Political Meetings Watched for Clues on Party Unity & Next Leaders

This week sees the start of the annual “” of the advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on Thursday and the legislative National People’s Congress on Saturday. While the next five-year plan will be the assemblies’ official focus, South China Morning Post’s Cary Huang writes that “political pundits will also be watching for any winds of change blowing though the Great Hall of the People,” as Xi Jinping’s consolidation of personal power threatens to undermine the post-Mao system of collective leadership.

Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping had to share power with the “Eight Immortals” or party elders. But in the past three years, the pendulum has swung back the other way, with Xi consolidating power through the creation of steering committees that oversee reform, the internet, legal affairs, national security and military reform.

[…] In addition to the steering committees, Xi has extended his grip over the nation in less formal channels, expunging political dissent by rounding up rights activists and courageous lawyers while banning party members from making “groundless criticism” of policies.

Ostensibly, the five-year plan is the focus of the two upcoming sessions at the Great Hall of the People. But given the recent transformation of the presidency, observers will be listening to remarks by Xi’s colleagues to see whether they are falling in line with his call for “absolute loyalty”.

[…] Steve Tsang, from the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, said there might be voices of frustration on the fringe, but he did not expect any coordinated challenge to Xi.

[…] Tsang said the legislature would likely openly affirm Xi’s new “position” as the core of the leadership – a recognition that Hu never obtained. [Source]

The ban on “groundless criticism” or “improper discussion” of the central leadership’s decisions has already led to punishments of a newspaper editor, several officials, and a university department head. As Oiwan Lam wrote at Global Voices, “as the majority of employees from the public sector, including media outlets, schools and universities, are party members, the rule’s impact is potentially pervasive.” Authorities have also issued a series of calls for “absolute” loyalty to the Party, and removed the governor of Sichuan for his alleged lack of it. On Wednesday, Xinhua highlighted yet another exhortation:

Qiushi Journal, the flagship magazine of the of China (CPC) Central Committee, recently stressed Party leadership in governing the country, saying its position should not be wavered “at any time and under any circumstances.”

An article bylined Qiushi prioritizes the core leadership of the CPC, urging the enhancement of the consciousness of the , the whole, the core and the line.

The article says to conform with the CPC Central Committee, with General Secretary Xi Jinping, conform to the theories, guidelines, principles and policies of the Party, abide by the ideology, accommodate the whole consideration, defend the authority of the CPC Central Committee, always keep strict conformity with the CPC Central Committee, and ensure the implementation of Party advocacy in all the process and all aspects in building socialism with Chinese characteristics. [Source]

Identifying the Two Sessions as an important test of progress in these goals, The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong describes how the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection is enforcing related requirements:

One morning in mid-January, about 120 of the Communist Party’s top disciplinarians gathered to hear Chinese President Xi Jinping chart their priorities for the new year. After a three-year anticorruption sweep in which some 750,000 party members were punished, Mr. Xi now instructed them to ensure “the party’s centralized unity.”

A number of officials were penalized in recent months for political deviance while Mr. Xi called on cadres, academics and journalists to show unswerving loyalty to the central leadership. Last week, on Mr. Xi’s orders, the party told its 88 million members to study Mao Zedong’s 1949 guidelines on party work style as a matter of “political discipline.”

[…] The CCDI says the new rule on “” targets cadres who eschew internal consultations while criticizing party policies elsewhere, and was added after the agency found serious cases of political deviance during its antigraft work.

“We found that the damage done by political indiscipline is far greater than that caused by corruption,” Luo Dongchuan, a senior CCDI official, told reporters at a Jan. 15 news briefing. [Source]

Perhaps the most high-profile target to date has been CCP member, retired real estate tycoon, and influential microblogger Ren Zhiqiang, whose Sina and Tencent Weibo accounts were among hundreds recently deleted. The apparent trigger in Ren’s case was his statement that state media should serve the taxpaying public before the Party, contradicting recent pronouncements by Xi. A series of commentaries in official media berated him for his lack of Party spirit, and for suggesting that the interests of Party and public are not one and the same. Further disciplinary action could follow. Also at The Wall Street Journal, Josh Chin reported concerns that stifling disagreement like this could lead to policy missteps, a fear that has recently arisen in fields from foreign policy to the economy.

Since Mr. Ren, a former soldier born into a revolutionary family, publicly challenged remarks by President Xi two weeks ago about the Communist Party’s control of the media, he has been criticized in editorials and savaged online with calls for him to be stripped of his party membership. Some of the smaller party-controlled websites have labeled him as “anti-party,” a serious political accusation in China.

Mr. Ren’s outspokenness and his muzzling online have become the latest flashpoints in the Chinese leadership’s intensifying effort to control public expression and have nourished a debate about whether the party is ultimately harming itself by marginalizing dissent.

“Party history shows the more open the Communist Party elite is, the fewer people are slapped with the anti-party label,” Beijing-based political commentator Chen Jieren wrote on his blog after Mr. Ren was attacked. “But the more indulgence there is in a cult of personality, the fewer different opinions get expressed, the more people are labeled anti-party.”

