When Xi Jinping ascended the stage in the Great Hall of the People in March, officially the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, the country’s future seemed his to shape.
Just months earlier, he had been re-appointed General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the country’s most powerful position. Now he had begun a second term as the nation’s president and secured the scrapping of term limits on the post – effectively allowing him to rule for life. Just two members of the National People’s Congress voted against the change, out of 2,980.
Nine months later however, storm clouds are gathering.
China’s economy has faltered in the face of US President Donald Trump’s ongoing trade war, and tensions with Washington have spread to political and military issues.
There have even been rumors that Xi himself has come in for criticism behind closed doors for failing to adequately handle Trump and his policies.
“I don’t think Xi’s position is in any way under threat but he has a lot of enemies and critics and the collapsing relationship with the US is a stick they can use to beat him with,” Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute, told CNN.
Unfortunately for Xi, the trade troubles come ahead of possibly his most important year yet. The Chinese leader must navigate a series of critical and controversial dates for the Communist Party, including the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
At the same time, the clock is ticking on his trade truce with Trump, reached during their face-to-face meeting in Argentina early December, with just over two months left to bridge the gap between the two sides.
Xi’s handling of events in 2019 could determine the future of China’s economy and his place in the pantheon of Communist Party leaders.
Every ten years, a series of important or controversial anniversaries creates a perfect storm for Beijing.
For Xi and the Communist Party, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1 will be a seminal occasion.
The party will celebrate both its economic success and its unexpected longevity – surpassing the lifespan of the Soviet Union, the one-time communist superpower which collapsed in 1991 after 69 years.
Rana Mitter, director of the University China Centre at Oxford University, told CNN that in the lead-up to the anniversary, Beijing would focus on glorifying the leaders of the Communist revolution.
“Xi will seek to tie his current achievements to their legacy,” he said.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the May 4th student protests in China, which were mainly a response to the betrayal of the country by Allied powers in the Treaty of Versailles following World War I – but which the Communist Party now claims as a precursor to its own creation.
Anniversaries for the Chinese government aren’t only about celebration and ceremony. They’re often used as highly symbolic milestones for progress or new policies.
For instance, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in 2021 has been set as the date for China to create a “moderately well-off society.”
“There’s obviously a sense that there will be a reckoning, a calculation up to this point of how the first 70 years have gone and plans for the next 70 years,” Mitter said.
Not all important dates next year will be occasions to celebrate – there are some Xi would rather the world forgot.
June 4 marks 30 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, which caused possibly thousands of civilian deaths across the city in 1989 following pro-democracy protests.
There are few more sensitive events in China and no one on the mainland will be allowed to mark the occasion publicly. Any attempt to do so will quickly be shut down.
“As in recent years, even the most roundabout references to the event get censors worked up and maybe even lead to arrests,” Jeff Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine, told CNN.
“While images of a man standing before a line of tanks are shown and described in various newspapers outside the mainland, on the Chinese internet even the word ‘today’ may be treated as subversive content.”
This year also marks 20 years since Beijing’s brutal crackdown on Falun Gong practitioners began and 60 years since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, both occasions which the government will hope pass without mention.
But it isn’t only sensitive dates which threaten to cause a headache for Xi in 2019. After decades of unprecedented growth across a number of fronts, the economy is slowing.
Attempts to tackle soaring debt levels across the country have led to a slowdown in infrastructure and investment spending, while GDP growth rates have also slowed.
Even the Communist Party’s usually relentlessly positive official statements have become tinged with increasingly grim language.
The readout from the top-level Central Economic Work Conference in December spoke of “profound changes in the external environment” and added the party had “worked hard to meet difficulties.” In Communist Party bureaucrat speak, this is the equivalent of a warning klaxon.
“These achievements were hard won,” the readout said. As China’s unchallenged leader on all matters economic, it will be Xi’s job to turn the ship around.
‘The Chinese would take hardship again’
While Xi faces extensive domestic problems and challenges in 2019, it could be external factors which weigh the heaviest on him.
Beijing faces growing pushback from the United States across a range of fronts, from economic to politics and the military.
Throughout 2018, Trump steadily ramped up US tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Chinese goods while demanding Beijing end its massive fiscal support for industrial research and development.
Currently the trade war is on hold until March 1, following personal negotiations between Trump and Xi. This leaves the Chinese President with a stressful start to the year – trying to placate the US while not giving too much away.
Even if Xi can end the trade crisis, the Trump administration has opened new fronts in its disputes with Beijing, including a growing presence in the South China Sea and pushback over Chinese economic espionage.
There have been hints Xi may not expect a quick resolution to the Trump trade standoff. In a key speech in the Great Hall of the People on December 18, he seemed to be trying to prepare his domestic audience for a more lengthy dispute, warning how greatness was achieved through “hardship.”
Cables leaked to the New York Times, revealing details of a China summit with the European Union, quoted Xi as saying, “China (has) been through poverty and hardship when it was under the blockade. The Chinese would take hardship again.”
Wasserstrom said Trump’s opposition to China’s economic development might be the one silver lining for Xi in a difficult situation.
“Economic times are going to get tougher in China and this leads to discontent. But now there’s an ability to blame a lot of those hard times on the US,” he said.
Ironically it was Xi’s victory in removing presidential term limits which has left him vulnerable as the trade war intensifies.
In the past two years, power in China has increasingly been concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party. Inside the party, Xi has clearly consolidated his control.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in his removal of term limits. But by placing himself so clearly at the top of the pyramid, experts said Xi has left himself vulnerable to criticism when things go wrong.
“The Party Secretary is responsible for the relationship with the United States and the way it’s run off the rails exposes Xi to a lot of criticism,” McGregor, the Australian China expert, told CNN.
There is a growing impression in Beijing, and among experts, that the Chinese government underestimated Trump, believing they had the US leader under control after waging a charm offensive in 2017.
Trump’s rapid action against China has left its leaders reconsidering their approach to international diplomacy, with some questioning Xi’s tough rhetoric and aggressive stance in recent years.
Meanwhile, economic liberals are beginning to use the Trump tariffs as an excuse to push for greater liberalization of China’s economy, contrary to Xi’s desire for greater state and party control.
Heading into the new year, the Chinese leader must maintain a delicate balance between conciliation, patriotism, pro-market reforms and government control as pressure grows on him.
If Xi fails to lead his country successfully through the coming troubles, his dreams of a lengthy spell at the top could be cut short, Mitter said.
“Making it possible to have more than two terms doesn’t make it certain that person will have more than two terms,” he said.