In anticipation of the 2017 Party Congress, the China Research Partnership held its first Interview Series and asked experts from partner institutions a series of questions on the Congress itself and on its importance for Canada.
Upon completion of the 19th Party Congress, we asked our China experts to weigh in with their thoughts on the outcomes of the historic assembly.
Discussion hosts: Iris Jin, senior program manager, trade, investment, innovation, and Canada-China relations, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, and Charles Labrecque, project specialist, China Research Partnership, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada
Overall, the fact that Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party managed to take a whole week (and the prior months of preparation) to unfold a massive and positive action plan leading up to 2049 and to reorganize the leadership team without a glitch (and without a North Korean missile test) is quite remarkable. Today, there is no other major country that has the ability to project a long-term vision and deliberate long-term strategy, mid-term action plans and short-term policies in such a coordinated way as China. Whether achievable or not and taking into account the known pitfalls of the Chinese system, the projection of strategy stood out against the current period of uncertainty, fragmentation, and volatility in both the international system and the domestic politics in all systematically-important countries (except Canada).
Politically, what stands out, of course, is the clean sweep of elite appointments that broadly consolidate Xi Jinping’s authority. While he retained two key members of the rival Youth League (tuanpai), Li Keqiang as Prime Minister and Wang Yang, Xi managed to move into the seven-strong Standing Committee three close allies: Li Zhanshu (Shaanxi connection), Wang Hunin (former Dean at Fudan, Xi’s close political adviser, Director of CPC Research Office), and Zhao Leji (Shaanxi connection, Director of CPC Organization department). The seventh member, Han Zheng, former Shanghai Party Chief, worked briefly with Xi in Shanghai and has a working relationship with him, but is less of a direct protégé. This gives a solid governing majority to Xi Jinping. Additionally, Xi moved many of his other closest protégés into the Politburo, positioning them for the next round of promotions (Liu He, Chen Xi, Chen Min’er, Li Xi, Cai Qi, Li Qiang). Li Qiang, one of Xi’s closest associates from Zhejiang, has been appointed the new Party Secretary of Shanghai. Li Xi, a close associate from Shaanxi, was appointed Party Secretary of Guangdong. And of course, Chen Min’er (Zhejiang associate) took the top job in Chongqing before the 19th Party Congress. Hu Chunhua, once a rising star (from the tuanpai) and the former Guangdong Party Secretary, did not make it to the Standing Committee and is now less likely to be a successor to Xi.
Also critical is the clean sweep at the Central Military Commission and the integration of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ into the CCP Party Charter.
However, comparing Xi to Mao goes too far. First, Xi is far from having the personal cult status that Mao ever had (and that anyone ever likely will have in China unless another dynastic change happens). Only Mao could rouse young people to do terrible things or incite others to die. Compared to Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping never held the titles of President of the PRC, Party Secretary General of the CCP, or Chairman of the many Committees created by Xi. Deng only held the Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission and preferred to govern indirectly. He only got the ‘Deng Theory’ into the Party Charter. Yet his career spanned seven phenomenal decades, from the early 1920s (in Paris with Zhou Enlai), through the 1930s in Jiangxi, the anti-Japanese war, the Civil War (as the fearless Party Commissar of the 2d Field Army), the creation of the economic institutions of the PRC along with Zhou and Liu Shaoqi in the 1950s, and the shaping of China’s reforms from the mid-1970s well into the mid-1990s. Deng inspired complete respect and loyalty without any effort from the military or the entire government, and he shaped China’s entry into modernity. Deng simply exuded power and authority, owing to the sheer immensity of his legacy. Xi can never rival that impact on China’s history, whatever his current concentration of power and vision.
Additionally, there are clear signs that Xi had to make compromises in the lead-up to this 19th Party Congress. First, he had to comply to Party norms on retirement age and let Wang Qishan (aged 69), his closest ally in the Anti-Corruption Campaign, retire (even from the Central Committee). He had to retain two key seats for the tuanpai on the Standing Committee and retain the presence of the Shanghai faction (Han Zheng), as first argued by Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution. Third, Xi got his name into the Party Charter, but only at the cost of a clunky compromise over the name: “Xi Jinping's Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” as noted by Steven Tsang in his Washington Post article as a rehash of Deng Xiaoping’s core phrase. Fourth, Xi could not promote Chen Min’er to the Standing Committee, as was rumoured. He also did not reduce the size of the Standing Committee.
Also noticeable is the lack of promotion of any member from the generation of leaders born in the 1960s to the Standing Committee, and thus the non-commitment of the Party on the future leadership in five years. No successor has appeared, as was the case respectively 10 years ago and 20 years ago. This does maximize Xi Jinping’s short-term authority. But it does not prevent the CCP from later holding an interim Party Congress to promote someone into the Standing Committee, say, in three years. It also does not mean yet that Xi has won the case with the Party to stay in power in five years. While we cannot predict what will happen, it is plausible to assume that a compromise will be reached. In 2022, Xi may be able to retain some positions (such as Chairman of the Military Commission, the position which controls the military) but may well have to relinquish some other titles, thus starting a process of power transition, during which Xi will be very influential but not omnipotent.
