The 20th CPC Congress was extensively covered in Indian media.1 An analysis of editorials of select English national dailies, chosen on the basis of their readership, brings to fore three themes in the media’s views on the 20th CPC Congress—Xi Jinping’s emergence as the most authoritarian leader of all times; the implication of Xi’s continuing rule on China; and challenges India could face from China’s assertive foreign policy and military modernisation.
Xi Jinping as China’s most dictatorial leader
Xi’s centralisation of power constituted the dominant theme in the newspaper editorials. The Times of India editorial headline termed Xi Jinping as the ‘new emperor’ who rules supreme whereas The Hindu published an editorial titled ‘One man rule: On Xi Jinping’s firm grip on Chinese politics’.2 The Indian Express in its editorial stated that Xi Jinping weaponised the anti-corruption movement to eliminate all the opponents, developed a surveillance state, dismantled collective leadership, concentrated power in his hands and promoted personality cult.3
Similarly, The Hindu argued that Xi engineered a clean sweep and complete domination that is unprecedented in Chinese politics because even Mao Zedong at the height of his power had to contend with rival power centres.4 Two of Xi’s actions were projected as evidence of his authoritarian streak; first was Xi’s negation of the ‘collective leadership’5 principle of the Party by breaking the presidential term limit and forming6 a Politburo and its Standing Committee consisting entirely of his loyalists.7 The second related to the removal of Hu Jintao in public view before the voting on Party resolutions.8 Both the actions demonstrated the prevalence of one-man rule in China and elimination of all intra-party resistance.
Delving deeper into editorial coverage of this aspect, it could be discerned that the Indian media perceives Xi Jinping as an ideologically driven leader. He is bent on reversing the few liberalising policies introduced by his predecessor to entrench CPC’s control with him at the top. In effect, the 20th Party Congress showcased the power wielded by Xi Jinping and the developments at the event were a prelude to more challenging times in India–China bilateral ties.
Implication of Xi’s third term for China
The Indian media painted a grim picture of the implication of Xi’s continuing as president of China. In its editorial, ‘Eyes on Beijing’, The Telegraph opined that in 1980s, the CPC by instituting term limits and collective leadership had created an effective safeguard against personality cults and policy excesses.9 However, Xi Jinping’s breaking down of old party structures will result in creating a succession void and could set the stage for a contest among different power groups within the party in subsequent years. Moreover, China’s economic growth could further suffer as Xi is unlikely to change course on his policies of crackdown on multiple sectors of the Chinese economy and the zero-Covid policy. The editorial concluded that Xi Jinping’s centralisation of power will not make China stronger but could render the world more unsafe.
The Tribune commenting on Xi Jinping’s goal of military modernisation suggested that the Chinese economy could come under more pressure as Beijing will remain focused on military and security issues, despite economic woes.10 The Indian Express contended that Xi’s third term has nothing new to offer except for greater political controls at home and further privileging of state against market.11 It went on to warn that Xi Jinping’s unchecked power will inevitably lead to political hubris and costly policy blunders.
The Indian media’s discussion of China’s domestic issues in the context of Xi’s third term is noteworthy for two reasons. It conveyed to the readers that contrary to the narrative that Xi Jinping’s leadership will deliver national rejuvenation to China, it has landed the country in a ‘mess’ in reality. Secondly, it also tried to underline to its readers the weakening of Chinese political system (apparent in Xi’s unopposed centralisation of power) which in the long-run could render China more unstable and fragmented.
Security challenge for India
Along with rapid military modernisation, Xi’s third term will be marked with more assertive stance on foreign policy issues. This in itself constitutes a major security challenge for New Delhi as India will encounter a more belligerent China. For instance, The Telegraph warned that India and other countries having a territorial dispute with China will need to watch out as Xi Jinping in his third term could feel mandated to take bolder decisions on foreign policy issues.12 Pointing towards the urgent need of achieving jointness of three services under the supervision of Chief of Defence Staff, The Tribune contended that People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s modernisation overdrive makes it incumbent on Indian armed forces to raise their battle preparedness.13
Further, The Times of India and the Hindustan Times urged the government to adopt a comprehensive strategy to tackle the ‘bristling dragon’.14 They urged New Delhi to ‘steel itself’15 and redouble efforts to boost domestic economic strength, remain socially cohesive, upgrade defence preparedness and cement strategic partnership with like-minded countries. In this context, The Indian Express’s response is noteworthy. It published two editorials on the same day titled ‘Delhi will have to work harder, a lot faster to blunt the challenge from Xi’s China to India’s interests’ and ‘Indigenising defence production is a good idea whose time has come’.16 Although both differed in content, they demonstrated editorial emphasis on strengthening India’s military power vis-à-vis China while upgrading India’s defence manufacturing sector as a long-term strategy against China. While the sense of suspicion and threat perception is in tandem with Indian media’s previous approach towards China, a notable point was that it did not foresee betterment of relations or possibility of close economic cooperation in the near future.
The Indian national media exhibited a very negative assessment of the 20th CPC Congress and more importantly of Xi Jinping’s third term. Some of the prominent causes of this negative evaluation could be China’s refusal to restore the pre-June 2020 status quo along the disputed border, its hostility towards India’s deepening ties with the US, Beijing’s repeated blocking of India’s effort to blacklist Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups and individuals and increasing aggressive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region.
Considering the national media’s editorial coverage of the 20th CPC Congress, three policy suggestions emerge. First, in order to understand the future foreign policy trajectory of the Chinese state, it is necessary that India closely follows China’s domestic developments. This is because Beijing often engineers tension outside to divert public attention from domestic issues. Second, India should also keep up the momentum of modernising military infrastructure along the disputed border to be able to counter Chinese pressure and expansionism. Finally, besides developing strategic ties with major powers, New Delhi should also work to modernise its domestic defence industry. This will not only help New Delhi to gradually reduce dependence on arms export but will also greatly amplify the military’s capability to manage security challenges from China.
This article was originally published at www.idsa.in. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.