President Xi Jinping had two big challenges to navigate in 2017.
The first was the election of US President Donald Trump, and how he would handle his new, very unorthodox counterpart. This issue was particularly important because, at least during his 2016 campaign, Trump deployed fiery language about China, extreme criticisms even by the standards of the more recent campaigns.
Xi’s second was the 19th party congress, where new leaders were appointed and his power was consolidated. Had things not gone well, it could have set a tone for further discord and disharmony.
On both issues, Xi can be given high marks. His handling of the mercurial and capricious Trump has proved effective so far – more so perhaps than any other international partner. Xi’s Congress passed without any major misstep – a group of leaders were elevated who are largely seen as enablers for his agenda. Consensus seemed to reign supreme.
China, therefore, ends the year with an enhanced international status, and with an internal polity which, while facing immense social, environmental, economic and political challenges, looks to be unified and in control. For China, 2017 will go down as a year without major hiccups. In its turbulent story over the past few decades, that counts as a major success.
For 2018, however, the delicate issue of delivering on promises comes to the fore. Before the 19th party congress, questions lingered about divisions within the elite and unresolved issues from the administration of former president Hu Jintao.
Now the congress is past. Xi has had his way. He commands the domestic space as no other leader has done in recent times. His greatest challenge now is not who might be sharpening knives behind his back, but actually achieving some significant policy gains that can impact the lives of Chinese people.
In a strange way, 2018 begins in the same way for Xi and Trump – haunted by lack of a clear domestic success to hammer home their legitimacy.
Trump’s recent tax cuts proved his clearest legislative victory to date. But implementation will be key. For Xi, there is the same issue, despite the very different administrative and political context he is working in. He has made a series of promises about reform of the household registration system, state enterprises, the legal system and administrative balance between the centre and provinces.
All of these were set out clearly in the epic speech he delivered on October 18. Added to them were the pressing urgency for greater innovation, a better more sustainable economic model with higher productivity, the need for better public services such as health care and social welfare, and a cleaner environment.
2018 will be a year when the party has no excuses for not moving ahead on these issues. It has set out a reform programme and made a series of promises. It maintains a favourable international environment and also holds a consensus domestically. The problem is that all of the changes promised involve long-term, incremental steps, rather than one bold moment of transformation. Somehow the Xi government has to demonstrate to the Chinese people that things are happening, even when there might be no strong evidence they are.
Patience in democracies is famously elusive. People do not want outcomes promised years in the future, but things they can see and feel now. In China, the assumption has always been that a lack of elections, along with the long-term frameworks that policymakers work in, mitigated against this. People were just patient.
But in the febrile atmosphere of Xi’s China, with national regeneration just over the hill, and the Centennial Goals shaping out a grand destination, perhaps the most pressing issue in 2018 will be how to face down the expectations of his own people. Xi will need to crank up the internal propaganda apparatus as never before, rolling out things that the party is delivering.
This might start to sound increasingly shrill to an outside world already sensitive to the challenges of dealing with a recharged, resurgent People’s Republic. We can expect the same cascades of information, initiatives and promotion of the “Belt and Road Initiative”, the country’s ambitious global trade plan.
Can we expect some real deliverables though? And in terms of North Korea, maybe 2018 will be the time when China will have to get real in a way it never has before on its problematic, and now nuclearised, small neighbour.
The most striking thing about the Xi leadership has been its string of good fortune. There have been no economic crises to fight off, no major insurrections domestically like that in Tibet in 2008 or Xinjiang in 2009. Even within elite politics, life has been surprisingly calm, despite the anti-corruption struggle. Xi has not been stalked by former leaders, nor had to face down any attempts at a domestic elite putsch.
But enjoying luck is one thing; becoming dependent on miracles is another. Xi in 2018 will almost certainly have to demonstrate a level of leadership that he has never had to do before. Everyone is now looking at him, impressed by the way he has spoken, the unity he seems to have bought, and the status he has gained for China globally. But exposure is as unsettling as it is flattering. In 2018, three things will matter to Xi: delivery, delivery and delivery. And on all three, he has very limited space to fail. ■
Kerry Brown is director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London