Stalwart party insiders have begun questioning if a party leadership heedless of criticism might make mistakes similar to those it made when Mao Zedong held unquestioned authority and launched radical programs. [Source]

The narrowing of the Party may only intensify if Xi is able to determine the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee after next year’s quinquennial , in which five of the seven current members are due to retire. As SCMP’s Huang notes, early clues about their successors will be keenly sought at the Two Sessions. At China Leadership Monitor, Alice Miller tracks patterns in recent Standing Committee appointments, based on Politburo service or top leadership prospects, age cohort, and gender. (“Since 1949, no woman has served on the , from which fact we may infer that girls are not allowed in the Standing Committee clubhouse.”) These boil down to three key rules, on which basis she offers some “rashly reasoned projections” for 2017. However:

[… If] the Standing Committee appointments emerging from the 19th Party Congress diverge starkly from the rules, it may mean one of two things. One is that the regime’s fundamental goals and the conditions it faces are so radically different from those of the preceding three decades that reforms are required and the old rules be discarded in favor of new approaches to guide leadership processes. So far, there seems no warrant for such changes in the offing.

The other possibility is that, as widely alleged these days, Xi Jinping has amassed such overwhelming personal power that he can set aside the institutionalization of politics in a collective leadership and impose his own preferences on the basis of personal and factional considerations. Therefore, the degree to which the Xi leadership follows past rules in appointing a new Standing Committee offers a key test whose results will say something important about the question of whether Xi Jinping has assumed sufficient power to break collective leadership norms or remains committed to sustaining them. This writer has long been and remains skeptical of the now conventional wisdom about Xi’s surpassing power, and sees the Xi leadership as continuing to act within the constraints of institutionalized collective leadership, as past Monitor articles have argued. And so she expects the actions of the 19th Party Congress to conform to the precedents set at the last four congresses. But time will tell, we shall see, it will all come out in the wash, we will see how the cookie crumbles, the chips will fall where they may, and history shall judge. [Source]

Also skeptical about the narrative of Xi’s overwhelming power is King’s College, London’s Kerry Brown, who advanced an alternative theory to explain recent developments at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Blog last week:

[… T]here is another interpretation on Xi’s seeming accrual of powers at the moment that might work. This is that a large proportion of the Party elite collectively knew, several years ago, that it was entering a period of great threat and potential turbulence, and that there was wide awareness of the ideological slackness and lack of discipline amongst the membership, with concomitant collapse of faith even in the administrative abilities, let alone the message, of the CPC. This posed a true existential and imminent threat to the CPC.

In that context, the choice of someone with the right communication skills and networks to give the Party the best bet of making it though this era was paramount. The Communist Party of the USSR, after all, collapsed after 74 years in power. In 2023 the CPC will reach this crucial goal. It does not want to go the way of its erstwhile Russian counterpart. Ensuring leadership was unified, strong and clear in its messaging was important.

Interestingly, Xi Jinping in almost everything he says speaks as and for the Party. It is as though his use of his personal biography, his deployment of a more individual voice, are simply tactics to convey messages supportive of the Party mission to raise China to a rich, strong and powerful nation. In this framework, Xi himself doesn’t matter. It is not about him. It is all about him being the servant, the tactical object as it were of the Party collectively, to get it through the era of potential real danger. The leadership style is one he has assumed with Party support. It is a useful part of its weaponry. [Source]

At The New York Times, Minxin Pei—like David Shambaugh last yearargues that these efforts may not be enough:

Q. What do you see happening in China that supports your thesis that the party may already be experiencing regime decay and following the path taken in other countries?

A. The most important evidence is the pervasive corruption of the ruling elites. Elite unity has also disintegrated, as shown by the purge of Bo Xilai, Ling Jihua, Zhou Yongkang and their cronies since 2012. The atrophy of ideology has deprived the party of its sense of mission and a vital instrument of motivating its rank and file. The economic and moral costs of maintaining one-party rule through repression have also reached unsustainable levels.

[…] As for other analysts who believe that the party is more durable than before, the factors they cite are no longer there. Growth is slowing. The party is in disarray, because the rules it has established to limit internecine political warfare have collapsed. Beijing’s foreign policy is driving the Sino-U.S. relationship toward conflict. Middle-class acquiescence is beginning to erode because of environmental degradation, poor services, inequality and corruption. [Source]

The slack or atrophied Party ideology referred to by both Brown and Pei was also noted in Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, in phrases cut from its recently published Chinese edition. In an essay at Foreign Policy, Taisu Zhang argues that ideology is resurgent, if fragmented, in China as a whole, and warns against reflexively dismissing the leadership’s sincerity in re-embracing it.

It is easy, and perhaps tempting, to dismiss these initiatives as cynical ideological propaganda by an authoritarian state facing unprecedented socioeconomic and political tension. There is undeniably some truth to this, but it is far too simplistic. In fact, one could just as plausibly argue that the party has played a reactive role, rather than a proactive one: its ideological campaigns to revive figures such as Mao and Confucius reflect intellectual and cultural currents that have rapidly gained force among highly educated Chinese over the past five to seven years. Compared to the depth and momentum of these currents, the party may simply be trying to catch up. Xi himself seemed to admit as much in a famous August 19, 2013 speech, in which he argued that the party was facing a new wave of serious ideological challenges, and needed to issue a more robust response.

[…] In the end, are Chinese policymakers themselves deeply ideological, or at least becoming more so? It’s true that Xi’s recent positions on Mao, Chinese cultural traditions, and the need for a culture change among government employees are broadly consistent with those of a pragmatic autocrat. But they are also broadly consistent with the behavior of a bona fide socialist and cultural conservative pursuing his ideological goals in a measured and cautious fashion. Regardless of what one thinks of the current leadership, with any luck, the Western notion that Chinese politics are simply rooted in pragmatism will soon die out. [Source]

Correction: this post originally stated that both the Two Sessions will begin on Saturday.