by Tyler Jiang
Convening every five years, the National Congress of the Communist Party of China is vital in appointing and approving leadership positions and policy changes within the Chinese government. This year’s 19th National Congress (十九大, or Shijiu-Da in Mandarin) began on October 18, 2017 and involved 2,287 delegates from across the country. Attendees included government officials and military officers. The Congress also featured 771 grassroots Party members who represent the common worker, such as farmers and teachers.This is a 3.2 percent increase in grassroots party members from the last Congress in 2012, and they account for 33.7 percent of the total delegates. As a result, the 19th Congress is one of the largest political meetings in China.
This twice-a-decade Congress has a major impact on Chinese politics and polices. The outcome of this Congress will be important to global policy makers as China continues to increase its engagement with the international community. Analyzing the outcomes of the Congress will indicate what China’s allies, rivals, and neutrals can expect from China’s leadership in the next five years, as well as what potential conflicts and opportunities may arise.
LEADERSHIP CHANGE AT THE CONGRESS
This year’s Congress signals what direction the country will take until the next Congress in 2022. Because Party delegates elect new members of the Central Committee, the Congress will have a significant effect on Party Leadership.
The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China is the political entity that is composed of China’s elite leaders and politicians. The Committee is made up of 205 members and 171 alternate members. Serving as a discussion forum for policy issues, the Committee also elects the General-Secretary, the members of the Politburo and its standing committee, as well as the leadership for the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Aside from its power in electing the leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the government, the Committee will also “fine-tune” policy and release it to the public as resolutions or decisions.
The Congress therefore is really a leadership selection event. At the end of this Congress, many of the bodies that control the Chinese government will undergo significant membership change, in particular the 25-member Politburo, the 7-member Politburo Standing Committee, and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Though the General-Secretary is also selected in the process, there is little doubt that current General-Secretary and President Xi Jinping will be reelected to serve a second term.
The Standing Committee is the primary ruling organ of China. Beginning in 2002, members of the Standing Committee who have reached the age of 68 have been required to relinquish their position in the Committee. No members of the Committee have broken this convention and all who have reached the age of 68 have retired. Besides Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, five of the seven members are over the age of 68 and are expected to retire, leaving a large number of seats vacant in the Standing Committee. Along with these five members, the head of China’s anti-corruption arm, Wang Qishan, is also likely to step down now that he is 69 years old. But many speculate that Xi Jinping will bend the rules, allowing him to remain beyond the retirement age. Should the vacancies within the Standing Committee be filled by supporters of Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan allowed to remain in his position, it would be a clear indication of further consolidation of power by the leader of China.
THE CORONATION OF XI JINPING
Elected to the position of General-Secretary of the CPC and President in 2012, Xi began his political career in the countryside at the age of 15. Inspired to do so after his father was jailed during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, he slowly worked his way up the ranks of the CPC. According to a communique released by the Central Committee on October 14, 2017, Xi Jinping has “raised a series of new ideas, thoughts and strategies, formulated a string of important guidelines and policies, and rolled out many significant measures” in the first term of his presidency. Under Xi Jinping, China’s economy has continued to grow at a steady rate, remaining stable at 6.9% in the second quarter of 2017, albeit a slower rate than the double digit growth in 2010. Xi has also undertaken one of China’s most ambitious economic initiatives — “One Belt, One Road (OBOR)” — which aims to expand China’s economy by connecting it to foreign markets.
Many Western observers believe that the Congress is a formality to confirm Xi’s power and position in the Chinese government. Elizabeth Economy, the director of Asian Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, states, “The most significant thing…is that [the congress] is most likely simply to confirm Xi Jinping’s preeminence – almost like a coronation.” This view is shared by officials in China. Speaking under terms of anonymity, a retired Chinese official and party member told Majalla, “Xi Jinping’s continued leadership and anti-corruption initiatives has not only strengthened the Party, but also the nation. There is little doubt that he will be re-elected.”
