China East Asia Indo-Pacific Politics & Diplomacy Security & Defense Taiwan
Inflection Points Today January 4, 2024

Xi Jinping’s real New Year’s message

By Frederick Kempe

Reading Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s annual New Year’s message wasn’t how I wanted to spend my holiday weekend, so I’m only digesting it now. I think Western headlines missed the real message this autocrat was sending his people: It’s one more of vulnerability than of strength.

Xi’s tone was that of a leader who won’t ever have the satisfaction of democratic legitimacy, but who both craves and is increasingly uncertain about public support, given increases in youth unemployment, slow growth, and military purges that raise questions about party unity. He acknowledged that the country has “gone through the test of winds and rains” in recent years—bringing to mind China’s mounting economic difficulties and its severe COVID-19 restrictions—before launching into a laundry list of accomplishments.

The Financial Times reported yesterday that China’s BYD supplanted Tesla in the past quarter as the world’s biggest electric car maker. Xi could now add that to his speech’s inventory of shiny objects: The C919 jumbo passenger airliner entered service, Shenzhou spaceships continued their missions, the Fendouzhe submersible reached the deepest ocean trench, Chinese-made mobile phones were “instant market [successes],” and lithium batteries and photovoltaic products have become a “testimony to China’s manufacturing prowess.”

“Products designed and made in China, especially trendy brands, are highly popular with consumers,” he boasted.

Xi’s speech was bathed in patriotism and nostalgia about China’s “great civilization,” noting that next year would mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. “The mighty Yellow River and Yangtze River never fail to inspire us,” he said, and new discoveries from archeological sites “tell us much about the dawn of Chinese civilization… And all this is the source from which our confidence and strength are derived.”

The Western press understandably focused on Xi’s brief comments about his slowing economy and his references to unification with Taiwan, both coming late in the short speech, which was only twelve minutes.

On the economy, he conceded, “Some enterprises had a tough time. Some people had difficulty finding jobs and meeting basic needs.” Could that tee up some economic liberalization in 2024? Probably not, if it’s at the price of party control.

On Taiwan, he said, after praising Hong Kong and Macao integration (and ahead of Taiwan’s elections next week): “China will surely be reunified, and all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be bound by a common sense of purpose and share in the glory of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

What Xi didn’t talk about were his relentless purges, now reaching further into China’s military establishment, which have the increasing feel of Mao’s “continuous revolution.” Xi has now punished an estimated five million people, and counting, for abuses large and small.

It’s worth reading Xi’s speech in full to understand China as a country with a baffling mix of weaknesses and strengths, run by an autocratic leader who is looking at 2024 with more than a little concern.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.

This edition is part of Frederick Kempe’s Inflection Points Today newsletter, a column of quick-hit insights on a world in transition. To receive this newsletter throughout the week, sign up here.

Further reading

Image: People watching China's President Xi Jinping speaking on a screen during an event to view the live broadcast of the opening Ceremony of China Communist Party Congress on October 16, 2022 in Hong Kong. Photo by Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto via Reuters.