In this special Policy Forum Rapid Round-up, experts Yvonne Chiu, Jie Chen, Jinghan Zeng, and Stephen Nagy help sort the politics from the propaganda of China’s 19th Party Congress.
Every five years, the most senior members of the Chinese Communist Party gather to make important decisions on leadership succession and the direction of the country. The 19th Party Congress has just concluded in Beijing, leaving spectators with some new Communist Party buzzwords and much speculation about the future of Xi Jinping’s leadership. We asked four China experts what they see as the key takeaways from this historic event.
“As expected, the 19th Party Congress has reconfirmed President Xi Jinping’s all sweeping powers, with ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era’ enshrined in the party constitution. What’s still the subject of speculation is whether the new lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee (the Communist Party’s top rung) may include someone likely to become Xi’s successor, or whether Xi may seek to stay on beyond his second term.
“My take is that considering Xi’s massive effort to reshuffle positions in the party, government and military over the past two years, his grand ideology and long-term vision for the party-state, and widespread personality cult, it may be more meaningful to ascertain how Xi would continue to be the ‘core leader’ beyond his second term. His track record has already proven that he is not someone who easily adheres to the so-called collective wisdom or standard norms. Xi seems determined to become a truly historic figure like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who are remembered as milestone shapers of national history, rather than a technocratic – even though innovative – implementer of the ideas of political giants.
“In what circumstances, and in what formal titles, may we still see Xi as the ‘core leader’ in five years? He may manoeuvre along the pathway of Vladimir Putin, or simply groom protégés (he still has time) so he may call the shots behind the scenes beyond the second term. He may even reformulate the whole apparatus of the party-state by lifting a page from Mao’s era, when the top positions of the party and state were occupied by different leaders (Mao was the chairman of the party, Liu Shaoqi the state president). There is nothing in either the party or state constitution which prohibits this from happening. Or Xi can try a mixture of all those formulas.
“Can Xi consolidate his acquired power, let alone sustain his position beyond the second term? This is another story. Much depends on whether he can effectively deliver what he has promised so grandiosely. Can his regime, which is politically repressive, economically centralising and socially suffocating, a mixture of Mao’s ideological indoctrination and Deng’s modernisation approach, help solve the nation’s mounting challenges? If not, his opponents, namely those officials in the party, government and military who were victimised and sidelined by his power grabbing in the name of anti-corruption, will certainly regroup. The draconian security measures reinforced for the Party Congress don’t seem to suggest that Xi is as confident as he seems.”
“Some curious breaks with tradition notwithstanding (there is no hint of who Xi Jinping’s future successor might be via the Standing Committee appointments), the 19th Party Congress is notable for its aggressive pursuit of the status quo.
“Despite the need for significant economic and legal structural reform, there is no indication that any will be forthcoming. Instead, the party will continue to focus on rooting out corruption by emphasising the importance of personal and national virtues – which alone are insufficient – and ignoring the strong incentives for corruption generated by the party and the country’s political and economic structure. This simply postpones the painful reckoning with its economic and political system that China will eventually have to face.
“One reason for such procrastination is that genuine reform would threaten both the party and Xi Jinping’s concentration of his own power. Ongoing military reforms and developments and Xi’s speeches during the Congress indicate that the rise of a ‘great Chinese nation’ might entail reclamation of a ‘Greater China’, but the planned turnover in military leadership shows that Xi is simultaneously using this reform effort to consolidate power over what has historically been a potential alternative domestic power base.
“Writing “Xi Jinping thought” into the party constitution is in line with communist China’s historical tendency to turn to the ideological and the cult of personality when things are tenuous. It simultaneously demonstrates both the increasing consolidation of Xi’s command and the precarious circumstances in which he governs.”
“The ideological confidence indicated by Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th Party Congress is most impressive.
“First, Xi put forward a new term ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era’ to summarise the party’s guiding philosophy from ‘Mao Zedong Thought’, ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’, Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three Represents’, and Hu Jintao’s ‘Scientific Outlook on Development’. This is an important theoretical conclusion of the party’s ideological banner in the past few decades.
“Second, Xi insists on pushing for political system reform and the development of China’s socialist democracy – however, it is also very clear that China will not copy the foreign political model of Western liberal democracy. Although this point will be emphasised by every Party Congress, this is perhaps the most confident one.
“China largely perceives Trump’s presidency and his policies, as well as Brexit in the United Kingdom, as examples of democratic failures. The party’s propaganda has constantly warned its people that Western liberal democracy will bring chaos and instability to China. Xi Jinping’s speech clearly indicates that he wants to strengthen the one-party system, and will crackdown any attempt to undermine the communist rule.”
“The 19th Party Congress has ensconced both President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party as the core pillars to achieve the ‘Chinese Dream’ of reclaiming national pride, garnering international respect and developing personal well-being.
“The movement towards achieving this dream is embodied by China shifting away from Deng Xiaoping’s approach to China’s development, which followed his famous maxim: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership”. Instead, China is now seeking a more influential role in world affairs. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative are examples of this leadership.
“These audacious ambitions contrast with the reemphasis on the unnegotiable positions on what China deems its core interests: 1) state sovereignty; 2) national security; 3) territorial integrity; 4) national reunification; 5) China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability; 6) basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.
“This reemphasis is recognition that growing socio-economic inequality, environmental problems, corruption, separatist movements, strained regional relations and an intensification of the geopolitical rivalry with the US are urgent and long-term issues that if not dealt with unequivocal commitment by Xi and the party will end the dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people and nation.”