has been set for the twice-a-decade elite conclave (likely in late October/early November), the wonkish quinquennial parlor game has commenced: who sits in what chair on the CCP’s paramount leadership grouping, the Politburo Standing Committee.

But rather than focus on the political horse race at the moment, it is important to first set the scene for what may be 2017’s most consequential political event. That’s because substantive issues are actually at stake—perhaps the most important being the political question of what the CCP’s role will be and how its vision will affect broader reforms—and, ultimately, China’s future economic prospects.

Since assuming China’s highest office in late 2012, President Xi Jinping has made no secret of his ambition to remake the CCP. Only the CCP, he appears to believe, has the vision, capacity, and wherewithal to both reimagine China’s place in the world and reinvigorate necessary economic reforms. I have previously characterized Xi’s vision, a bit cheekily, as a broad-based agenda to “Make China Great Again.” After all, Xi’s pursuits are arguably the most audacious since Deng Xiaoping paved the way for the CCP to accept capitalism and permit the flowering of private enterprise in the 1980s.

To put this another way, the realization of Deng’s vision made China wealthy again. For Xi, the logical next step is for the CCP, from his vantage point, to steer the country’s return to “greatness.”

China’s political process is distinctive of course. But it actually doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see how Xi might approach his “re-election” this fall if he were facing a Western-style election process. In that scenario, the key challenge facing the president at the 19th party congress would essentially be to respond to the “selectorate’s” referendum on his administration’s first five-year term.

So if the Chinese president were appealing to the CCP’s Central Committee to endorse him for a second term, here’s what I suspect his stump speech might look like:

Comrades, Colleagues, and Friends,

I stand before you to celebrate both our achievements of the past five years and the challenges ahead.

The Chinese people expect us to build a prosperous and respected nation. We must not rest until the nation-building work inherited from Chairman Mao Zedong and Comrade Deng Xiaoping is complete.

To that end, we must unswervingly follow the socialist path to achieve our objective. As the rightful leader of this nation, our Party must be unified and clear-headed in honoring its pledge to 1.4 billion Chinese people that better days lie ahead of them.

Our country’s recent past has been marked by strife and divisions. In fact, I can tell you that many of us in this room, myself included, were deeply affected by the formative experiences forged during those dark periods of our nation’s history.

And so I promise you and the Chinese people this: we will never return to those days when China was beset by instability, confusion, and weakness—when we were left behind by the rest of the world, fought among ourselves, and were unfit to sit at the table of the world’s leading powers.

Today, I can say with confidence: China is back.

Under my leadership, China has continued to move forward in fulfilling what my administration has termed the “Chinese Dream.” This is no empty slogan but a basic idea to which all Chinese people can and should aspire.

My job in the coming five years will be to further facilitate the realization of that dream, predicated on creating prosperity and peace, earning respect, perfecting socialism, and embracing equality among citizens and among the family of nations. To that end, we have made an excellent start over the last five years.

But make no mistake, the work has only just begun. Realizing the Chinese Dream requires tireless effort and the continuing commitment of a generation. That means putting our Party unquestionably at the helm. This is why I must repeat again: to forge iron, we must steel ourselves first.

And let there be no doubt that to continue leading the Chinese people, our Party must set an example. Therefore, corruption has no place in a Party that is the rightful leader of the people. Our strength and ability to lead depends entirely on not succumbing to our own petty interests and opportunism but—if I may invoke a most useful foreign phrase—on putting country first.

We must be unified in our thinking and disciplined in our behaviors. Our profit as a Party only comes from what we do collectively to profit China. A credible and strong Party with zero tolerance for corruption is the sine qua non of sustaining the confidence of our people.

But credibility is earned, not freely given. That same principle applies to the confidence you have shown in me. As the leader of our Party and our great Chinese nation, I pledge to you that together, we will take China to new heights in my second term.

