As China’s growth model sputters and Xi Jinping prioritizes repression over reform, China looks unlikely to join the ranks of developed countries.
China has a new set of economic goals—and they’re far less ambitious than those of past decades. In October, when the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) met to endorse President Xi Jinping’s agenda for the 14th five-year plan, the communique included a little-noticed second item: a statement that China would “basically achieve socialist modernization” by 2035 in order to finally “reach the level of moderately developed countries.” China’s admirers and detractors alike might be forgiven for thinking that the country was moderately developed already. What this vague new language seems to suggest is Beijing’s admission that its current growth model has run into what old-style communists might call internal contradictions.
Like everything else that comes out of the Central Committee, China’s vision is Xi’s vision. He first floated his goals for 2035 in a party congress speech three years ago and has now enshrined them in doctrine. In Xi’s vision, China’s economy will reach a “new level”—but so will the government’s capacity to monitor and control it. And that marks a crucial change in priorities: Although Xi cares about growth as his predecessors did, he cares about control much, much more. For four decades after opening to the world in 1978, China pursued economic growth at all costs, even if it meant gradually loosening the CCP’s grip on power through decentralization and liberalization. Not anymore.
Economic growth is certainly still a high priority for the CCP, but domestic repression now ranks higher. Xi has thrown more than a million Uighurs into forced labor camps, imposed a draconian security law in Hong Kong, and reactivated dormant party committees in private companies. Despite long-cherished plans to turn Shanghai into a major financial center, Xi quashed the initial public offering for Ant Group after its founder, Jack Ma, criticized regulators. On Dec. 24, Beijing announced it was investigating Alibaba Group, the online retail giant also founded by Ma, and last week ordered him to essentially break up Ant. Advocacy for economic reform, tolerated by previous CCP leaders as necessary for nudging the country in the right direction, is now considered tantamount to treason.