Stability Maintenance Precedes Party Congress

With traditional and online media controls on overdrive and state media issuing a “whirlwind” of praise for President Xi Jinping ahead of the upcoming 19th Party Congress in Beijing, CNBC’s Hailing Tan takes a look at the widespread “lock-down” measures that authorities are taking to secure economic, social, and atmospheric stability during the highly sensitive political event:

“Beijing is going to be very motivated to make sure that there’s market stability and growth and positive newsflow in and around the very important October Congress and political meeting,” said David Riedel, president and founder of Riedel Research Group.

[…] Although many have deemed the party meeting to be a “non-event” — with mostly pre-determined outcomes well-anticipated ahead of the meeting — China nonetheless is on a security lockdown.

[…] Police from other parts of China have been sent to the capital to reinforce security, Reuters reported.

[…] On the environmental front, China is known for its efforts to clean up air quality when important events are held in Beijing. This time, steel mills near the capital have been ordered to cut output a month earlier than previously scheduled, Reuters reported.

China’s Maritime Safety Administration is also considering restricting traffic at ports handling chemical materials along the Yangtze River between October 11 and 28. After the agency issued an internal document about the possible restrictions, spot prices of certain chemical products jumped as traders rushed to ship before the measures kicked in. […] [Source]

Read more on Chinese authorities’ tradition to ensure that Beijing’s skies are free of smog as the world’s eyes turn to the capital.

As censors work to keep the domestic news narrative under control in the lead-up to the Congress, activists nationwide have been under increased pressure. At Radio Free Asia, Qiao Long and Yang Fan report:

Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou have forced more than a dozen dissidents and rights activists to leave their home amid a widening on critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

The activists, who are members of the Guizhou Human Rights Forum group, have been ordered to leave their homes in the provincial capital Guiyang by police in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress on Oct. 18, they said.

High-profile dissidents Gao Yu and former top Communist Party official Bao Tong have also been forced to leave their homes in Beijing, amid a nationwide “stability maintenance” operation targeting thousands of activists and dissidents.

[…] Authorities in the central province of Hubei have detained three activists after they complained about interference in their lives by state security police. [Source]

Authorities’ efforts to control the Party Congress narrative are extending overseas as a planned press conference by exiled billionaire Guo Wengui in the U.S. was disrupted. For the previous eight months Guo has been levying corruption allegations at top Party leaders via his YouTube and Twitter accounts, offering an unorthodox explanation for Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption drive, and suggesting that a secretive cohort of former top leader Jiang Zemin possess far more control over state and Party affairs than is generally believed. He has also promised to hold a “simultaneous 19th Party Congress press conference” to coincide with the Party meetings in Beijing. Ahead of that, the billionaire had initially planned to hold a media event at the Hudson Institute on October 4. The event was cancelled after a reported cyberattack on the institute, and Guo held his conference at the National Press Club in Washington on October 5. At The Wall Street Journal, Cezary Podkul, Kate O’Keefe, and Asuna Viswanatha report, noting that Attorney General Jeff Sessions complained about the attack in a meeting yesterday with Chinese officials:

The website of the Hudson Institute crashed earlier this week, shortly before the organization was scheduled to host an event with Guo Wengui, a fugitive Chinese businessman and political dissident who has alleged corruption within China’s leadership.

The Institute had several days earlier detected a Shanghai-based attack aimed at shutting down access to its website, according to a spokesman. The spokesman said the attack was foiled, and he attributed the website’s problems to a maintenance issue instead. The Wednesday event was called off.

[…] Mr. Guo on Thursday morning spoke at a media conference held in the First Amendment Lounge at the National Press Club, just steps away from the White House. He said he aimed to overthrow China’s ruling authoritarian government, often grinning as a translator repeated him in English. “My only single goal…is to change China,” Mr. Guo said.

He also claimed he could obtain any Chinese government document he wanted, whenever he wanted, through his network of allies. At the conference, put on by the U.S.-based pro-democracy group Initiatives for China, one of Mr. Guo’s associates distributed copies of an alleged Chinese government document purporting to authorize a group of spies to be dispatched to the U.S. to stop him and other dissidents. [Source]

The 19th Party Congress, which will begin October 18, will see a sweeping transition in the and Standing Committee, the top echelons of Observers have long expected the event to further consolidate the already heavily reinforced power of “core” leader Xi Jinping, who has been regularly promoting key allies to powerful Party positions. At least 10 of 25 Politburo members are expected to retire at the Congress, though there has been speculation that Xi may attempt to bend an unwritten rule that since 2002 has dictated retirement for any member over 68 as Congress convenes. Such a move could pave the way for him to extend his own rule past the traditional two terms (which some analysts have long projected he may be planning), a break in convention that the Economist Intelligence Unit forecasted last month. At the South China Morning Post, Jun Mai examines the uncertain future of anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan, the unofficial “second most powerful man in China.” If Wang manages to retain his seat on the , that breach of precedent could further indicate the likelihood of a third term for Xi:

According to the party’s unwritten retirement rules, Wang, who turned 69 in July, is destined for retirement. But opinion in political circles is split, with some suggesting he might retain his seat on the Politburo Standing Committee after the party’s five-yearly national congress, expected to open on October 18.