Between coming to power in 2012 and today, Xi Jinping has become one of the strongest men in China since Mao Zedong. Through this power, Xi Jinping has developed a cult of personality. At an exhibition in Beijing ahead of the Congress, all of China’s achievements in the past five years are on display. These exhibits highlight Xi Jinping’s contribution to these milestones, from photos showing happy villagers who no longer live in poverty to a model of China’s new aircraft carrier, the displays ensure that there is little doubt as to who China needs to thank for these successes.
Moreover, many rural and poor Chinese citizens are believed to hold Xi Jinping in high regard. “He treats people well … He seems like a good guy to us,” said Shi Jiquan, a 54-year-old fisherman, “In our hearts and in our minds, he is better than previous leaders.” Credited for China’s success in recent years, such as continued economic growth and the anti-corruption campaign, Xi has been warmly referred to as “Xi dada,” or Uncle Xi, by many Chinese. Xi’s popularity is so high among Chinese commoners, the retired Party official told Majalla, because “[Xi’s] objectives align with the desires of the common people, such as a better standard of living, combating corruption within the CPC, and improving China’s health care system.” Xi’s policies have resulted in clear improvements in many areas of life, endearing him to the people as the first leader who has placed their interests first, giving him a large supporter base that wishes to see him remain as China’s leader.
Therefore, it would not be difficult for a popular leader like Xi Jinping to buttress his position in China’s top political organs with his own supporters with little backlash. His support from and popularity with the people ensures that he will face little resistance from the grassroots level. Xi Jinping’s “anti-corruption campaign” has also had a large impact on Party leadership, according to professor Q. Edward Wang, of Peking University in Beijing. Wang told Majalla, “The campaign has eliminated his political enemies, members of the party who rose to prominence under Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.” The campaign also removed Sun Zhengcai, the former Communist Party Secretary for the city of Chongqing, from his position in July, 2017. His removal shocked many observers because Sun was slated to be Xi’s successor, but with his fall from grace, a possible successor remains a mystery. Should Xi Jinping refuse to name a successor, it is very likely that he is consolidating power and may plan to stay on as China’s leader beyond 2022.
CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES AT THE CONGRESS
Alongside leadership elections, the Central Committee confirmed that an amendment to the Constitution of the Communist Party of China will be finalized and approved at the Congress. According to a public release, the amendment will include “the key theories and strategic thoughts, which will fully represent the latest Sinicization of Marxism.” This vague description leads many to believe that the amendment will include a new “Xi Jinping Thought or Theory.” Having a leader’s political philosophies written into the constitution has several precedents — notably Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s theory of “scientific development.” Should Xi have his name enshrined in the CPC Constitution, it would be further indication of his enhanced power in Chinese politics.
Along with the formal amendment, there is a possibility that Xi Jinping may resurrect the position of party Chairman, a position held by Mao Zedong. The Chairman enjoyed the highest position in the CPC and wielded absolute power within the Party. The position was supplanted by “General-Secretary” in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. General-Secretary is still the highest rank within the CPC, but places the individual on equal footing with the other members of the Standing Committee. Indications that Xi may be planning to resurrect the position of Chairman were on display at the military parades commemorating the 20th Anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover and at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) 90th Anniversary Parade, where soldiers were instructed to address Xi as “Chairman” instead of “leader.” Professor Wang told Majalla, “If [Xi] brings back the Chairman position, it is clear that he intends to serve forever like Chairman Mao, and he has no intention of stepping down, unless he is overthrown in a coup.”
The power that Xi Jinping could potentially possess is unprecedented in recent Chinese history. China has decentralized power from a single leader to multiple members of a “Standing Committee,” in an effort to avoid another national disaster such as the brutal crackdown on dissent known as the “Cultural Revolution,” initiated by Mao Zedong. Decentralization also placed some checks on the power of the CPC General-Secretary. Should both the amendment and the Chairman position pass, this could mean new heights of authoritarianism, and a backsliding from previous attempts to liberalize the Chinese government. Xi would attain a level of power not seen since the era of Mao Zedong — and probably strive to remain in power well beyond 2022.
