A new chapter: The Chinese Communist Party after the 19th Congress

The 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party confirmed Xi Jinping’s supremacy. The Party has written Xi’s thought into its charter and endorsed his vision of a China that will dominate global relations in 30 years. This goal depends on sustained levels of high growth, and may prove unrealistic in view of persistent structural weaknesses in the economy. Authoritarian leadership, and an unrealistic vision predicated on dubious assumptions, could lead to the implementation of misguided policies.

Xi Jinping ushered in a new era in China at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held in October 2017. The previous two were the Mao era of totalitarianism and the Deng era of ‘opening up and reform’. Xi has closed the chapter on the Deng strategy of ‘hiding capabilities and biding for time’ as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reformed or played catch up. He is opening a new one devoted to making the CCP into an effective Leninist instrument of control. He is not seeking to restore the Maoist era, the cultivation of a personality cult notwithstanding. Mao was a bad Leninist who wreaked havoc in the Party. Xi is moving in the opposite direction. He is making the Party the centrepiece in leading the PRC forward, requiring that party members learn to be good Leninists by rectifying their actions and acquiring strong party discipline. His approach resembles that of Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s deputy from 1945 until purged during the Cultural Revolution in 1967, though Xi will not acknowledge this.

In Xi’s new era, the CCP is confident of its own socialist developmental model. It no longer looks outside for inspiration. China is still open for business but it no longer welcomes foreign ideas. Instead, it openly and emphatically rejects any democratic or Western model. Xi now feels Leninist China should assert itself. He has unveiled the era of putting China first and making China great again, an era in which he will require others to pay due respect to the PRC.

What was most striking at the 19th Congress was Xi’s display of confidence. He was confident of his grip on the Party machinery and China’s future, though he is still not fully confident of the Party’s hold on the people. Hence his emphasis on implementing a social credit system enabling the Party to maintain effective control over the population. By the time the conference was held, Xi had not completely eliminated resistance within the establishment but reached a point where he did not have to make major concessions to accommodate the ‘resistance’ within the establishment.

New top leadership line-up

Xi got the seven-man, Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) he wanted. Its membership is normally a closely guarded secret until the end of the Congress, as who does or does not get elevated can be the subject of last minute deal-making. Not this time. The final list was leaked to at least two non-Mainland based media days before the formal announcement. The fact that no one was punished for this leak confirms that it happened with, to say the least, Xi’s blessing.

The list suggests that despite toying earlier with the idea of promoting his protégé Chen Min’er to the Standing Committee and raising the prospect that Chen may be a successor, Xi preferred to eliminate speculation on the issue. With no potential successor in place, he signals that he will not relinquish power at the 20th Congress in 2022. He has made moot the issue of a successor and reversed the Party’s efforts, since the end of Deng’s time, to institutionalise succession. There is no doubt that this was not universally welcomed within the establishment, but no leader dared to raise his/her head above the parapet and publicly articulate dissent.

While Xi establishes firm control over the PBSC, he has not felt the need to fill it with his protégés only. The inclusion of Wang Yang, who has a strong Youth League background, and Han Zheng from Shanghai hold out the promise of promotion to the inner sanctum even for those who have not previously worked closely with him. But Xi also made it clear that they serve at his pleasure, and Han was promptly relocated to Beijing from his powerbase in Shanghai. Whatever Wang and Han may think in private, they have no choice but to follow closely Xi’s policy line. Having arranged for Premier Li Keqiang to be publicly humiliated by allowing rumours to circulate prior to the Congress that Li was to be removed as Premier, his retention—someone again with a strong Youth League background—as Premier will not change the reality that it is Xi who dominates. 

The other members of the PBSC are Li Zhanshu, Wang Huning, and Zhao Leji, all Xi loyalists. Li is a long-standing Xi follower and was handpicked by Xi to take on the critical role as head of the CCP’s General Office shortly after Xi came to power in 2012. Wang was an academic who rose to become the top ghost writer on ideological matters for Xi, though he was first picked by Jiang Zemin and also served under Hu Jintao. Without an independent powerbase, his loyalty to Xi is his only guarantee for high office. As head of the Party’s Organisation Department in Xi’s first term, Zhao undoubtedly had earned Xi’s confidence. He would not otherwise have been tasked to take over from Wang Qishan as Xi’s main hatchet man, formally heading the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. The distribution of portfolios ensures they are responsible for keeping the Leninist party machinery well-oiled and loyal to Xi.

Xi has changed the power dynamics in the PBSC. Unlike his predecessor Hu Jintao, Xi is not primus inter pares but the paramount leader. By making all six other members the General Secretary’s men, Xi has made it impossible for them to challenge him, unless he should appear fatally wounded following a spectacular policy blunder that he could not pin on someone else.