If that happens, Wang will shatter a convention followed since 2002 that has seen all members of the party’s highest decision-making body aged 68 or older at the time of a party congress step down.

[…] Professor Andrew Nathan, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York, said Wang’s fate was in Xi’s hands.

“Xi seems to have enough power to change the rules of the game if he wishes to do so,” he said. “As far as I can see, Xi continues to trust and rely on Wang to carry out the anti-corruption campaign, and that makes Wang an important part of Xi’s power base. I think Xi will want him to continue.”

However, multiple well-connected sources, who preferred to remain anonymous, told the South China Morning Post Wang was more likely to retire. [Source]

Also at the South China Morning Post, Choi Chi-yuk and Viola Zhou recall the precedent of two five-year terms as CCP General Secretary, and note that the Congress is likely to be the event that either bolsters or diminishes speculation on a potential third term for Xi:

Ahead of the party’s national congress, due to start in Beijing on October 18, the ranks of potential successors have been thinning out. Former Chongqing party boss , 54, who had been regarded as a rising star, was expelled from the party last Friday after being taken away for questioning by party anti-graft inspectors on July 14.

If, after the congress, no ­putative heir is elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, it will be the clearest sign yet that Xi is eyeing a third term as the party boss, possibly as general secretary or under another title, that would start in 2022.

[…] In the past five years, Xi has repeatedly stressed the need to break the party’s “hidden rules” and establish new guidelines. Analysts said his push had widespread support among party members, who were disillusioned by the ineffective collective rule of the previous leadership, which was blamed for the emergence of rival power centres and resultant corruption.

[…] China’s constitution says a president can only serve for two five-year terms, but there is no such cap for the position of party general secretary, which is where the real power lies, apart from a stipulation in the party constitution that rules out “lifelong tenure”. Xi has been party general secretary since November 2012 and state president since March 2013. [Source]

The recent sacking of Politburo member Sun Zhengcai, who had long been tapped for a promotion to the Standing Committee at the upcoming event, further complicates pre-Congress prognoses. At Asia Times, Xuan Loc Doan reports that while Sun’s sudden expulsion has baffled many, some see it as further proof that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is part of his plan to amass unprecedented power:

His tumble from grace is startling, not only because he was a rising star and only the fourth sitting Politburo member to be brought down in 30 years, but also because of the abrupt and brutal manner of his demise.

As recently as about three months ago, he was still expected to be promoted to the seven-seat Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the PRC’s highest decision-making body – putting him on course for a top leadership post after 2022. But at a hurriedly arranged meeting of senior Chongqing officials on July 15, he was removed as the 30-million-population city’s party chief and put under investigation. Sun then totally disappeared from view.

[…] It is widely maintained that Xi, who has amassed sweeping powers since he came into office in 2012, has sought to promote his loyalists.

Chen Min’er, who was appointed Chongqing’s party chief in July after Sun’s shock removal, is universally seen as Xi’s protégé and has been fast-tracked for promotion. Chen, 57, worked under Xi when the latter was party secretary of Zhejiang province. As the leader of China’s fourth-largest city, Chen, a member of the 205-seat Central Committee, is sure to be elevated to the Politburo, and likely the PSC, at the upcoming conclave. […] [Source]

As the 18th Party Congress comes to a close with a final plenary session just prior to the launch of the 19th Party Congress, an amendment to the CCP constitution which could enshrine Xi’s name and political philosophy on the Party’s guiding document is being closely watched by analysts as an indication of the true cache of power Xi has accumulated in his first five year term. At Nikkei Asian Review, George Magnus predicts that despite stalls to Xi’s economic reform agenda, the economy will likely take backseat to Party politics at the Congress:

All things considered, most observers expect Xi to stamp his authority on the party and the government. There is a curious contrast, however, between the seemingly powerful leadership and other indications of insecurity, including, for example, the crackdown on “Western values,” social media outlets, and the use of virtual private networks (used to breach the government’s internet controls). These form part of a wider intensification of intrusiveness and , which has reached into the universities and the new “social credit system” designed to track good and bad behavior by citizens.

Other things have not gone so well. The economic reform agenda, announced with great fanfare at the end of 2013 has, for the most part, stalled. Incremental changes have certainly been implemented, for example, in the governance of state-owned enterprises and compensation regimes. Pilot schemes have been launched to modify “hukou” registration for rural migrants, there have been changes in tax and revenue arrangements for local governments, and some capacity cuts have taken effect in old industries such as coal, steel and shipbuilding.

[…] Some China watchers think that having achieved his goals of control and power, Xi will use this congress as a platform from which to change course and address some of these pressing deleveraging and economic reform issues. Yet, his amassing of personal power, and the control transferred from technocrats to party officials and committees, suggest otherwise. What drives Xi is the quest to reinforce the party’s dominance, not the challenges of market-driven resource allocation, liberalization and rules-based governance.

The next five years will be a test of China’s ability to resolve internal economic problems and sell its Belt and Road infrastructure model, especially in China’s Asian trade chains. The 19th congress will give us some serious pointers as to the likelihood of genuine change. [Source]