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"Adversity Makes One Stronger": Xi's Vision of a Resilient China

Resilience is Xi Jinping’s new favorite word. A new dark undertone was striking in Xi’s report to the 20th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress, though he also spoke of the “great achievements” that were the source of great pride, such as strengthening the Party’s leadership, reducing poverty, advancing technology, and promoting innovation. By the new year, Xi was offering a message of resilience in the face of domestic challenges and key security risks and was asserting that miracles would be needed (though hard work still could bring them to fruition).

Photo: Reuters and BBC Protests against COVID-19 Lockdowns and Censorship in China

To be sure, he expressed confidence in his country’s “vigor and vitality,” but after a wave of unprecedented protest against his government’s zero-COVID policies led to an abrupt about-face on restrictions and then to a rapid spread of the disease, further compounding China’s economic woes, Xi emphasized that it is in the Chinese national character to triumph over adversity. Sounding more like a New Age guru than a CCP leader, in his New Year’s address Xi put forth a string of platitudes on “staying the course,” “moving mountains,” and “braving wind and rain against all odds.”

Similarly, in his video chat with Vladimir Putin, Xi spoke of the resilience of the Sino-Russian partnership and emphasized its enduring value in an international environment he characterized as “changing and turbulent.” Despite the challenging international situation, Xi stated that he would stand by Russia and other “progressive” forces in opposition to supporters of Cold War bloc politics and hegemony. At the same time, Xi claimed China held an “impartial” position on Ukraine and would work towards the peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Xi’s recent remarks on resilience highlight his preoccupation with risk management and his understanding of the interconnection between domestic and foreign policy risks. The centrality of “holistic” national security was one of the novel features of Xi’s address to the 20th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress on October 24, 2022.

What does Xi mean by “holistic national security”? This is not a new concept—he developed it in 2014 and began highlighting it subsequent speeches—but he mentioned the term over thirty times in his report to the 20th CCP Congress. Xi defines “holistic national security” as measures to address potential military threats and emergent non-military risks. He stated that China “…has entered a period of development in which strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising. Various "black swan" and "gray rhino" events may occur at any time. We must therefore be more mindful of potential dangers, be prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios, and be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms.”

While his security concept involves some components of what the U.S. would include in such a definition, such as developing defense capabilities, political security—what we would call regime security—is at the core of national security and involves protecting “the security of China’s state power, systems, and ideology.” For Xi, national security also involves achieving China’s historical mission, what he terms its “rejuvenation.”

Xi’s vision of national security also has a global dimension—China needs to create the domestic preconditions to fill a commensurate global role, a goal Xi defined in greater detail in launching his Global Security Initiative at the Boao Forum on April 21, 2022, to contrast China’s approach to “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security” with U.S. “bloc politics” and “Cold War mentality.” Some China experts warn, however, that his “securitization of everything” could lead to more assertive policies to defend expansively defined national security interests, especially from perceived encroachment by the West.

For Xi, national security also has a proactive dimension and refers to disaster prevention and emergency management as well as to the maintenance of social stability. Xi’s recent emphasis on resilience shows his concern over maintaining access to strategic technologies and supplies and in recent speeches he has highlighted the importance of resource security, including food, resources, and the security of supply chains.

Photo from an Organic Farm near Shanghai: Elizabeth Wishnick and Samuel Robertson

· Food security. At the beginning of his New Year’s address, Xi chose to highlight that, despite the global food crisis, China’s nineteenth consecutive bumper harvest put the country in a stronger position to ensure the food supply of the Chinese people.” This being said, for the past nineteen years, food production has been listed as a key priority in the Central Committee’s Document Number One, the Chinese Communist Party document that lists the party’s priorities for the year. China has 20% of the world’s population, but only 6.6% of the world’s water resources and 7% of arable land globally. Only 12% of China’s land can be used for agriculture and even that land faces many challenges, including widespread contamination by industrial pollutants and the threat of droughts. Urbanization and desertification further reduce the amount of land available for cultivation. In the reform era the Chinese government aimed for complete self-sufficiency in grains, but under Xi the goalposts were moved to “basic self-sufficiency in grain and absolute self-sufficiency in staple foods,” according to the October 2019 White Paper on Food Security.

Three Gorges Hydroelectric Dam poster. Photo: Elizabeth Wishnick and Samuel Robertson.

· Energy security and access to strategic minerals. One important factor in the resilience of the Sino-Russian partnership, in Xi’s views, is that energy cooperation “serves as an anchor.” China has taken advantage of lower Russian oil prices to import more of its crude—as of May 2022, Russia has accounted for 19% of PRC oil imports, up from 15% during the same period in 2021. In their video meeting, Xi and Putin described the progress in their energy ties, with Putin highlighting their “unprecedented” level and plans for future growth. However, PRC Minister of Natural Resources Wang Guanghua sounded less sanguine in a recent interview, calling attention to China’s high level of dependence on foreign countries for energy and mineral resources. Wang spoke of the need to plan ahead and ensure the security of domestic resources under special circumstances” by increasing domestic exploration and creating strategic mineral reserves.

What are the international implications of Xi’s emphasis on resilience and national security? Since the 20th CCP Congress, Xi has embarked on a flurry of diplomacy and sought to reengage with many world leaders. At the same time, domestic challenges due to opposition to zero-COVID lockdowns and their rapid removal highlight the governance challenges China continues to face, with unpredictable political and economic consequences. Xi’s recent emphasis on resilience comes from this context and he has indicated that China should prepare better for potential supply interruptions. Xi’s December 2022 visit to Saudi Arabia and ongoing partnership with Russia—two of China’s top sources of oil—highlight the importance of energy security for China.

We also have seen the global face of China’s concern for social stability with its emphasis on police training and export of surveillance technologies in its international partnerships. These technologies are a feature of what one China expert calls the “techno-security state,” which directs resources to develop the technological innovations needed to fulfill a broad definition of national security. As Xi embarks on his third, and potentially unlimited term, he has great ambition but also sees equally great dangers ahead, both domestically and internationally, which he hopes to prepare China to meet.

Happy Year of the Rabbit! 恭喜發財

Photo: Elizabeth Wishnick and Samuel Robertson

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