China’s Party Congress and Xi’s Next Five Years

On October 18th, China’s ruling Communist Party will begin its 19th Party Congressa five-yearly high-level meeting of senior party officials that will determine the future makeup of the Chinese leadership. The list of likely candidates for promotion to the Party’s top echelon include Chongqing party chief Chen Min’er, Guangdong’s Hu Chunhua, and Shanghai’s Han Zheng. Based on the career trajectories of past leaders, individuals who run big cities are more likely to obtain seats within the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee, although some regions hold more political sway than others. Guo Wengui, the exiled billionaire with known ties to state security agencies, has released what he says is a leaked list of the Standing Committee nominees:

The National Congress media center has launched an official website and a WeChat account to provide the public with the latest news and updates as the summit unfolds.

In addition to the composition of the new leadership, two key things to watch for include whether President will attain the title of ‘chairman’ and how his political ideology will be incorporated into the party’s constitution. Having already amassed considerable power since taking the reins of the Communist party in 2012, Xi is expected to use the conclave to further strengthen his rule within the party and bolster his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. At The Guardian, Tom Phillips and Benjamin Haas look at what the congress is about and the actions that Xi will likely take to cement his status:

On the face of it, the congress is a high-profile summit of the Communist party’s great and good. The official task of the 2,287 carefully screened delegates selected to attend this year’s event is to ponder and approve new policies and elect the people who will lead China for the next five years.

In reality, however, experts say this year’s congress – the 19th since the party’s foundation in Shanghai in 1921 – is all about one man: Xi Jinping.

“The most significant thing … is that it is most likely simply to confirm Xi Jinping’s preeminence – almost like a coronation,” says Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council of Foreign Relations.

[…] Firstly, Xi may decline to promote a successor, indicating that he intends to remain in the top party post for a third, or perhaps even fourth term. According to party norms, China’s top two leaders are usually publicly anointed at a congress five years before they take power. Xi emerged as China’s presumed future leader at the 17th party congress, in 2007. But so far no likely successor has appeared; one man seen as a possible successor was recently toppled in a politically charged corruption investigation.

[…] Secondly, some believe Xi will use the congress to write a new Xi Jinping-related body of ideology – perhaps called Xi Jinping Thought or Theory – into the party constitution. That would put Xi in nearly the same political league as the revolutionary leader, Mao, and would be another sign that he was intent on extending his rule beyond the customary decade. “Instead of being first among equals, Xi would simply be first,” says Economy. [Source]

The Chinese government has tightened security and regulatory measures in recent weeks to maintain stability and attain optimal conditions in preparation for the week-long summit. Factories around the country have been ordered to shut down or reduce output to ensure the congress is held under blue skies. Security has heightened considerably to silence potential troublemakers and censors are working overtime to monitor news reports and online discourse surrounding the congress. Authorities have reportedly cancelled TV shows and visited the homes of foreigners as part of the new security measures, AFP reports:

Mayor Cai Qi has reportedly warned the city “must hold the line for social control, eliminate all destabilising factors, hold the line for cyber-security, and resolutely crack down on political rumours and harmful news”.

[…] A variety of entertainment has been put on hold.

[…] Some foreigners have been visited at home by police asking to see visas and paperwork.

One foreign journalist said police came to his home at nearly midnight recently to confirm details about his employment, housing contract and roommates, explaining they needed to check up on foreigners during this “special time”

[…] Even certain television shows have been paused.

The censorship bureau released a notice in July calling for provincial TV stations to stop broadcasts of period costume and teen idol dramas “in order to stay in step with the overall atmosphere” of seriousness surrounding the congress. [Source]

Many circumvention tools used to access blocked overseas websites appear to have been shut down, Yang Fan and Gao Feng at RFA report:

According to a social media post by online free speech activist Xiucai Jianghu, many people in China are increasingly unable to access sites like Twitter and Facebook using virtual private networks, or VPNs.

“A lot of circumvention apps aren’t starting up,” he wrote. “It’s a shame. Technology is supposed to be used to improve people’s lives, yet they are using it to suppress the truth and do harm.”

