4 takeaways from Xi Jinping's speech to mark China's 40 years of reform and opening up

In his speech, Mr Xi Jinping defended the Chinese Communist Party as the designer and guardian of China's prosperity and stability.
In his speech, Mr Xi Jinping defended the Chinese Communist Party as the designer and guardian of China's prosperity and stability.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - When President Xi Jinping of China spoke at a meeting on Tuesday (Dec 18) to celebrate the country's shift 40 years ago to an era of "reform and opening up", expectations were high that he would enumerate steps for revamping the economy and defusing trade tensions with the United States and others.

The meeting commemorated a Communist Party leaders' conclave in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping and other veteran revolutionaries set China towards market-friendly, pro-growth policies that would eventually transform the country into the world's biggest economy after the US.

Some economists and investors had hoped that Mr Xi would embrace and improve on Deng's historical legacy as an economic liberaliser.

Instead, Mr Xi used the speech to defend policies that he had forged over the past six years to make the Communist Party even more powerful, strengthen the state-run sector of the economy while allowing private business to grow, and put China's stamp on international affairs.

Here are the key points from what he said and what they mean:

Communist Party is in charge and 'totally correct'

Mr Xi's speech stood out for his defence of the Chinese Communist Party as the designer and guardian of China's prosperity and stability.

He has often made that case, and when his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao spoke on the 20th and 30th anniversaries of the 1978 shift, they also gave plenty of space to praising the party.

Even so, Mr Xi's comments seemed strikingly prominent, especially when many investors had hoped for a more moderate message.

Summarising what he described as the lessons from China's past four decades, Mr Xi said, "First, the party's leadership over all tasks must be adhered to, and the party's leadership must be incessantly strengthened and improved."

If anyone watching still expected that Mr Xi would seek to moderate his hard-line reputation and reveal himself to be a political liberaliser, he used this meeting to send an emphatic "no".

The party's socialist path, doctrine and policies over the past 40 years, he said, had all been "totally correct".

An olive branch in a budding Cold War

Mr Xi referred only obliquely to the elephant in the room: the trade war with the US and the strain that deteriorating relations has put on China's economy.

 
 
 

"No one is in the position to dictate to the Chinese people what should and should not be done," he said in apparent reference to demands from Washington and other capitals that China undo some of its protectionist economic policies (even as Chinese negotiators have quietly offered concessions).

He reiterated China's position on subjects like Taiwan's independence, which Beijing fiercely opposes, but emphasised that China sought to promote peace, support international development and bolster the international organisations that have helped shape and sustain today's world order.

"China's development will never constitute a threat to any other country," Mr Xi said. "No matter what level of development China reaches, it will never seek hegemony."

Paying homage to Marx and Lenin

Given China's embrace of market economics, China's leaders have often played down the communism part of the Communist Party. Mr Xi made clear just how deeply committed he is to the ideology itself - adapted "with Chinese characteristics", as the phrase goes.

In his remarks, he exalted Marxist-Leninist principles and even quoted Friedrich Engels to make the case for promoting new forms of innovation in the 21st century.

Mr Xi's message: China's headlong plunge into capitalism over the last 40 years was not a repudiation of the Communist Party's founding ideology, but something possible only because of it.

State and private ownership (but the state comes first)

The run-up to Mr Xi's speech aroused expectations of change, because the government had become increasingly concerned that private businesses - the engine of employment growth and innovation - have been demoralised by too much taxation, bureaucracy and barriers to bank loans.

Economists and investors have criticised Mr Xi for giving what they consider too much protection to state-owned conglomerates.

But on Tuesday, those critics were probably disappointed by the absence of specifics or shifts in rhetoric.

Mr Jack Ma, the multi-billionaire founder of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, was among the 100 Chinese honoured by Mr Xi as "pioneers" of reform.

But in his speech, Mr Xi affirmed the party's dual approach: supporting the state sector while encouraging private entrepreneurs. And support for the state sector came first.

"On the road ahead, we must unswervingly consolidate and develop the publicly owned economy," Mr Xi said, referring to the state-run sector.

China, he added, would also "unswervingly encourage, support and guide the development" of the private sector.