The world is changing, and it will now change faster after the just-concluded 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The increased pace of change, as also its new direction, will be set by a prediction Napoleon Bonaparte made two centuries ago: “China is a sleeping lion. When China wakes up, the world will shake.” China has woken up, and the world has begun to take notice of it like never before. Even though many educated Indians – especially ultra-nationalist Indians – are loath to admit it, and are making few efforts to understand the historic phenomenon, our northern neighbour is sure to rise higher in the years to come, thanks to the rise of one man as its Paramount Leader: Xi Jinping.

The Economist of London in its latest issue has described Xi as “The World’s Most Powerful Man”. Not without reason. He now leads a China that is on its way to becoming the most powerful nation in the world, overtaking the United States on many parameters of power, barring military outreach. However, military spending and projection of military are no longer the top criteria for a nation’s standing in the world. Indeed, for the United States, which carries the highest debt burden in the world, its annual defence budget of over $600 billion has become patently unsustainable – and an important cause for its steady decline.

A bigger cause for America’s decline, and China’s rise, is the quality of political leadership. Xi towers over Donald Trump in the eyes of most watchers of world politics today. At a time when the era of globalisation demands that the leaders of major nations have a global vision and global commitments, isolationist Trump has become an embarrassing symbol of America getting mired in its internal feuds, and Americans becoming deeply uncertain about their country’s future. Europe too is confused about its place in the new global order. In contrast, the world witnessed Xi speak at the Communist Party of China’s twice-a-decade meet with supreme confidence about China’s future. In a speech lasting three-and-a-half hours, he presented a vision and a believable roadmap for the attainment of the “Chinese Dream” with all-round “national rejuvenation”. Its concrete form will be the fully-developed “modern socialist nation” by 2050, when “common prosperity for everyone will be basically achieved”. For China, unlike India, planning anything with a time span of only 10-15 years is short-term.

Even without this advantageous comparison with a deeply flawed Trump presidency, the Chinese leader is beginning to make more sense to the international community than any other contemporary politician in the world. He spoke with conviction about the need to preserve stability and ensure peace in the world as a precondition for the development of all nations. He seemed to reassure sceptics that, even as China enters an era that will see it “moving closer to centrestage”, it “will continue to play its part as a major and responsible country”. He has often affirmed that all countries – big or small, rich or poor – are equal, and, further, that bigger nations carry bigger responsibilities for benign behaviour. Of course, Xi in his second term has to demonstrate China’s “responsible” conduct in South China Sea and allay the fears of its smaller neighbours that it will not bend a rule-based global order to its own advantage.

Combining strength with sagacity

The Xi we have seen in the past five years, and the stronger Xi who has now emerged on the Chinese and global landscape, provides enough indications that he is a leader who combines strength with sagacity. He has reiterated China’s commitment to equitable and inclusive globalisation. He has pledged that China would take “a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change”. In words that would be music to worldwide advocates of green and sustainable development, he has promised “harmonious living between man and nature” and warned that “any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us”. Walking the talk, he has pledged that the bulk of China’s energy needs would be sourced from renewables. Futuristically, he has even sought to popularise a phrase rarely used by political leaders – transition from “industrial civilisation” to “global ecological civilisation”.

Another pivot of his domestic mission is the war on poverty. Despite China’s spectacular prosperity in recent decades, it still has about 5-10 million poor people. Xi has announced that poverty will be fully eradicated within the next three years, before the Communist Party celebrates its centenary in 2021. The full weight of the party organisation and state apparatus, the wealth of Chinese businesses, and innovative use of new technologies will be brought to bear on this mission, which will be conducted like a mass campaign. Just as Deng Xiaoping, the previous Paramount Leader, is known in history as the man who made China rich, Xi wishes his legacy to be ensuring broad-based prosperity and better quality of living for 1.4 billion Chinese.

This is reflected in a key formulation in his speech, which identified the “principal contradiction” in contemporary Chinese society as one “between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life”. In Marxist ideology, what drives a society’s development is the “principal contradiction”, which changes from time to time. If it is resolved, society develops smoothly. If not, it can lead to social unrest, chaos and even revolutionary overthrow of the regime. Xi has determined that, for the Communist Party’s rule in China to survive, it must, on the one hand, consistently fight endemic corruption within the party and the state, which had grown to regime-threatening levels. On the other hand, it must address people’s aspirations for a better life in all provinces of the country. He has further resolved that these tasks can be successfully addressed only by the Communist Party’s tight centralised control and guidance over all aspects of the economy, media, academia and civil society organisations. This concept of a highly planned national development under the leadership of an enlightened party is what was enshrined in the Communist Party’s constitution as the “Xi Jinping Thought of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.

This experiment is not without its risks. Nothing like this has been successfully attempted by any nation so far. The Soviet Union failed, even suffered disintegration. China’s own post-revolution history has witnessed violent convulsions. Therefore, Xi has truly embarked on an audacious journey in which Marx, market, technology and traditional Chinese culture will travel together. My surmise is that China will succeed, provided it democratises itself in a smooth and stable manner in the years ahead. If it does – and it is a big if – Chinese socialist democracy, or democratic socialism, could, in Xi’s own bold prognosis, “offer a new option for other nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence” from foreign domination. Therefore, only when democracy too becomes an integral part of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” that the world will begin to more substantially believe in Xi’s confident affirmation: “We have contributed Chinese wisdom and a Chinese solution to the human race.”

Five learnings for India

The political and intellectual class in India needs to make a serious study of the outcome of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party. I shall briefly mention five important learnings:

  1.  While safeguarding our multi-party democratic system, we should strive to achieve national unity, political consensus, broad continuity of leadership and policies over a prolonged period, and long-term visioning, holistic planning and effective implementation. These are the secrets of China’s meteoric success.
  2.  India’s faltering Garibi Hatao effort can learn a lot from its Chinese version.
  3. Xi has by no means succeeded fully in his anti-corruption drive. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done nothing remotely close to the broad sweep of China’s campaign. Nearly 1.4 million communist party and government officials have been punished since 2013, and these include both “tigers” and “flies”.  
  4. India should join China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative without any delay. The Modi government’s boycott of the Initiative is myopic, because all our neighbours and many major nations around the world have joined it. The Initiative has the potential to give a big new impetus to trans-continental connectivity and, hence, to the global economy. Now that Xi’s pet initiative has been incorporated into the Communist Party’s constitution, China will surely push it with greater determination, and pour billions more into it, than before. Disconcertingly, efforts are afoot to draw India into a new US-led anti-China Quadrilateral (Japan and Australia being its other partners), which is being projected as an elusive alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative. India must not fall into this trap. The best course for India is to stay independent and to partner with China in the Belt and Road Initiative on an equal footing.  
  5. Modi and Xi need to develop strategic mutual trust so that India-China cooperation can be broadened and deepened, and, more importantly, Doklam-like crises can be prevented. At the 19th Congress, China’s People’s Liberation Army hailed the “peaceful resolution” of the stand-off with India at Doklam. This is good news.    

There are many things that rising China also needs to learn from rising India, but that needs separate examination. What is most important to note here is that India should strongly befriend Xi’s New China – primarily because such friendship is mutually beneficial to both, and also because much of the rest of the world surely will.

Sudheendra Kulkarni was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the author of Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age.