President Xi’s ‘40-years-of-reform’ speech fails to excite China watchers

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – Fervent hope and speculation in the West about forthcoming policy announcements by China failed to materialise yesterday in a speech given by China’s President Xi Jinping.

President Xi spoke at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing. He fulsomely commemorated and lavished praise on what he described as 40 years of reform and opening-up. However, expert and independent commentators in Australia thought the speech to be lacking in relevance for the rest of the world and largely self-congratulatory.

The speech by President Xi did not address the big international issues, such as tariffs, trade wars, relations with other economic partners or market issues, that had widely been hoped for. Some of the advance commentary in the Western media on issues such as trade proved to be complete speculation.

President Xi summed up what he described as the “glorious course of the 40 years of reform and opening up,” adding that the struggle of the Chinese people was “unremitting”. He also commented favourably on aspects of the regimes of previous leaders such as Mao Zhedong and Deng Xiaoping.

He added that the establishment of the Communist Party of China and the People’s Republic along with the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics were the “three major historical events” that took place in China in recent years. They are “the three major milestones in achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in modern times,” President Xi said.

He fulsomely praised many aspects of China since the 1950s. He talked of achievements in opening up parts of the country to economic development. He praised reforms in areas such as the economy, politics, culture, society, ecology, administrative management, the judiciary, the law, foreign affairs and many more.

Repeatedly referring to the past four years, President Xi, discussed – at length – what he clearly perceived to be the many virtues of Chinese socialism.

“We have always insisted on emancipating the mind, seeking truth from facts, advancing with the times, seeking truth and being pragmatic, persisting in the guiding position of Marxism, unswervingly adhering to the basic principles of scientific socialism, bravely promoting theoretical innovation, practical innovation, institutional innovation, cultural innovation and innovation in all aspects. [These] have consistently endowed socialism with Chinese characteristics with distinct practical characteristics, theoretical characteristics, national characteristics, and characteristics of the times, forming a socialist road, theory, system, and culture with Chinese characteristics, and demonstrating science with irrefutable facts. The vitality of socialism, the great banner of socialism has always been flying high on the land of China!” President Xi enthused to delegates at the Great Hall of the People.

In the English language copy of the text, a machine-translation from Mandarin, President Xi only referenced “trade” a few times and then in the context of referring to organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, or “China’s trade”. He did not mention tariffs.

President Xi did spend a few moments discussing some of China’s economic achievements over time. He pointed out that China’s gross domestic product grew at a rate of 9.5% compared to the world’s average annual rate of about 2.9% although these figures were not tied to a specific time period. He added that the total import and export value of China’s “goods” has increased from US$20.6bn to more than two trillion US dollars but, again, this was without reference to a given time frame. He also talked of Chinese infrastructure achievements in railways, dams, pipelines and aviation.

President Xi turned to internal governance matters and firmly put the Chinese Communist Party at the centre of political, economic and many other areas relevant to the governance of China.

“We must uphold the party’s leadership over all work and constantly strengthen and improve party leadership,” President Xi told delegates adding that they need to “resolutely safeguard the party’s central authority and centralize unified leadership.”

FreightWaves sought comment from expert China-watchers based in Australia. Associate Professor Jane Golley is an economist and China-specialist. She is the acting director of the Australian Centre of China in the World at the Australian National University.

“It [President Xi’s speech] sums up forty years of reform and opening up as seen through the eyes of the leader of the Chinese Communist Party. There are other versions of that narrative that would undoubtedly reflect the fact that social and political freedoms have not progressed at the same pace as in the economic sphere,” Professor Golley told FreightWaves.

Meanwhile, Hans Hendrischke, a Professor of Chinese Business and Management at the University of Sydney, downplayed the international significance of the speech.

“This was a speech to consolidate China’s achievements. It’s self-congratulatory and is directed toward a domestic audience and the inner-party. It confirms that China’s policies were correct and successful. It was neither outward-looking or forward-looking. My guess would be that more speeches are coming… people are going to be waiting to see how Xi is going to apply policies in the future. There are no clues in this speech as to the future. Xi says that China is confident and willing to be a global partner. But that is not new. It’s not a speech that gives any hint of the big issues. President Xi didn’t even try to address any of the bigger topics.

Interested readers can access the original text in Mandarin from the official state news agency, Xinhua.

The agency also offers and English-language summary but the available information is very limited.

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Jim Wilson, Australia Correspondent

Sydney-based journalist and photojournalist, Jim Wilson, is the Australia Correspondent for FreightWaves. Since beginning his journalism career in 2000, Jim has primarily worked as a business reporter, editor, and manager for maritime publications in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. He has won several awards for logistics-related journalism and has had photography published in the global maritime press. Jim has also run publications focused on human resources management, workplace health and safety, venture capital, and law. He holds a degree in law and legal practice.