[…] Users posted similar complaints to the social media site WeChat, with some saying the outage had stopped them carrying out their professional and business activities.

Rights activist Zhao Wei said he has tried a number of methods in recent days, but to no avail. [Source]

Besides suppressing public criticism and dissent, the government has launched an extensive propaganda campaign to laud Xi’s achievements and cast him as the central figure in China’s modern success story. Many bookshops in the country have stocked up on books praising the president ahead of the congress. From Reuters:

Hundreds of images of Xi adorn the walls in each of the exhibition’s ten halls: in combat fatigues surveying the troops, holding court with foreign dignitaries, even showing his softer side by petting a baby elephant.

By contrast, photographs of other party leaders are much smaller and displayed in less prominent spots.

[…] Xi is being lionised as the one responsible for China’s recent successes, including an unswerving anti-corruption campaign, a buoyant economy and growing stature on the world stage.

The effort appears designed to justify Xi’s expanded powers, said Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In recent years, Xi has stamped his personal leadership on reforms to the military, economy and cyberspace.

The Communist Party is trying to show that “only a strongman can marshal the forces and pull off these near-miraculous achievements which he is supposed to have achieved in the past five years,” Lam said. [Source]

Xi’s continued efforts to tighten his grip on power will likely undermine important bureaucratic institutions developed in the post-Mao era that have helped facilitate the peaceful transfer of power. Ian Johnson at The New York Times reports:

Mr. Xi’s new tack is riskier. Unlike any leader since Mao, he has made almost every area of governing his personal area of responsibility, including economics, which usually was left to the premier or trained specialists. Mr. Xi is not a Mao — the comparison has been made but is forced. There is no real personality cult, for example, and he has not embarked on insane economic plans like the Great Leap Forward. But like Mao he is popular, charismatic and supremely self-confident, dangerous traits in a system with no checks and balances.

[…] Seen more broadly, Chinese institutions are in danger of decay. In the past, the understanding was that power would transfer smoothly from one leader to the next, if not through elections then through some sort of tacit agreement. For a couple of decades, party congresses like the coming one were showcases for this, with one dull leader following the other, sometimes with daggers in their backs, but still in some sort of predictable pattern.

This congress, for example, was supposed to anoint Mr. Xi’s successor, who would take control in five years. Now this is unlikely, casting doubt on who will succeed Mr. Xi.

All of this makes one wonder how Mr. Xi’s rule will end: with his taking an unprecedented third five-year term or perhaps staying on in some ceremonial capacity and pulling the strings from behind a curtain? […] [Source]

At South China Morning Post, George Washington University’s David Shambaugh looks at how the concentration of power in Xi will affect China going forward:

What does this mean for China’s political system and what kind of ruling party has the Communist Party become? Given Xi’s all-powerful persona, China’s political system has reverted to a patriarchal-patrimonial system – a form of governance where power rests with the imperial-type leader and not with institutions. Sociologist Max Weber identified this as “traditional” and “feudal” patrimonialism – as the ruling party or monarchy becomes hegemonically dominated by a single ruler, rather than institutionally dispersed into a meritocratic and enfranchised bureaucracy. Xi’s total dominance of the party, state and military personifies Weber’s patrimonialism.

Is this good for China and the Communist Party? Recall that, beginning with Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the party has very consciously sought to disperse power away from an almighty ruler. Deng was quite explicit that the over-concentration of power in one man – Mao Zedong – was what had led China down a disastrous path for two decades, from 1956 to 1976. To rectify this malady, for the past four decades, the party has sought to devolve power within the central party, separate party from government, and devolve authority from Beijing to provinces and localities. The whole decision-making system was to be based on consultation and collective decision-making, following technocratic expert input. Xi has reversed all of these norms.

