Is China confident about its future trajectory? In some ways, yes — “the East is rising and the West is declining” became the center of geopolitical attention last month during China’s annual legislative sessions. Western media quoted the phrase widely, calling it a sign of Beijing’s confidence — some say hubris — about the inevitability of China’s rise and that of Western demise.
In remarks this year, President Xi Jinping declared, “Time and momentum are on our side.” Chinese media and netizens heaped praise on the Chinese diplomatic team for speaking assertively to — and even pointing fingers at — Biden administration official during the recent Alaska talks.
But the reality in China often is more than meets the eye. Xi’s regime appears triumphant after controlling the pandemic within China, pulling off an economic recovery and scoring a “complete victory” of eliminating absolute poverty despite the crisis. This confidence, however, is moderated by words of caution and deep insecurity that we did not see expressed earlier in Xi’s reign.
This mixed attitude of guarded confidence could reflect the Communist Party’s desire to balance nationalist messaging with pragmatism, divided views among party elites, the realization even among hard-liners of China’s substantial weaknesses vis-a-vis the United States — or all of the above.
There are caveats to Beijing’s confidence
Chinese elite politics are a black box, but the language of key political statements can yield important clues. Unlike the boisterous, direct nature of political communication in democracies, where politicians compete to be heard, signals in China tend to be encoded in nuances that may ring hollow to Western ears, as my research finds. That is why local officials in China dedicate significant energy to interpreting messages from the top.
In my testimony for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission in January, I searched for clues on the Chinese Communist Party’s self-assessment by comparing the Fifth Plenum Communiques in 2015 and 2020. This analysis reveals how the leadership’s perception of its opportunities and threats has evolved during Xi’s tenure.
Plenary sessions are the annual convention of the full Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The Fifth Plenums are devoted to approving the draft of the five-year plan to be promulgated the following year. So 2020’s Fifth Plenum communique condenses the highlights of the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025), which China’s National People’s Congress approved in March 2021, while the 2015 communique previews the plan for 2016-2020.
Casual observers may be quick to dismiss official speeches in China as ceremonial and vacuous. Indeed, because party leaders use official addresses to instruct the bureaucracy rather than to inspire the public, these documents are often stultifying. Yet important messages may be hidden between the lines of party-speak. As Qian Yingyi and Wu Jinglian, economists and former policy advisers, pointed out, “In Chinese politics, subtle changes in rhetoric reflect a big change in ideology.”
A close read reveals four important clues
First off, a close read of these communiques reveals changes in the Communist Party’s diagnosis of its defining challenges. In 2015, the leadership saw the economic slowdown as China’s greatest threat — but this got no mention in the 2020 communique. Instead, their overriding concerns in 2020 became the pandemic (mentioned four times) and the “complex international situation” (mentioned three times) — a reference to great power competition between the United States and China.
Second, the 2020 communique notes “both the nature of our opportunities and challenges” have changed. Here, the party introduces a new term: “a once-in-a-century seismic shift,” paired with another new phrase: “the relative power [of nations] is shifting.” This reflects the leadership’s sentiment that passing the pandemic stress test has boosted China’s position in the global order. In this sense, China’s ruling party seems a lot more confident in 2020 than it was five years ago.
But a third observation is that Xi’s leadership simultaneously expressed caution and restraint. In addition to underscoring the defining external challenges, the 2020 communique dedicated one full paragraph to listing China’s domestic limitations, something that was absent in the 2015 communique. These weaknesses include “an acute problem of inequality,” “our innovation capacity falls short of meeting the standards of high-quality development,” and “gaps in people’s livelihoods and in social management,” among others.
Another sign of restraint in the overall hubris appears in Xi’s “explanation” or follow-up commentary for the 2020 communique, issued in his own name. He stated: “Our nation is still the world’s largest developing country, and hence development is still our party’s number one mission.” Western observers may dismiss the phrase “developing country” as Chinese leaders’ excuse for shirking global responsibilities. This may be true when they are negotiating with foreigners, but in this context, note that Xi is admitting weakness to domestic audiences. This is uncharacteristic of China’s current helmsman, who has favored grand narratives about China’s “great rejuvenation” and “bravado.”
A fourth and final point: The sense of guarded confidence is accompanied by an overwhelming emphasis on “security,” which is mentioned 22 times in the 2020 communique — more references than “quality development” (16), “innovation” (15) and “reform” (17). In the 2015 communique, “security” comes up only 13 times, I found. Xi personally reiterated this message in his aforementioned explanation: “Security is the precondition of development, and development is the safeguard of security.” This suggests a deep undercurrent of Xi’s personal insecurity that trumps party-level priorities.
Chinese is a “high-context” language — so the meaning of expressions can vary considerably depending on audience, context and accompanying commentaries. These nuances make it important to interpret statements like “the East is rising and the West is declining” in their full context.
Yes, Xi’s regime is feeling self-assured and, more importantly, wants to convince the Chinese people to feel confident under the Communist Party’s absolute leadership. But if you read and listen carefully to the leadership’s words, they are only cautiously confident: Party leaders know that China still stands at sizable distance from the world’s No. 1 power.
Yuen Yuen Ang (@yuenyuenang) is the author of “How China Escaped the Poverty Trap” (Cornell University Press, 2016) and “China’s Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom & Vast Corruption” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).