China: Time of Transition

China's New Boss Xi Hits Nationalist Note With Talk of 'Revival'

Xi Jinping
Lintao Zhang

In his first three weeks as China's Communist Party boss, Xi Jinping has shown himself to be more confident, direct and relaxed than his predecessor - but also quick to invoke nationalistic themes to win public support and legitimacy.

He has at least twice spoken publicly, and in heroic terms, about national "rejuvenation" and the "revival of the Chinese nation". The phrase has been uttered by all of Xi's predecessors as party boss, but his frequent usage so early in his tenure is intended to "create cohesion" through nationalism, said Li Weidong, a political commentator and former magazine editor.

Political observers say the language Xi has used is mainly intended for domestic political consumption, but it has come at an awkward time for China internationally: tensions with its neighbors in the South and East China Seas have increased since Xi became general secretary of the Communist Party last month.

On Thursday, China told Vietnam to stop unilateral oil exploration in contested areas of the South China Sea and not harass Chinese fishing boats, the latest rhetorical shot at one of its neighbors as a result of the territorial disputes.

The ratcheting up of tensions derive in part from two recent changes in Chinese policy related to the region: the issuance of new passports that display a disputed map of the South China Sea, and new provincial regulations which appear to give maritime authorities broad discretion to board or detain foreign vessels operating in what China claims are its own waters.

Both of those policies predate Xi's ascension to party secretary, but they have emerged at the same time that his rhetoric about national "rejuvenation" is raising eyebrows - if not yet outright alarm - among China's neighbors.

"It hasn't gone unnoticed, and the timing hasn't necessarily been ideal," said a senior Western diplomat in China, speaking of Xi's recent rhetoric.

Xi mentioned "rejuvenation" in his first remarks after becoming party chief on Nov. 15, and then again in a scripted appearance last week with the rest of the new seven-man Politburo Standing Committee on a visit to an exhibit entitled "The Road Toward Renewal" at the National Museum of China.

(Read More: CNBC's Full Coverage of China's Leadership Transition)

The exhibit paints the past 170 years of Chinese history as a linear - but still incomplete - struggle from foreign domination to independence and economic prowess, a theme the party has trumpeted since it came to power more than 60 years ago.

Diplomats and some analysts acknowledged that even if Xi's recent rhetoric is aimed at a domestic audience, there is always potential risk in using nationalism as a political strategy - "particularly now, at this point in China's history, when it's more confident, and some of its neighbors are wary", the Western diplomat said.

Analysts in Beijing believe Xi's domestic political strategy is clear enough. "He's using (these words) to move away from ideology," added Chen Ziming, an independent scholar of politics in Beijing. "He knows that Communist slogans don't really have much status anymore among Chinese people, so he thinks playing the 'national rejuvenation' card is a better way to go."

New Policies

At the same time, analysts in China said, Beijing's neighbors should separate the policies that have agitated them - the passports containing the disputed map, and the new maritime rules issued by Hainan province - from Xi.

Neither controversy, they stressed, is of his making. The Hainan rules were not handed down from Beijing and they were a year in the writing, said Hong Nong, deputy head of maritime law and policy research at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. And the new passports began to be issued by the Ministry of Public Security before the mid-November leadership transition.

"I don't think these two things can be combined and regarded as a new posture of the Chinese government," said Zhu Feng, at Peking University's Center for International and Strategic Studies.

Even if Xi were inclined to a tougher stance in the region, it is probably too early for him to tweak a major policy, particularly one as sensitive as the South China Sea.

President Hu Jintao, Xi's predecessor as party chief, remains as head of government until he also steps down from that role in March. And in the meantime, Hu's people are still influencing foreign policy, said Taylor Fravel, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Xi himself seemed to try to reassure a world nervous about China's growing military clout and diplomatic assertiveness when he met foreign scientists and academics in Beijing on Dec. 5.

"China does not pursue its narrow interests at the expense of others in seeking our development," he said. "If China wins, it does not mean others have to lose."

Despite his recent rhetoric, said Chen, the independent scholar, it is premature at best to conclude that Xi will be a more assertive nationalist. "Even though this (rhetorical) shift is a sign of change, the direction of change remains unclear."