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Xi's fiery centenary

Donning a gray Mao suit and gazing out onto Tiananmen Square, Xi Jinping pledged Thursday that the Chinese people "will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress or enslave" them.

Why it matters: On the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, its most powerful leader in generations was unrepentant about authoritarian China's place in the world.

  • It was a day of pageantry and patriotism that featured impeccable rows of waving flags, marching troops and singing children, all in the same square where the Chinese government attacked its own people in 1989.

What he's saying: "Anyone who dares try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people,” Xi declared to a crowd of 70,000.

  • The 68-year-old Xi praised China's rebound from COVID-19, reflected on the "historic transformation" in living standards under the CCP, and reaffirmed the party's "unshakeable commitment" to retaking Taiwan.
  • In one of several thinly veiled digs at the West, Xi said the party welcomes "constructive criticism" but "won’t accept sanctimonious lectures from self-styled preachers."
Members of a People's Liberation Army ceremonial band march in Tiananmen Square. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The nearly two-hour festivities kicked off with a performance of the popular propaganda song, “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China,” and spilled over onto the social media app Weibo, where 49 of the top 50 trending topics were related to the centenary, per the Wall Street Journal.

  • "Heads bashed bloody" was one of them, racking up over 900 million views on Weibo, according to the Washington Post. Oddly enough, the official English version of Xi's remarks released by state media translated the blunt phrase to "collision course."
  • Sarah Cook, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, tells Axios that it was "striking" to see the conflation of the CCP and China "in almost every sentence" of Xi's speech — a theme revealing of the party's tightening grip over the country of 1.4 billion.
  • It also points to the message Xi will bring when he seeks a precedent-breaking third five-year term at the 20th Party Congress next year: Nobody can divide the CCP from the people it governs, and the CCP is not going anywhere. 

The CCP's propaganda apparatus was out in full force for months leading up to today, blanketing the country with "patriotic" imagery and media as it faces record unfavorable views abroad, according to new polling from Pew Research.

  • "A lot of people around the world, per those surveys, don't think the CCP is very 'lovable,'" Cook tells Axios, a reference to Xi's recent request for his "wolf warrior" diplomats to tone down their confrontational rhetoric.
  • "[W]hen you're talking about the messaging and the propaganda, they need to do it because they need to whitewash over a very harsh reality," she adds.

The big picture: President Biden is seeking to rally a global coalition to challenge Beijing over its abuses, including its genocide in Xinjiang, crackdown in Hong Kong, saber-rattling toward Taiwan, and coercive economic practices all over the world.

Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

By the numbers: In 15 of the 17 advanced economies polled by Pew, more than 80% of respondents said China does not respect the personal freedoms of its people.

  • Negative views of China hit historic highs in 10 of those advanced economies in either 2020 or 2021, as fallout spread from Beijing's early cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak.
  • The majority of people in 15 of 16 countries would prefer a closer economic relationship with the U.S., rather than with China. Singapore is the one exception.

Between the lines: China has few friends in the West these days, but it continues to command loyalty and influence in the developing world. It's there, where China views itself as a leader and success story, that the CCP's propaganda is especially valuable.

  • China relies on governments with whom it shares deep economic ties for support at forums like the UN Human Rights Council, where members routinely sign dueling statements condemning or defending Beijing's human rights abuses.
  • A prime example is Pakistan, where Prime Minister Imran Khan has railed against Islamophobia in the West while refusing to condemn China's detention of 1 million Muslim minorities.
  • "Without that electoral democracy, [China] has actually fared much better," Khan told China's state-run media recently. "For me, it is probably more remarkable than any electoral democracy."

Go deeper ...Mapped: Where China wields the most influence

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