What does this all mean for Chinese governance and China’s impact on the world? First, clearly, China emerges out of this Congress unified around its leadership and around a set of priorities. In the short-term, it strengthens the voice of the leadership and Xi in particular. Second, Xi has indicated a commitment to further economic liberalization and openness to foreign investors. It is well known that economic reforms partly stalled after the Third Plenum of 2013 due to internal opposition from vested interests and state-owned enterprises. It is now plausible that Xi will use his consolidated power to push harder on the critical economic and institutional reforms that are needed for China to avoid stumbling into the vaunted middle trap (the propensity of middle-income economies to get stuck in the stage of $7000 to $10,000 GDP per capita, instead of moving on to the developed stage). It was noted that Xi did not commit any more to a particular growth target in his 3.5-hour-long speech. Evaluation criteria for officials are also being transformed, and will not focus as much on hitting growth target any more. This gives more space for economic reforms.
Third, Xi has made very clear and powerful commitments on climate change and environmental policies. Expect to see a fast push in that direction. Fourth, Xi also placed a strong bet on the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution (Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Robots, green technologies, and hyper connectivity through the so-called Internet Plus). This commitment may induce tensions between the twin commitments to open technology and to foster strong indigenous innovation (smacking of industrial policy) at the same time. However, China is clearly galloping ahead on the ground and digital platforms like Alibaba and WeChat have probably contributed the most to the transformation of Chinese society and its growing satisfaction domestically.
Fifth, Xi has also expanded China’s commitment to playing an active role in global governance, doubling down on the One Belt One Road initiative (also elevated into the Party Constitution), global trade entrepreneurship, and global institutional reforms. This stands in sharp contrast to the U.S.’s recent withdrawal from global governance and ensures a steady flow of Chinese governance initiatives on the global sphere.
On the military and security side, Xi committed on the one hand to never seeking domination, yet also doubled down on assertiveness in the South China Sea and zones of competition. One may assume that the latter part indicates both a continued commitment to the military, as a core constituency which he has been forcefully restructuring and reforming and a true belief in asserting China’s position on the global security chessboard. The news for Taiwan and Hong Kong was similarly tough and assertive.
Finally, the bet made by Xi Jinping and the CCP is that addressing proactively and competently the full agenda of urgent economic, environmental, and social problems facing China today will earn legitimacy and the goodwill of the Chinese people, allowing the CCP to delay further any talk of political reform (absent in the speech). It is true that engaging in a complex and risky political transition, while handling a complete restructuring of the economy and society is known to be a delicate endeavor, and many countries typically stumble on that complex pathway, with dramatic consequences. Given the size of China, the whole world has a stake in China finding a smooth and gradual pathway toward political and civil liberties. Yet, in essence, Xi and his leadership team are asking the public to trust that they will improve matters across the board and take China to a safer spot, where, maybe, political reform can be discussed again.
It remains to be seen how long China's society will accept this bargain, when its youth is increasingly interconnected and traveling the world. Most delicate is the fact that the enormously ambitious reform agenda presented at the 19th Party Congress increasingly relies on the competence, stamina, and judgement of one man: Xi Jinping. This philosopher-king model has served China well at key historical periods in the past (Emperor Kangxi comes to mind), but the exit ramp is always fraught with very high risks. Maybe, the very awareness of these risks convinced Xi or his CCP colleagues to retain, at least in broad form, the of norms and rules introduced by Deng Xiaoping (on mandatory leadership retirement, limitations of mandates, and collective leadership) – at least, so far.
The 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has, as many speculated, officially enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought” in the Party's Constitution, which elevated Xi to a more prestigious position as the leader of the Party and the nation than either of his two immediate predecessors.
Xi also broke from tradition by choosing not to name his successor. Two previously rumoured top candidates for leader-in-waiting, namely Hu Chunhua and Chen Min’er, did not secure a seat on the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo. Their chances, however, have not vanished entirely as President Xi could still opt to retire from his presidency in 2023. Retirement or not, Xi could retain considerable influence over the future course of China well beyond the next half-decade. Many of his allies are now placed in key positions (such as the new party secretaries of Shanghai, Beijing, and Chongqing), and his governing principles adopted by the CCP will set development goals for China through Year 2049.
In the near term, at least for the next five years, we are likely to see President Xi press ahead with his vision of a “prosperous society” that embraces a more balanced and environmentally conscious growth model. The previously promised yet stalled economic reform may get a fresh new start. The massive anti-corruption campaign that won Xi popularity among the public will likely continue under a new Party disciplinary head. Party control over the government, economy, and society is expected to further strengthen to a level that the country has not witnessed in years, but with limited prospects for substantive political reform. China is also poised to play a leadership role in international affairs – more assertive of its own rights and exerting greater influence in shaping global and regional trade, security, and environmental frameworks.