Xi Jinping ‘thought’

Xi also achieved a landmark success in getting his ‘thought’ written into the Party’s constitution, albeit not in his preferred format. The inclusion of the phrase ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristic in the New Era’ is almost certainly the result of a compromise. This seems the only major success achieved by the resistance. The amendment to the Party Constitution suggests that Xi now enjoys a position below that of Mao Zedong, but above that of Deng Xiaoping. To achieve parity with Mao, Xi needed to have ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ without the long tag written into the constitution. Even though in the fullness of time the general practice will shorten the description to just ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, the use of the full title in formal documents and occasions will remind the rest of the Party and the country that Xi had to make this concession at the Congress.

Nonetheless, with his name enshrined in the constitution while he is still in power, Xi has ensured that anyone who opposes him will henceforth be deemed an enemy of the Party. At the same time, although he has made himself more powerful than Deng, sustaining that power will require him to continue to tighten control over the Party. As paramount leader, Xi is feared rather than loved or admired within the Party, though he enjoys much wider support outside the CCP. This implies he will persist with the party rectification drive, better known as the anti-corruption campaign, which was a key instrument for him to consolidate his position and power in his first term.

The lack of substantive content in ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ is apparent to those who are diligently inquisitive. Xi is an ambitious man who is determined to leave a legacy that is meant to be delivered by a ‘deepening of reform’. But the exact nature of reform Xi has in mind is as yet not clear or fully articulated. It would appear that Wang Huning has his work cut out for him to put flesh on the bone that is called ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the coming decade.

New level of confidence

The confidence Xi demonstrated at the Party Congress reached breath-taking proportions when he outlined his vision for the PRC. He declared that in 30 years’ time, its dramatically enhanced national strength would have transformed it into a modern, advanced and beautiful country. In other words, the world’s leading power, second to none.

This is a grand vision whose fulfilment implicitly requires the PRC to sustain, albeit at a slightly lower rate, the fast growth of the last 30 years. China’s achievement of about 10 per cent annual GDP growth over the last three decades already constitutes an unparalleled achievement in human history. Fulfilment of Xi’s ambitious aspirations will require the PRC to maintain a compound rate of GDP growth of roughly 6 to 7 per cent a year for a further three decades. If it is to succeed, China will have to bypass the Minsky MomentFootnote 2  , resolve the rapidly increasing debt burden, overcome the middle income trap, address the consequences of an emerging demographic deficit (captured in a contracting workforce alongside accelerated population ageing), and accommodate slower global economic growth. Perhaps not an impossible dream but one that is unquestionably exceedingly ambitious.
Xi seems to believe these challenges can be overcome by reinvigorating the Leninist nature and effectiveness of the Party. To Xi, doing so will enable the CCP to exercise leadership and control throughout the country and in all spheres, and face all challenges. For Xi, there is no inherent contradiction between economic globalisation and tightening Party control. His approach seeks to open the door for market forces to play a decisive role, though it also requires market forces to work with the Party in pursuit of this goal.

Xi’s ambition and confidence are awe inspiring. Has he put China on a solid footing to achieve the goals he has set?

To begin to answer this question, it is necessary to recognise that Xi is now so powerful that even his lieutenants no longer dare to offer candid advice for fear of causing Xi to think that he is being contradicted. The astonishing vision of his opening speech at the Congress was unnecessary and its lack of realism might expose him to ridicule in the future. Furthermore, it rang alarm bells in the region and among the other great powers. The fact that top advisers who understand foreign policy, economics, demographics and history did not or could not persuade Xi to moderate his visionary ambitions for the next 30 years is worrying. If Xi’s advisers and his colleagues in the Standing Committee do not dare to contradict him, the risk that Chinese policies will be grounded in inappropriate assumptions or calculations will increase, carrying a danger that misguided policies will be introduced and implemented with the full might of the Party and its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, behind them.

Implications for the wider world

A confident PRC led by the all-powerful Xi Jinping will expect the rest of the world to pay homage to itself and to him. It will insist on the Belt and Road Initiative being the flagship of Chinese foreign policy in reaching out to its strategic hinterland and the wider world. Guided by its Leninist nature, the Chinese government’s craving for soft power will, ironically, reinforce its inclination to resort to hard power.

The Chinese government may have articulated a clear policy not to export the ‘China model’ but it will support others seeking to share the formula of its spectacular authoritarian success. Instead of looking outside the country for inspirations for reforming and strengthening China as happened in the Deng era, the PRC now looks to seize the narrative and articulate confidence in its own approach under Xi. The use of the united front approach means that the language used will highlight a win-win, but its focus is on sequentially eliminating competitors by seeking to appeal to the largest number of undecided spectators at any one time.

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