Sunday 20 Sep 2020 | 12:32 | SYDNEY
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The East Asia Program conducts research on the politics and foreign policies of the countries of East Asia, with a focus on how domestic politics in these countries shape external behaviour. Researchers focus on the countries and territories of North and Northeast Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. From 2020, the Institute's extensive research on Southeast Asia - including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Myanmar - is now incorporated in our newly-dedicated Southeast Asia Program. Each Program also commissions work by other scholars on the broader region. To complement their written research, Lowy Instiutute experts hold a robust series of dialogues and events on the politics of the region, independently and in partnership with other organisations.

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The 19th Party Congress: A more assertive Chinese foreign policy

In a landmark address that kicked off the 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping articulated his vision for China's future. The three-and-a-half-hour reading of the work report saw Xi wax poetic about the priorities of rejuvenating Chinese power and realising the Chinese Dream. Though Xi's primary focus was on domestic achievements, goals and challenges, his speech provides crucial insights into how China's strongman leader seeks to advance his country's role in the world.

The main takeaway for the international community is that Xi Jinping is extremely confident in China's growing national power and sees international trends working in China's favour. Against the background of China's expanding global interests, these assessments suggest that the international community may face an even more assertive China in the years to come.   

At the heart of Xi's vision for China's future is a two-stage plan he put forward to achieve China's second centennial goal of becoming a 'fully developed nation' by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People's Republic.

The objectives laid out by Xi for the first stage, from 2020 to 2035, are primarily domestic, with the end goal of 'basically realising' socialist modernisation. The only reference by Xi to China's international role during this stage is that the country will become a 'global leader in innovation'. However, in the second stage, from 2035 to 2045, Xi set forth a more outward-looking agenda. By the middle of the 21st century, Xi asserted, China will have become 'a global leader in terms of comprehensive national power and international influence'.

Xi maintained that his articulation of China's future derives from an assessment of the international situation that is favorable to China.

After noting that the world is 'in the midst of profound and complex changes', Xi drew attention to what he described as 'trends of global multi-polarity' that are 'surging forward' and 'changes in...the international order' that are accelerating. He noted that 'relative international forces are becoming more balanced'. In another part of the speech, Xi declared that 'the Chinese stands tall and firm in the East'. These statements collectively suggest that Beijing is optimistic that the global balance of power is trending in its direction. China's judgment that the US is in decline (which can be traced to the onset of the global financial crisis in 2009) is even more certain today, as it sees US global leadership eroding under President Donald Trump.

China's prediction of US decline, combined with Xi's confidence in China's future, likely inspired Xi's unprecedented espousal of China's development path as a model for the world, especially developing countries. According to Xi, socialism with Chinese characteristics has 'blazed a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernisation' and provides 'a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development'. Moreover, it 'offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind'. Such statements express an apparent belief that China presents a credible alternative to liberal democracy.

While not explicitly tied to advancing concrete foreign policy objectives, Xi's message to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) regarding Chinese military priorities suggests a perceived need to be prepared to employ military power and hints at a greater willingness to do so in the future.

Underscoring that 'a military is built to fight', Xi called on the PLA to 'regard combat capability as the criterion to meet in all its work' and to focus on 'winning wars' if called upon to fight. By the end of the first stage in 2035, 'modernisation of our national defense and our forces' will be 'basically completed', Xi declared. At the mid-century mark, Xi expects the PLA will be 'fully transformed into a first-tier force'.

Such desires are not unusual – rising powers often seek to reinforce their expanding security needs with military might. However, the pairing of these objectives with Xi's ambition to increase China's international influence and serve as a development model reinforces the widely-held assessment that China harbours a deep-seated desire to displace the US as the dominant power in Asia. 

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, there was no mention of China's 'core national interests', which attracted much international attention several years ago. The task of safeguarding China's sovereignty, security, and development interests was primarily discussed in the work report in the context of Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. Additionally, Xi opted to boldly highlight the 'steady progress' in the construction of islands and reefs in the South China Sea as a major achievement of his first term. That characterisation may suggest that China will prioritise strengthening its control over the contested waterway at the cost of rising friction with its neighbours and the US. 

Although Xi assured the world that China won't seek hegemony and will 'continue to play its part as a major and responsible country', the overarching vision he laid out should raise alarm bells in Asian and Western capitals.

The problem isn't the implicit rejection of Deng Xiaoping's guideline of keeping a low profile. China as a proactive leader would be welcomed if it worked alongside other nations to strengthen international rules and norms. But throughout his first term, Xi has sent conflicting signals about whether he intends to support a rules-based international order. China's growing participation in global governance measures, such as UN peacekeeping operations, have largely been overshadowed by Xi's other policies. Observers need only look to China's declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea and rejection of the UNCLOS tribunal's ruling in the South China Sea for examples of how Beijing responds when confronted by international norms and practices it finds unsavoury.