POLICIES FOR THE NEXT FIVE YEARS
What can observers expect from the Congress other than leadership changes? Major developments to watch include new economic development projects, anti-corruption initiatives, and domestic security measures.
Xi Jinping has locked China into completing his ambitious One Belt, One Road project. “OBOR” seeks to strengthen Chinese exports through commercial land and sea roads, largely along the historic “silk road,” straddling Europe and the Middle East. China has already injected billions of dollars in investment into countries along the route, primarily in the form of loans. Besides being Xi Jinping’s brainchild, the project is of a scale and ambition that will ensure that China will be occupied with it for many years to come. Taking on another project of the same magnitude is unlikely.
Along with OBOR, Xi has also established his anti-corruption campaign as one of his lasting legacies. Not only has this initiative purged the Party of many corrupt officials, the relatively “transparent” investigation has endeared Xi to the common folk who support the efforts. The only uncertainty is whether or not Wang Qishan will remain as the head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. If he does, this is a solid indication that Xi is consolidating his power.
Besides completing OBOR, which will boost China’s economy, Xi must continue work on domestic economic reform. In his first five years, Xi Jinping has managed to raise 60 million Chinese people out of poverty, closely approaching a target GDP per capita of $10,000. But there is little reason to believe that Xi Jinping will change his current economic policies in the next five years. He stated in his report to the Congress on October 18, 2017 that economic policies will continue to focus on increasing consumer spending, stricter banking regulation, strengthening state-owned enterprises, and the breaking up of monopolies. It is also likely that Xi will continue his efforts to combat poverty and improve China’s standard of living. As he stated in his report to the Congress, “[The low standard of living] has become the main constraining factor in meeting the people’s increasing needs for a better life.” It is also very likely that infrastructure investments will continue, with China’s high-speed rail network a particular focus of interest. Already the world’s largest high speed system, China’s Transportation Ministry has announced plans to expand the network by 18,600 miles by 2020, investing over $504 billion to meet this goal.
It is important to note the absence in Xi’s report of any future policies that would open up China to more “market forces.” Xi’s desire to strengthen state-owned enterprises, rather than open them up for privatization, could indicate an attempt to exercise more direct control over China’s economy — a departure from the policies of economic liberalization that began under Deng Xiaoping. What course Xi chooses will likely be laid out in more detail later this year, at the :economic work conference.” But should Xi follow through with more central control in China’s economic system, this could be a “leap backwards.”
During his report, Xi emphasized the importance of domestic security. Xi supported the current “One Country, Two Systems” governance for Hong Kong and Macau, but stated that these territories required the “[leadership of] patriots playing the principal role” — the term “patriot” used to mean an individual loyal to Beijing. He will face difficulty if he does attempt to clamp down on local dissent in Hong Kong and Macau in an effort to increase Beijing’s involvement in local affairs. Unlike mainland China, these two areas have adopted democratic institutions, and Xi’s popularity in these “special administrative regions” is considerably lower than on the mainland. Thus if Xi attempts to consolidate CPC power too quickly, or attempts to remove the democratic institutions, he will face significant backlash from the local population.
According to Xi, the danger domestic social unrest poses is increasing. In order to counter this threat, the newly created — and secretive — National Security Commission will play a more important role in coming years. There will likely be more crackdowns against dissidents, and perhaps even greater censorship of the internet in China. Such measures would be of a piece with Xi’s governing style, marked in recent years by media censorship and the silencing of political activists. So strong is media censorship, for example, that many Chinese citizens have never heard of Liu Xiaobo, a 2010 Nobel Peace prize winner. Liu was imprisoned in 2009, after writing a manifesto arguing for democratic rule in China. The Chinese government’s refusal to allow Liu to seek medical treatment outside of China this year — followed by his death on July 13 — made headlines in Western nations, but was barely discussed within China. Since his death, Liu’s wife has vanished from the public eye, and his ashes were scattered at sea to avoid making him a symbol for democracy. This is just one example of how Xi is directing the country away from the rule of law.
