China’s Nineteenth Party Congress: What it is and What is at Stake

The highest-ranking Chinese Communist Party members gathered in Beijing on October 18th for the twice-a-decade National Party Congress. The Party Congress lasted for a week and ended on the 24th, with party delegates appointing the general secretary and new members to political bodies including the Party Central Committee, Central Military Commission, Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Politburo, and Politburo Standing Committee. Furthermore, the Party Congress set out new goals for the country and amended the party constitution. Xi Jingping’s rise to enormous power to an extent that is unprecedented since the death of China’s reform architect Deng Xiaoping caused the 19th Congress especially significant and conspicuous. While criticism mounts regarding Xi’s tightening grip on power and blurring of division between the Party and government, the Congress might give us a hint on whether Xi will further consolidate power as he promotes his loyalists to top decision-making organs and whether he will unravel Deng’s legacy. His address to the 19th Party Congress also determined China’s policy direction for the next five years.

In his three-and-a-half hour opening address to the party delegates, Xi announced that China has moved into a “new era.”  The nation has become stronger and richer, Xi said, and China now stood “tall and firm in the East.” By stating that China has attained great power status, Xi asserted that “it’s time for China to take center stage in the world.” The speech signaled that China would continue to import its global infrastructure spending in light of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Though calling for development of a modernized, world-class military, Xi claimed that China would never seek global hegemony, nor would it contest the United States over North Korean issues. Xi’s language, however, clearly demonstrated that China will continue to be assertive, as it has been since the rise of Xi, in the future—a total abandonment of Deng Xiaoping’s Taoguang Yanghui strategy (keep a low profile and bide your time). Of course we would not be expecting a direct confrontation between the US and China, given their high level of interdependence in terms of economic activities. What we might expect is that China will continue to be assertive over its neighboring countries.

However, Xi reminded the party delegates that, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is no walk in the park or mere drumbeating and gong-clanging. The whole party must be prepared to make ever more difficult and harder efforts.” He emphasized the role of the antigraft campaign and attributed the stability of the country, which relies on the survival of the Party, to the fight against corruption. The anti-corruption campaign has been an important element of Xi’s policy since his rise to power in 2012. Though critics have alleged that the campaign aims to purge political rivals, it has been successful in removing corrupt officials and gained enormous support in China. Xi urged the party “to not only safeguard China’s sovereignty but also to assert itself in every possible aspect of Chinese people’s lives in an ideological crusade to crush any attempts to undermine the party leadership or copy Western-style democracy.” The statement reflects Xi’s strong antipuralist view. Such implies that we will expect further censorship over the next five years—a continuation of tightening media controls imposed during Xi’s first term. Much the same will happen to China’s netizens as the VPN crackdown earlier this year prevented people from bypassing the Great Fire Wall, a combination of technologies that Chinese government utilizes to block access to selected overseas websites. We should also expect that Xi’s notion of “cyber sovereignty” would be further strengthened.

Without directly referencing independent movements in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Xi also warned against support for separatism. Independence movements have been present in Tibet and Xinjiang for years. Hong Kong’s independent sentiments loomed with the Occupy Movement back in 2014, and Taiwan’s newly elected pro-independence president has upset the Chinese central authorities. Xi again mentioned the central government’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong and Macau, despite the cities’ high degree of autonomy granted by the “one country, two systems” principle.

With regard to the economic and financial sector, Xi’s opening speech to the Party Congress generated worries. According to Bloomberg, “the speech signaled that Xi would prioritize extending the influence of the Communist Party in China over the next five years, raising questions over his commitment to implementing tough reforms and expanding the role of the market.” Not too long after Xi gave his speech, the governor of China’s central bank Zhou Xiaochuan, who is expected to retire soon, warned of a “Minsky moment” looming in China; a moment of sudden collapse of asset prices in light of a long period of growth, and Zhou concerned that excessive debt in China might spark such a “moment.”

On the final day of the Party Congress, party delegates voted unanimously to enshrine Xi’s political philosophy “Xi Jinping Though on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era,” in the party constitution. In the history of China under CCP rule, only two men have their names enshrined in the party constitution—Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping (Deng had no intention to have his name written in the constitution, and the honor was made after his death). The Congress saw Xi elevating himself to the same status as Mao and Deng, making him the most powerful and authoritative Chinese leader in decades. In addition to his philosophy, according to Xinhua news (in Chinese), the inclusion also added Xi’s signature initiatives, including “One Belt One Road,” into the Constitution. With Xi’s beliefs and initiatives written in the party constitution, his policies will face no challenge as defying policies proposed by Xi would now signify disobedience of the Party, an act party members should avoid making.

As previously mentioned, the Party Congress announced and appointed senior leaders to political organs. The most important one is the Politburo Standing Committee, which consists of China’s top leaders and is the most senior decision-making body in the Chinese apparatus. Five out of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee were expected to step down due to the unwritten retirement age rule regarding officials (this informal retirement age is 68). There had been speculation that Wang Qishan, a Politburo Standing Committee member, might not retire, and instead he would hold his position for another term. Wang has been heading the anti-corruption campaign since Xi’s rise to power, and his decision to come out of retirement may increase the likelihood that Xi pursues a third term despite reaching the age of 68 before the 2022 Party Congress. When Xi revealed his new team before the party delegates, however, Wang was not there, and therefore Wang’s retirement seems to be confirmed.

However, the new line-up of the Politburo Standing Committee remains to raise questions over whether Xi will seek for another term in 2022. The Standing Committee’s new line-up composed of the following: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, Han Zheng (see their profiles). Except Xi and Li Keqiang, who is the premier of China, the other five entered the Standing Committee for the first time. According to the norms, the Chinese leader should elevate his successor to the Standing Committee. There was speculation that Xi might promote Chen Miner and Hu Chunhua, two rising political stars, to the Standing Committee—they are young enough to become successors. Nevertheless, the new members of the Standing Committee seem too old to be considered successors to Xi—none of them is young enough to rule for 10 years after 2022.

Xi’s speech to the Party Congress reveals that he desires not only a China that is more assertive internationally but also a party that is more authoritative over the Chinese population. It is important to understand that Xi did open a new era for China to a certain degree. Mao unified China, Deng ended hunger, and now Xi is demanding a stronger and more powerful country. On the other hand, however, under Xi’s demand, the party will be tightening its control over the Chinese society through various means. Despite evidence have been suggesting that Xi might rule after 2022, his intention remains unclear. Some suggest that Xi intended to break away from the traditional way of power transition and reform the designated successor system, but there is no firm evidence to confirm anything yet. This will continue to be an important question for the next five years, and we have to wait and see how things develop. I believe that whether or not Xi intends to seek his third term, his “Xi’s thoughts” will remain influential, given that they are now part of the party constitution, and his legacy will last for years.

The Globe Staff

Author: The Globe Staff