The portrayal of China as a governance model for other nations is especially worrisome, as it suggests a newfound willingness to offer an alternative to the Western liberal international order and directly confront the US, which has previously been eschewed.

As articulated in the Party Congress work report, Xi's vision for the future may signal an intention to double down on challenging elements of the prevailing world order that Beijing sees as contrary to Chinese interests. Should this come to pass, the international community might look back at the 19th Party Congress as the moment when China's long march toward reclaiming its great-power status was matched with the confidence needed to present China as a buttress against Western liberalism.

The 19th Party Congress: Xi's mid-term appraisal

As Interpreter readers will no doubt be aware, this is an exciting week for China-watchers as it marks the mid-term point for President Xi Jinping's time in office – that is, presuming he leaves his post after ten years, as is the custom.

This week the 19th Party Congress, Xi's mid-term appraisal, began. The Party Congress not only reviews the achievements of the leadership so far but also sets the direction for the Chinese Communist Party and the country for the next five years, the second half of the standard leadership term. Virtually everything that happens publicly has been carefully scripted and pre-arranged behind closed doors. We can only try to deduce what sorts of political machinations and negotiations are going on by examining the very few public signals.

One key aspect is personnel changes. At this Congress, almost 90 million Communist Party members choose 2300 delegates, who in turn decide the Central Committee, which elects the 25-member Politburo, which selects the ultimate decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee. It's democracy with Chinese characteristics – the Party's ultimate power is never in question, but the people who wield that power are shuffled around.

Many commentators are eagerly watching for whether Wang Qishan, who has been heading the anti-corruption drive, will step down due to his age. There is a convention (not a rule) that Politburo Standing Committee members over 68 retire, and Wang is 69. But conventions don't seem to be of great concern to Xi, and given the emphasis on combating corruption in Xi's speech yesterday, it seems likely Wang will stay.

Another key personnel question is whether Xi will announce an heir. According to some, the tradition has been that the incumbent president has not picked his own successor, but the one following. Deng Xiaoping started the sequence by selecting Jiang Zemin to follow him but also Hu Jintao to follow Jiang. In turn, Jiang indicated that Xi would follow Hu. Hu indicated that Hu Chunhua or Sun Zhengcai should be Xi's successor, but Xi has thrown a spanner in the works by finding Sun, the former Chongqing party leader, guilty of corruption just weeks before the Party congress. From Xi's point of view, there are good reasons to not identify a successor. If your goal is to shore up total support for your project, diluting your authority by providing an alternative figure for political loyalty doesn't seem like a clever move. However, this does not necessarily mean Xi intends to stay on after his ten-year term.

The Party Congress is also the opportunity for the Party leader to report on progress against objectives and set the direction for the next five years. Xi has been clear about his ambitions, even setting quantifiable targets. The deadline for the first of his two 'Centenary goals' is fast approaching – China needs to be a 'moderately prosperous society' by 2021, 100 years since the founding of the Party. This means a doubling of GDP and per capita income. The Chinese media is accordingly devoting considerable space to reporting the government's achievements in poverty reduction. The second goal, 'a modern socialist country', is due to be reached by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. According to Xi's speech and the local media's coverage of the event, these goals are well on their way to being met. Indeed, Chinese media has been visually invigorated with flashing red graphics reminiscent of New Year to celebrate the leadership's successes.

In Xi's address, he referred to many of the challenges that face China today, and that affect the lives of everyday Chinese people. For example, he noted exorbitant housing prices and environmental pollution. However, in setting the direction for the next five years, Xi did not provide much detail as to how these problems would be resolved. He called instead for confidence in China's approach, and drew on nationalist narratives of the Chinese Dream of rejuvenation and protecting China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. He obliquely referred to the US and President Donald Trump as providing very unreliable global leadership, contrasting a lack of US commitment to the world with China's steady, peaceful and 'win-win' approach. In particular, Xi reinforced his commitment to the Party-state and the idea that China's problems would best be solved in Chinese ways, by the Party. While reforms may come, under Xi the Party will always put itself first. In Xi's view, strengthening the Party is the only way to strengthen the country.

The question of how Xi wishes to be remembered (that is, whether and how he adds his own ideological contribution to the Party constitution) will also be answered by the end of next week. So far, only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have had their own schools of 'Thought' or 'Theory' incorporated. Jiang's 'Three Represents' and Hu's 'scientific development' were also added to the constitution, but there is an important status difference in how they are referred to. If Xi's contributions are designated as 'Thought' or 'Theory', it will be clear once and for all that he considers himself on par with the greats.

While the messaging in Xi's speech and the symbolism of the Congress is largely for domestic consumption, there are also signals for the international community. It is clear that we will not see any rollback in China's regional assertiveness or reduced determination to have China's voice heard in international fora. The idea that China is an important player on the world stage is evidently central to Xi's projection of legitimacy. This will pose challenges to those who see China's rise as a threat to the rules and institutions that govern the international order.

