Global Viewpoint

President Obama must understand the nationalism of China's President Xi

China's President Xi Jinping is both a nationalist and a reformer. President Obama must understand the motivations for Mr. Xi’s nationalism, so that as the two leaders meet at a summit in California today, the US-China relationship will benefit. And the world will applaud.

By , Op-ed contributor

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    Supporters of Chinese President Xi Jinping use fans to protect from the sun while waiting for the arrival of President Xi in Indian Wells, Calif., June 6. President Obama and Mr. Xi, seeking a fresh start to a complex relationship, are retreating to a sprawling desert estate for two days of talks on high-stakes issues, including cybersecurity and North Korea's nuclear threats.
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What to make of President Xi Jinping, China’s new senior leader, who holds his first summit with President Obama June 7-8 in California? The hope is that Mr. Xi is a reformer who will guide China through domestic transformation and to responsible statecraft. The fear is that Xi is a nationalist who has set China on an aggressive, expansionist course of bullying its neighbors and confronting the United States.

The fear seems not unfounded. China has intensified its territorial claims, from islands disputes with Japan to vast areas of the South China Sea. Xi frequently inspects People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces, especially naval fleets, exhorting China’s military to “get ready to fight and to win wars” and “to win regional warfare under IT-oriented conditions.” Xi, who in his late 20s served as an officer in active military service, instructs the PLA they “must win every war.” 

Xi holds China’s top three positions: general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), head of the ruling party; president of China, head of state; and chairman of the Central Military Commission, head of the military. Xi will likely lead China for a decade.

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Just after becoming Party chief in late 2012, Xi announced what would become the hallmark of his administration. “The Chinese Dream,” he said, is “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

Xi’s Chinese Dream is described as achieving the “Two 100s”: 1) The material goal of China becoming a “moderately well-off society” by about 2020, around the 100th anniversary of the CPC; 2) The modernization goal of China becoming a fully developed nation by about 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

The Chinese Dream has four parts: Strong China (economically, politically, diplomatically, scientifically, militarily); Civilized China (equity and fairness, rich culture, high morals); Harmonious China (amity among social classes); Beautiful China (healthy environment, low pollution).

“A moderately well-off society” is where all citizens, rural and urban, enjoy high standards of living. This includes doubling 2010’s GDP per capita (approaching $10,000 per person) by about 2020 and completing urbanization (affecting roughly 1 billion people, 70 percent of China’s population) by about 2030. “Modernization” means China regaining its position as a world leader in science and technology as well as in economics and business; the resurgence of Chinese civilization, culture, and military might; and China participating actively in all areas of human endeavor.

What about Xi’s nationalism? If it seems at odds with these grand goals, it is not. Here are six reasons why Xi's nationalism coincides with his reform agenda.

1) Consolidation of power. Xi was not selected by Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping, the architect of reform, as his predecessors (Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao) were, and he was not elected by the people. Conventional wisdom had it that Xi would be a weak leader. In order to realize his Chinese Dream, Xi needs to assert strength and assure control. So far, he has exceeded expectations.

2) Enabling of reform. Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are determined to enact far-reaching economic reforms, the most extensive in 15 years, but there is stiff resistance from those whose dominance would be diminished and benefits cut (such as state-owned enterprises, with ties to party power). This resistance can no longer be couched credibly in terms of ideology, so it appeals to nationalistic aspirations by accusing reformers of “worshipping Western ways,” “glorifying Western models,” “caving in to Western pressures.”

Xi’s proactive nationalism is a strategy of “offense is the best defense” – an inoculation, as it were, against the political virus (meme) of being labeled “soft” or “pro-Western.” Reformers in China are generally associated with pro-American attitudes and thus subject to fierce public criticism, even ridicule. By establishing himself as a strong-willed nationalist, operating independently of the US (e.g., his first foreign trip was to Russia), Xi secures economic reforms by distinguishing them from serving Western/American interests.

It is no coincidence that Xi’s first China-US summit follows his multifarious and emphatic exemplars of nationalism. When Xi now enacts reforms, how can he be accused of bowing down to Western/American ideals, when his international actions and assertions, from safeguarding China’s sovereignty to supporting China’s armed forces, are so assured and decisive?

3) Legitimization of CPC rule. To perpetuate its one-party rule (which China’s top leaders truly believe is essential for the well-being of the country), the CPC has constructed a grand narrative that is founded on three critical claims: Only the CPC can continue to improve citizens’ standard of living (and ameliorate severe social and economic disparities); only the CPC can maintain a stable, unified country and construct a happy, harmonious society; and only the CPC can effect the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which stresses a firm command of “core interests” (i.e., sovereignty and territoriality) and increasing global respect.

4) Maintenance of stability through unity. China faces numerous internal tensions, especially a class-divided populace (rich-poor, urban-rural, coastal-inland) that has erupted within one generation. Moreover, an increasingly complex society can fracture along multiple fault lines. Pollution, corruption, health care, housing, migrant workers, workers’ wages, social cynicism, and changing values, among other raging issues, threaten to fragment society – and all are exacerbated by the most energetic social media on Earth. Only Chinese nationalism, which resonates intrinsically and passionately across Chinese society, can provide sufficiently strong social glue.

5) Differentiation from predecessors. Top Chinese leaders must combine historical continuity with their own distinguishing theories and practices. How shall Xi fare? Economic growth rates must decline, and even more foreboding, a host of domestic tensions (or crises) are coming his way – take public anger at corruption and pollution. Hence, another rationale for nationalism. In the past, nationalistic surges were triggered largely by external events (such as America’s accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999). Xi is making nationalism the core of his leadership; his nationalism is proactive, riding the high road of patriotism and using pride as his differentiator.

6) Personal belief. Xi has deep-seated patriotic convictions, the product of family, life, and career. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a founder of New China and a leading reformer under Deng Xiaoping. In 2006, when Xi Jinping was party secretary of Zhejiang Province, he told me about Chinese pride and patriotism as motivating China’s historic resurgence, words remarkably similar to his recent pronouncements.

So is Xi a reformer? A nationalist? The answer is that he is both, because only by being a nationalist can he be a reformer. American policy must understand Xi’s nationalism, so that when the reigning superpower meets the rising superpower, both can benefit. The world would applaud.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn, the official biographer of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, has long-time relationships with China’s leaders and the Chinese government. He is a strategic advisor to multinational corporations and the author, most recently, of “How China’s Leaders Think.”

© 2013 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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