One of my more serious posts this, and it doesn’t come much more serious than the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party held last week in Beijing.
The Chinese capital is a fair old distance from the UK – 4,978 miles from TAB HQ in Harrogate if Google is to be believed – so should we really worry about what’s happening there? Wouldn’t we be better off just concentrating on our businesses?
Napoleon famously said, “Let China sleep. When she wakes, the world will tremble.” Well, China most certainly is awake now, and last week President Xi Jinping was confirmed in power for another five years. While Europe was struggling to agree on when talks about talks about Brexit might begin, Xi was calmly laying out plans for China to dominate the world economy. No surprise that Forbes is now suggesting China will overtake America to become the biggest economy in the world as early as next year
But let’s step back a moment. Who is Xi Jinping? He may not have a perma-tan or a tower named after him, but it is arguable that China’s Xi Jinping is the real holder of the ‘most powerful man in the world’ title.
Five years into a theoretical ten year term Xi is the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Born on June 15th 1953 he is married to Peng Liyuan and has one daughter, who was educated at Harvard. His wife was formerly a very popular singer on Chinese TV and among her hits are those classic rock anthems, People from our Village, My Motherland and In the Field of Hope.
Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a hero of the Communist revolution and, as such, Xi enjoyed a privileged upbringing as a ‘red princeling.’ All that changed with Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution: his father was imprisoned, the family humiliated and one of his sisters committed suicide. At the age of 15 Xi was sent to the countryside to be re-educated. The story is that Xi lived in a cave in the mountains – but he survived and at the age of 22 he returned from the countryside, “full of confidence and with my life goals firm.”
With his father released from prison and rehabilitated, Xi joined the Communist Party and began a steady, if unspectacular, rise through the ranks. By his 50s he was a senior party leader, but someone still with a reputation for dull competency. When he became Communist party leader in 2012 he was very much a compromise choice – but since then he has ruthlessly consolidated his power. He is now unquestionably China’s strongest leader since Chairman Mao.
So while Theresa May was begging for help (according to Jean-Claude Juncker) and Jean-Claude Juncker was heading for the bar (according to David Davis) Xi Jinping – untroubled by petty irritations like democracy – was telling the delegates what was going to happen and sending them back to work. Specifically, he was telling them about ‘One Belt, One Road.’
China has a domestic population approaching 1.4bn – nearly one-fifth of the world population of 7.5bn (do not click the link: it is terrifying). But ‘One Belt, One Road’ – a huge infrastructure project – is intended to massively extend its economic reach, market and influence.
First mooted by Xi Jinping around 2013, the initiative will see China’s push into global economic affairs extending through a land based Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road, with the focus being on infrastructure investment, construction, railways and highways, automobiles, power and iron and steel.
The land based Belt runs across Asia and through Europe. The Maritime Road (yes, you would have thought that the ‘road’ would be on land…) reaches South East Asia, Oceania and North Africa. More than 65 countries, 4.4bn people (63% of the world’s population) and 29% of the world’s current GDP are in its path.
Sitting here in the West it is easy to see the Belt and Road initiative as simply a naked power grab. I think I’ll keep the blog out of geo-politics, but what’s undeniable is that it will give China access to vast natural resources and a huge pool of labour. And whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of the situation, that is not a labour market wrapped in red tape about a national living wage or health and safety.
In the medium to long term that has to impact on manufacturing industry in the West – and as advances continue to be made in robotics and AI, it may end up impacting a lot more than manufacturing. China is awake, she is flexing her muscles and we may all have cause to tremble in the future.
Meanwhile let us finish with a word of sympathy for the delegates back at the Congress Hall – who may well have been glad to escape at the end. Xi Jinping spoke for 3 hours and 23 minutes to an audience that was by no means in the first flush of youth. What’s the Chinese for ‘comfort break?’ A four-hour TAB meeting needs at least one interval. But given that popping out in the leader’s speech was almost certainly a treasonable offence, you have to wonder how they coped…