In his New Year speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping noted that 2020 will be “a year of milestone significance.” It is the year China will attain the first centennial goal — “finish building a moderately prosperous society” –to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The goal is significant given it is the first promise to redeem in fulfilling the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Xi’s outlook for China’s “return to prominence” in the world.
Achieving this “great rejuvenation” would raise Xi himself to historical greatness. Correspondingly, a failure to achieve the first centennial goal would thus be a marked loss of face for the leadership. Also, the realization of the goal ultimately concerns the legitimacy of the CCP, as it often underlines the success of the current one-party system in assuring the well-being of the people, further fueling confidence to the system by vindicating the viability of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
How is the “moderately prosperous society” defined? As laid out in the 19th CCP National Congress, a “moderately prosperous society” is one with a “stronger economy, greater democracy, more advanced science and education, thriving culture, greater social harmony, and a better quality of life.” To translate that standard into quantifiable numbers, Hu Jintao remarked during the 18th CCP National Congress that China should double its 2010 per capita GDP, reaching approximately $10,000. Another measurement – as specified in Xi’s New Year address – is to “lift all impoverished rural residents and counties out of poverty by current standards as scheduled.” This stands for lifting the rest of China’s 16.6 million inhabitants living on $1.90 or less per day out of that poverty benchmark.
Analysts have described 2019 as a year of challenges and forecasted a grim 2020 for China’s leadership. Many are either predicting an “increasingly panting China” mired in an economic slowdown or citing the Hong Kong protests, international pressure on Xinjiang, and Tsai Ing-wen’s probable re-election in Taiwan to result in a more vulnerable year for Xi.
While the Chinese leadership will face going into 2020, the situation is far from constituting a legitimacy crisis for the CCP, and nor will it do much to undermine Xi’s leadership. The Chinese will ultimately judge their government’s performance by their own standards, not by humanitarian crisis, increased censorship, or China’s deteriorating global reputation as laid out by analysts. Whether judging by the polls that consistently report marked public support for the Chinese regime, or the extraordinary celebration of China under the CCP’s leadership during the 70th national day on October 1, 2019, China’s leadership seems to have stood firm despite the hardships.
When a Chinese migrant worker in an impoverished area in China seeks to improve his life, he’s looking to install flush toilets in his house and secure basic education for his children, not for marble flooring or a trip to go gambling in Macau. For most of the population, the transformation of their life through China’s rapid growth has already been a miracle, and they will stay content unless their quality of life plummets suddenly.
Along with “poverty reduction,” the Chinese leadership has listed the control of financial risks and general improvement in the environment as the “three tough battles.” Owing to the vague definition of these targets and the censorship of the media, the population cannot grasp whether domestic issues such as mounting debt, unemployment, and pollution have become more critical, contrary to official narratives. Even if the deterioration in these aspects is perceived, dissatisfaction won’t be able to reach a nation-wide consensus. The Chinese government should, therefore, easily be able to declare success in attaining a “moderately prosperous society” after meeting the numerical target of $10,000 in GDP per capita and surpassing the $1.90 per day benchmark (or, failing that, simply revising the data to add up the numbers and declare the target reached).
In regards to Hong Kong, the CCP has demonstrated the political acumen to stir up patriotism and exploit nationalistic fervor to boost domestic support. Tsai’s probable victory in the 2020 Taiwan election this weekend can thus also act as a catalyst to boost political cohesion within the mainland. The government will have less to worry about regarding global criticisms over reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, given that most mainland Chinese have shown no concern for religious freedom or the rights of minorities.
The biggest uncertainty that may create unimaginable difficulties for China are the trade tensions and the U.S. presidential campaign, which may propel Washington to act tougher amid greater conflicts with China. The second round of trade negotiations may or may not go smoothly; however, the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani may shift the Trump administration’s focus to the geopolitical chaos in the middle east and alleviate the current tension between the U.S. and China.
With the above said, the biggest challenge for China going into 2020 may be something far more mundane: the African swine flu. That presents a direct, conceivable change to the life quality of ordinary Chinese. As the saying goes, “food is god for the masses” (民以食为天）– and hunger breeds discontent.