40 years of reform and opening up

This is what Xi Jinping says can help save China from ‘terrifying tidal waves and horrifying storms’

  • Communist Party rule is key to weathering ‘unimaginable’ perils and dangers, according to Chinese president.
  • But he sheds little light on future reforms, to the chagrin of those wanting economic liberalisation, and doesn’t mention US trade war or slowing economy
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 11:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2018, 12:27pm

China faced “unimaginable” perils and dangers, but Communist Party rule and its chosen path would help to weather them, President Xi Jinping said on Tuesday as he tried to shore up confidence in a country at a crossroads after four decades of reforms.

He was speaking at a high-profile event in Beijing marking the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening that started with a ceremony to honour 100 “reform pioneers”. Ten foreigners also received a “China Friendship Medal”, including Singapore’s late founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

In a 1½ hour speech, Xi stressed that the party’s leadership was the key to China’s rise over the past 40 years. But he shed little light on future reforms, dashing hopes among market pundits of new policy initiatives to further liberalise the Chinese economy.

Also missing was any direct mention of the specific challenges China faced, above all a slowing economy and a tit-for-tat trade war with the US.

Instead, Xi spent much of his speech lauding accomplishments in China’s economic and social development in the past four decades since Deng Xiaoping, the former paramount leader, started the country’s embrace of market reforms.

The key takeaway from the 40 years of success, Xi said, was that China must stick with the leadership of the party.

“Every step in reform and opening up will not be easy, and we will face all kinds of risks and challenges in the future and we may even encounter unimaginable terrifying tidal waves and horrifying storms,” Xi told the 3,000 officials and foreign guests at the Great Hall of the People.

“Only by improving the party’s leadership and governance … can we ensure the ship of reform and opening up will sail forward,” he said.

The president mentioned the word “party” 128 times in his speech, compared with just 87 times for “reform” and 67 for “opening up”.

In addition, Xi also stressed that China would stick to its chosen path, declaring that the socialist path, theory, system and culture with Chinese characteristics were “entirely correct”.

“There are no textbooks containing golden rules or arrogant teachers who can order the Chinese people about on what to do,” he said.

While Xi called on the Chinese people to “unite closely around the Party Central”, he also said China would “carry reform and opening up through to the end”.

Xi not only praised Deng for his vision but also credited his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao with setting China’s reform and opening in the right direction. However, both Jiang and Hu, and other former leaders, were conspicuously absent from the celebration.

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Julian Gewirtz, a scholar at the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs at Harvard University focusing on China’s reforms, said the primary goal of Xi’s speech was to make a case for the strength of his reform strategy.

“For Xi, the most important aspect of the past 40 years of Chinese history is the distinctiveness and ‘absolute correctness’ of the party’s leadership,” he said.

“Despite all of the intense international pressure and domestic concerns about the economy, it’s clear that this celebration was meant to instil ‘confidence’ and spread what the party might call ‘positive energy’.”

The celebration came as China battles a deepening economic slowdown at home and a looming trade war with the US that threatens to spill over to other areas if escalated. To allay anxieties, Xi needs to convince domestic and foreign audiences that Beijing remains committed to the economic liberalisation which has propelled its growth for four decades.

But his message apparently failed to reassure some entrepreneurs in the country who have long complained about unfair competition from state-owned companies, and particularly access to markets and resources.

In recent months, Chinese leaders – including Xi – have repeatedly sought to placate their fears by pledging the party’s “unwavering support”, but many are waiting for concrete policies and actions.

Lessons of past point way ahead for Xi Jinping as opening up goes on

“Xi’s speech did not reveal any substantial reform measures as expected by many of us – this is what has disappointed me the most,” said a senior executive at a hi-tech firm in Dongguan, a manufacturing hub in southern China.

“Perhaps that’s why many of us in the technology and industrial circles find the speech ringing hollow. He kept mentioning faith, belief and confidence – perhaps he could also sense the lack of confidence in the entire market, both towards his [policy] and the trade war,” the executive said.

Shanghai and Shenzhen stock indexes rose in early trading in anticipation of possible policy announcements, but both dropped over the course of Xi’s address. They rose again in the afternoon and ended slightly lower than the opening.