TOPICS NOT DISCUSSED AT THE CONGRESS
Improving China’s environment was a topic missing from the Congress agenda. As the nation approaches winter, smog and pollution levels will progressively worsen, and implementing a winter campaign to combat pollution would be vital in reaching overall smog reduction targets. A cleaner environment in China would not only improve standard of living, but aid in economic growth and expansion. How Xi Jinping will lead the nation through environmental reforms is still unknown, but soon, government officials will be graded on their ability to alleviate pollution as a part of their performance reviews.
Another topic left out of discussions was the status of ethnic minorities in China. China’s predominant ethnic group is the Han Chinese, who compose 91 percent of the total population, while 55 ethnic minorities make up the remaining 9 percent. In recent years, China has seenits Muslim minority populations grow, particularly in the autonomous regions of Ningxia and Xinjiang. The rise of a separatist Muslim Uyghur movement in Xinjiang has been particularly troublesome to the government. The separatists are struggling against China’s heavy-handed cultural policies towards the Uyghur, which include banning Muslim officials from fasting during Ramadan, barring mosques from issuing the call to prayer, and suppressing Uyghur culture in general. Beijing has also relocated thousands of Han Chinese into Xinjiang in an effort to assimilate the region to Chinese culture — stoking tensions with the local Uyghur population as Han Chinese receive the best jobs and a higher standard of living. Though the government and Chinese media hardly acknowledge this issue, the discontent and unrest is clearly swelling.
Another major issue left out of the report is the global crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Recently, China has enforced U.N. sanctions against North Korea, notably banning imports from the secluded country and ordering North Korean businesses in China to close. As North Korea’s only ally and largest trading partner, China, in adhering to UN sanctions, can place serious pressure on the Kim Jong-Un regime. Though the longterm effects of these policy changes are yet to be seen, China’s recent decision to side with Western powers against their neighbor may indicate that Chinese patience for their North Korean has run out.
CONTINUED COOPERATION WITH XI JINPING
The chances that Xi Jinping will be elected for a second term as General-Secretary are almost certain. Shortly after taking office in 2012, he stated that “No one should expect [China] to swallow bitter fruit that is harmful to our sovereignty, security or development interests.” In his report to the present Congress, Xi reiterated this point by stating that he seeks “rejuvenation for the Chinese nation… as socialism with Chinese characteristics enters a new era… [It is] time for China to take center stage in the world.” As noted previously, this goal is evidenced in OBOR. China’s military has recently undergone a modernization program that will transform it into a modern military with top notch equipment as Chinese military hardware improves. Xi has asserted China’s claim to the South China Sea through aggressive patrols and land reclamation on the shoals and islands that it possesses, an undertaking that Xi called a “highlight” of his first five years. China also opened its first foreign military base this August in the small African nation of Djibouti, extending the PLA’s military reach dramatically.
Along with these hard power gains, China has expanded its soft power, especially in Africa. China has stepped up its U.N. peacekeeping operations, sending personnel to nine different U.N. missions since Xi was elected in 2012. In support of United Nations Peacekeeping efforts, Xi will commit 8000 Chinese soldiers towards forming a U.N. peacekeeping standby force. For infrastructure development and economic aid in Africa, China has increased its presence, supplying $14 billion to Djibouti alone. Along with cultural exchanges, such as Confucius Institutes, China’s soft power has begun to rival that of the United States, particularly in parts of the world where the American presence is thin, notably on the African continent.
It is unlikely that Xi will make any major policy reversals in the upcoming years and will most likely continue down the current path that he has laid out for China. Therefore, engagement with China will be important to maintain peace and prosperity, especially if Xi plans on leading China beyond 2022.
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