The pageantry permeating Beijing this week showed that China’s expansive vision for a new global economic order had another goal: Boosting President Xi Jinping’s grip on power at home.
From fawning state-media campaigns to the words of the man himself, the so-called Belt and Road Forum repeatedly stressed Xi’s centrality to infrastructure-and-trade initiative that brought about 30 world leaders to Beijing, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Communist Party chief claimed personal credit for the “project of the century”, unusual in a political system that stresses collective leadership.
“This is the initiative I proposed in 2013,” Xi said at a round-table discussion on Monday featuring the leaders of the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. “This initiative stemmed from my observations and thoughts about the world’s situation.”
Greater prestige may help Xi put supportive officials in place during a twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle that will determine his ability to enact a politically fraught economic overhaul. Xi has already become China’s most powerful leader since at least Deng Xiaoping in the 1990s, and the next few years will shape his legacy for decades to come.
“In a year of power transition, if you can score a domestic policy or diplomatic victory, it is a political bonus,” said Zhang Jian, an associate political science professor at Peking University. “The Belt and Road Initiative is a large-scale project that links the domestic economy with diplomacy—it’s his most important and legacy-defining policy.”
Since Xi first outlined plans in 2013 to recreate ancient Silk Road trading routes between Asia and Europe, the program has repeatedly changed names and been elevated to a top national strategy spanning the globe.
On Sunday Xi pledged 540 billion yuan ($78 billion) in financing and encouraged banks to contribute another 300 billion yuan in overseas capital to support his project.
Meanwhile, breathless state-run coverage portrayed the Belt and Road Initiative as having near limitless potential to remake the world, with China—and Xi—at its center.
State television showed Xi and his celebrity wife, Peng Liyuan, receiving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other heads of state, while top diplomats, such as UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, paraded on stage to praise the president’s program.
“Thanks to him, more and more people are interested in today’s China,” a video about the forum by the party’s People’s Daily newspaper said of Xi. “Under his leadership, China’s circle of friends is growing bigger and bigger.”
Beijing’s notorious pollution even dissipated as China’s state machinery snapped into action to make Xi look good. The brilliant blue skies, which authorities often engineer for high-profile events by shuttering factories and taking cars off roads, provided a symbolic backdrop for a leader seeking to show he’s in control. The pomp left little room for serious talk about overcoming the challenges facing such a sweeping initiative. One participant in the policy discussion sessions who asked not to be identified said the events offered little more than prepared remarks praising Xi, wasting an opportunity for substantial debate on how to collaborate and best spend China’s money.
Even before the event got under way, some diplomats in Beijing were complaining the Chinese hadn’t allowed sufficient time for input while preparing the event’s final communiqué, according to people familiar with the process. The draft combined commitments to open international markets with endorsements of China’s diplomatic goals, the people said.
The final communiqué released late on Monday emphasized dialogue, consultation and cooperation between participant nations. Signatories to the almost 2,200-word document pledged “to oppose all forms of protectionism, including in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative” while “promoting a universal, rules-based, open, nondiscriminatory and equitable multilateral trading system”.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released a list of 270 results, including two-way agreements with countries ranging from Switzerland to Afghanistan.
“The BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] is considered Xi’s most important initiative and it reflects several distinct characteristics of his leadership, including his ambition and confidence,” said Paul Haenle, a former China director on the US National Security Council who now heads the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing.
Haenle called the forum “one among a series of important opportunities this year for Xi to showcase his leadership credentials in the run up to the all-important Chinese Communist Party leadership transition”.