Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forum
On Wednesday, the Chinese Communist Party will open its 19th Congress, an event that announces who will run China for the next five years, and reveals the leadership’s policy priorities.
The National Party Congress (NPC) has been the decisive force in China’s governance now for almost 70 years. But it has become much more important to the world in more recent times because of China’s scale and clout within the world economy and in world affairs. China’s global rise and international engagement mean there’s more at stake for the world in what the NPC delivers than ever there has been. This is not only because of the strategic importance of relationships with powerful countries, such as that with Trump’s America, but also because of the joint stake that countries everywhere have with China in how we manage the regional and in the global system.
On all these fronts there are naturally more anxieties about leadership transition in China than there have ever been. The world relies upon China’s new leadership to press ahead with deeper economic reform and, after the consolidation of Mr Xi’s first term, resume key elements of China’s political and institutional reform. Without the latter the former is likely to be much harder. It also relies on China’s leadership for strategic balance and stability.
When Xi Jinping became the Party’s Secretary General, and de facto president of the People’s Republic of China, five years ago, China’s circumstance in many ways was very different. Much international commentary on Chinese affairs forgets, or never understood, that in the lead up to Xi’s presidency there was deep and growing unease among elites and ordinary people alike about where the Chinese state was going. Corruption was rampant from top to bottom. In every sphere of life, the ordinary rights of citizens for access to education, health or getting this or that licence were not routinely delivered by a caring civil service but procured by greasing palms. The contest for privilege that delivered wealth among those in power seemed everywhere on full display. This was period of the Bo Xilai scandal and daily exposure of the abuse of privilege, often by the foreign press though sometimes by new Chinese media let off the leash.
Xi’s top priority was to regain control of a fragmented state and try to bell the corruption cat. Whatever else Xi’s done, through reaffirming Party discipline, he has done that in practical political terms — at least for the moment. The price of the success of political stabilisation will seem too high for those who value the rights and freedoms that have been trampled as collateral damage in the process. But it would be hard to underestimate how important Xi’s success in re-asserting command and control has been in getting China through that very tricky spot.
This new power defines Xi’s presidency around the world. The Economist, in apparent agreement, refers to Xi as ‘the most powerful man in the world’. But what comes next will surely be more important to his legacy.
All eyes this week will be on top leadership appointments, especially the seven-member standing committee of the politburo, the apex of China’s political decision-making, and the other 15 members of the politburo who command various policy portfolios. Also important is the order in which the men (there are currently two women in the politburo, but there has never been a woman in the standing committee) emerge because this will indicate the new pecking order.
Xi Jinping remains firmly at the top after spending the past five years consolidating his personal grip on power. Speculation in the lead up to the congress has focused on who Xi will elevate and who he will defenestrate. The appointments will provide important clues about policy priorities in Xi’s next term, by revealing whether liberal reformers or statist conservatives are ascendant. Appointee backgrounds and credentials will tell us a little more about Xi’s true ideological colours which bizzarely, after his five years at the helm, remain unclear.
Appointments to the standing committee and politburo will also provide clues about future succession plans. Some analysts anticipate a further shrinking of the standing committee from seven to five members (Xi reduced the number of top leaders from nine to seven at the last congress), which would further concentrate political power in Xi’s hands. Some Party-watchers have suggested such a move would signal Xi’s intention to break with convention and stay on as General Secretary of the CCP beyond two five-year terms.
In our two lead articles this week Kerry Brown and Ryan Manuel discuss key issues surrounding the congress. Brown highlights the international significance of the event — an opportunity to celebrate the ‘virtues of one-Party rule’, and to showcase China’s stability and strength at a time of global uncertainty. Brown also wonders aloud whether ‘the ruthless assertion of control and order’ is a sign of strength or weakness.
Manuel reminds us that Xi continues to overturn elite power-sharing conventions, reflecting a ‘predilection for personifying power’. But he also adds that the personification of Xi’s power is bound by many constraints and that interpretation of its consequences, including for Xi himself, requires more subtle analysis than is common in the international view of where Xi has come from and where he realistically can go.
What Xi intends to do with that power remains a mystery. So, despite its meticulously choreographed rituals and tightly scripted pronouncements, we are watching this week’s congress in the hope that it will provide some tantalising clues.
The Chinese Communist Party has continued to thrive despite dark periods in its history because at crucial times it took a turn that delivered successfully on Chinese hopes for stability and, in recent decades, for prosperity. This was not at all inevitable but depended on collective and creative leadership at crucial turning points.
For China to deal with its new circumstances and responsibilities in the world one thing is clear: the Party will have to change again or it will fail the nation’s new ambitions, including those that Xi has helped define. It may seem now that things can stay the same as they look right now but there is a powerful dynamic that says they can’t. How change is managed next will determine how and whether the CCP can continue to play a positive role in China’s future that most in China are persuaded it has thus far.
The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.