Xi’s accumulation of personal power combined with his aggressive anti-corruption campaign have deeply undermined the system Deng and his successors sought to build. Moreover, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, however necessary, has decimated the political patronage system. Practical perks for cadres have been taken away and replaced by demands of fidelity to Xi as the “core” of the party. Political systems based on loyalty to a single ruler are politically vulnerable, and usually lack broad-based legitimacy and longevity. [Source]

Although the more optimistic observers have argued that Xi is consolidating power in order to push forward domestic reforms, it is unlikely that greater concentration of power will lead Xi to bring about drastic changes after the congress meetings. From Christopher Balding at Bloomberg:

We now have five years of data on Xi’s policies and predilections, and very little of it suggests he is deeply invested in a pro-market, reformist agenda. Instead, his economic policy has throughout been marked by a short-term focus on propping up growth, with frequent opportunistic reversals when reforms have gone ahead. There’s been much talk about how determined the government is to maintain stability in the run-up to this month’s congress, when China appoints its new leadership for the next five years. In fact, that same impulse has driven most of the government’s decisions ever since Xi took power in 2012.

Chinese policy makers, for instance, have for years talked about restraining debt growth. Yet despite regular exhortations about the need for deleveraging, the hard realities of sustaining 10 percent nominal growth and real estate prices have dissuaded the government from clamping down too hard. Outstanding mortgage loans are up 31 percent through June, with medium- and long-term loans to households continuing to rise 2 percent a month. Credit is still growing rapidly; by the end of this year, the ratio of total social financing to nominal GDP is expected to have risen from 169 percent in 2012 to 204 percent.

[…] Xi doesn’t seem to view China’s economic problems as so dire that they outweigh the need to promote growth, especially not if they can be managed with constant tweaks. Consequently, economic policy seems likely to continue to focus on controlling rolling asset bubbles, threats to growth and currency problems while avoiding tackling systemic issues. [Source]

Meanwhile, some have pointed out that China has progressed in terms of legal reform in the past five years, particularly with regard to improved transparency of the judicial system. Others have also emphasized the developments that have continued under Xi’s reign.

On the international front, Xi’s effort to gain a stronger global role for China and increase the country’s influence abroad is expected to strengthen after next week’s congress. Goh Sui Noi at The Strait Times reports:

Mr Xi looks set to expand China’s role as a major world leader after the 19th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party next week, where he is expected to further strengthen his power.

This assertiveness has also allowed China to play a broader and more effective role on the world stage and increase its footprint geo-economically in places within its neighbourhood and as far away as Africa and Latin America, said Professor Shi Yinhong of Renmin University.

And this active expansion in China’s diplomacy is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, he said.

[…] “Xi has… demonstrated that he is a decisive leader, stronger than his predecessor and determined not only to manage China but to transform it to meet huge unsolved challenges, primarily at home but also abroad,” wrote Dr Jeffrey Bader of the Brookings Institution. [Source]

However, the country’s policy stance on the North Korean crisis and its approach to the South China Sea are unlikely to change following the leadership summit. From Paul Haenle and Michael D. Swaine at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Paul Haenle: The Chinese leadership remains unconvinced that North Korea is its problem to solve, and the will not change this calculus. Certainly, Beijing strongly opposes North Korea’s provocations and hopes that Kim Jong-un will put an end to the country’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. But until North Korea’s behavior threatens the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party in the eyes of the Chinese people, it is highly unlikely that Beijing will make a fundamental shift in its approach to North Korea. The growing views among young Chinese that North Korea is a burden and an embarrassment, and Pyongyang’s persistent disruptions of Xi’s most important occasions in the international limelight, are not deal breakers for Beijing.

[…] Michael D. Swaine: There are unlikely to be any basic changes to China’s overall official policy stance following the congress. Beijing will continue to voice support for a peaceful, negotiated resolution of the territorial disputes and, in the meantime, the conclusion of a code of conduct among the claimants.

However, this stance will not necessarily preclude a return to more energetic efforts to strengthen China’s military and diplomatic position in the area. Such moves could include a strengthening of China’s military presence on the artificial islands in the Spratlys, efforts to place instruments or facilities on disputed but unoccupied reefs, increased harassment of other claimants’ fishing or paramilitary vessels, greater diplomatic pressure on countries to eschew drilling or other activities, and even more muscular pushback against U.S. military activities in the area, including freedom of navigation operations. [Source]