Just look at all we have achieved over the past five years:

  • On anti-corruption: Our Party is becoming more disciplined and unified than it has been in a long time. We have waged a campaign that has the broad support of the Chinese people because we are cutting out the cancer of corruption. When we recuperate, we will be a stronger and more capable governing body.
  • On reforms: Since the Third Plenum in 2013, my administration has issued more than 100 policies and measures aimed at reducing state intervention, untangling distorted prices, and tackling structural issues like shifting to a post-industrial economy. We are far from finished, but some of our reforms are already showing results. For instance, we have continued to create millions of jobs each year, many of them in the services sector.
  • On the environment: We all know the severity of the air pollution problem; in fact, you and I breathe the same air in Beijing as all 23 million denizens of this great city. We have launched one of the most aggressive and comprehensive energy and environmental campaigns to address this issue. Our policies and incentives have already created the world’s largest green energy industry, and we are poised to become a leader of green product exports. I took the significant step with the United States of forming a de facto “G2” on climate change. Whatever happens in the White House, I can assure you that Zhongnanhai will not waver in its climate commitment.
  • On technological progress: Since I came into office, we have had many “firsts” and technological milestones. We launched our first indigenous aircraft carrier, sent our first advanced quantum satellite into space, conducted the maiden flight of our homegrown commercial aircraft, and developed the world’s first exascale supercomputer.We have indeed made great strides in enhancing China’s technological expertise and research and development in just five years. These efforts are increasingly being recognized around the world—contributing to a sense that China, which once led the world in inventions and technology, is truly becoming great again. And let’s also not forget that our technology companies are now some of the world’s most valuable. Our own “Silicon Delta” is now even giving the Americans a run for their money—in fact, I hear that some US companies are now copying Chinese ones.
  • On our global standing: From the G20 Summit to the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to this year’s Belt and Road Forum, world leaders are congregating in China and endorsing our global initiatives. They come here because they all recognize that our country is now an active participant in the global arena and, rather than walling ourselves off, we embrace globalization. Indeed, to once again welcome the world to China, I’m proud that our capital will host the 2022 Winter Olympics—making Beijing one of the few global cities to have ever hosted both Olympiads. Comrades, gone are the days when China was considered the “sick man of Asia.”
    As the world’s second-largest economy with a military that is increasingly capable, we ought to have ideas to contribute to the world and a role in maintaining peace.We prefer diplomacy over confrontation, but we cannot shy from asserting our voice and defending our core interests, including in Asia’s maritime spaces. Stability must be maintained so that commerce can flow freely and economic activity proceeds unhindered. But let me be clear: any threat to our fundamental and core interests will meet an equal response from China, even if it means the use of force. We are answerable first and foremost to the Chinese people, and they, too, will not tolerate weakness if the country’s interests are being undermined.

Although no Chinese president will conclude a speech with “Confucius Bless China,” the contours of this speech, and the specific highlights contained in it, are plausible.

Many of the “achievements” the Chinese president would likely highlight in an imaginary stump speech are clearly debatable, and some observers may find them outright dubious. But as with all political speeches, Chinese or American, Xi’s primary aim is to appeal to a domestic audience, not least his constituency in the CCP itself.

For the Chinese public, and the Party members sitting in the room, this would probably constitute a rather stirring and persuasive call to give President Xi the mandate to govern for another five-year term. And Chinese citizens have long since grown accustomed to being bomarded by the state media touting similar themes.

Even though this would be official propaganda, an imagined speech like this is worth contemplating, because it helps to illustrate the kind of leader Xi aims to be in the eyes of the “selectorate” and the public. It also speaks to the genuine popularity he seems to command among Chinese citizens on some issues like anti-corruption—something that is often lost in discussions about his administration.

Needless to say, the Chinese political system is quite different from that of the United States. But similar lines in this fictious speech probably would not be out of place during an American president’s State of the Union address—strength, prosperity, draining the swamp of corruption, becoming a technology leader and so on—garnering applause from the US Congress.

At a broader level, however, this may be a crux of why the US-China relationship is so regularly fraught with tension. The two powers’ propensity to butt heads does not rest just on the antagonism wrought by two different political systems. Rather, it often lies in the fact that they are similar in functional terms on many issues, especially when it comes to their leaders’ efforts to define national ambitions and how they occupy “exceptional” places in the world.