While China under Xi is going to be challenging for the region, ultimately the Party Congress is about what the leadership is doing for China. It is often argued by Western commentators that China's model is unsustainable, given the prominent role of the Party-state in the media, the economy, the legal system and civil society. However, Xi Jinping is betting that China can continue to grow and prosper on its own terms, under Party rule. He is throwing considerable financial and intellectual resources at the country's problems to make sure it does. So far, most of the Chinese people seem to be with him.

Xi Jinping's moment

Xi Jinping, a politically daring, economically cautious, Chinese leader is certain to win a second five-year term at the 19th Party Congress, but his harsh line against his opponents, and his timidity on the economy, may come back to haunt him in his second term.

On North Korea, China’s interests are unchanged

China's recent move to close North Korean businesses operating in China is undoubtedly welcome news to Australian and US policymakers. However, this is should not be seen as a shift in China's approach to North Korea. Rather, it is a tactical manoeuvre – China's goals and interests regarding the Peninsula remain the same.

In the last few weeks, we have seen China undertake several measures in relation to North Korea. Aside from the order for all North Korean businesses operating in China to close, China's central bank has ordered all Chinese banks to stop working with the North Korean regime. China also announced last week that it would cut off gas and limit the amount of refined petroleum products it ships to North Korea.

These moves should not be understood as a shift in China's mindset towards North Korea or Kim Jong-un's regime. China's agenda for the Peninsula is fundamentally different from that of Australia or the US. While all three want to see denuclearisation, regime collapse is absolute anathema to Xi's government. For China, concerns about a wave of North Korean refugees flooding into China (and the instability that would cause) as well as the potential for a unified, US-allied Korea bordering China outweigh fears of nuclear war. While there is debate within China about policy towards North Korea, there is little to suggest that avoiding regime collapse has ceased to be the primary goal.

So what has motivated China to undertake these measures now?

It's hard to say with any real certainty, but one possible factor could be concerns about regional stability and security (both central to China's own development and prosperity). Another could be China's frustration at the poor state of relations between China and North Korea, which are at their lowest for many years and show no signs of improving. It is also conceivable that China wants to dampen US President Donald Trump's bellicose rhetoric, given that it seems to be further inflaming the situation. How China is perceived by the international community and the desire to be seen as a responsible global actor could also play a role. The upcoming National Congress and the importance for Xi that the Chinese population see him as a powerful and relevant global leader may be a consideration as well. It is critical for Xi's legitimacy that he be seen as able to manage the US-China relationship – taking action that diminishes US criticism of China could play well for him at home.

While all of these are possibilities, the extent to which any of these factors is causal remains to be seen. What we do know is that while China has undertaken some measures, it has not yet done all it could to squeeze the Kim regime. For example, it has not mentioned any plans to reduce crude oil shipments to North Korea, which are an important part of China's energy supplies to the country. This would suggest that China remains unwilling to put the kind of pressure on Kim Jong-un that could really threaten the viability of the regime. By the same token, the measures China has taken indicate that China is increasingly frustrated with the direction the situation on the Peninsula is heading.

Beijingers keep calm and carry on

In the lead-up to the 19th National Congress this October, Beijing has been undergoing some physical changes. As yet more gleaming architectural marvels are being unveiled, other parts of the city are being cleaned out and 'tidied up', with buildings being knocked down or bricked in. Many have been affected by the roughshod approach, but the resilience of Beijingers is something to be admired.

The part of Beijing I usually stay in is between the quiet, peaceful 'hutongs' (or streets of the old neighbourhoods) and the hyper-modern Sanlitun commercial district. The hutongs are winding and narrow, with their one-storey grey brick buildings, old people sitting on stools playing chess, and children out playing or doing their homework. Over decades, the traditional 'siheyuan' or courtyard homes have been subdivided, re-subdivided, extended, and had extra stories added with little regard for the niceties of urban planning. The result is higgledy-piggledy to say the least, but enormously charming to an outsider. This is no place for rushing efficiency – there will always be a part of the road that is being dug up, or people playing badminton, or some other obstacle to speedy transit.

It's a jarring contrast with Sanlitun, a buzzing hive of shiny, modern, conspicuous consumption. The buildings are jaw-dropping marvels of modern architecture and even if you don't like that kind of thing, you get the message: this is the future.

That message has been underlined without subtlety over the past few months, as the Beijing equivalent of pop-up shops (though many of them have been operating for decade or more) and home additions have been systematically knocked down and bricked up. I can find no clear reason for this. Some people understand it as a drive to clean up the city and clear out unregistered migrants. Some have said it is because the Beijing Mayor is politically ambitious and keen to show President Xi how well he is managing the city in the lead-up to the National Congress;  if that is the case, it would help explain the sense of urgency. Shop or home owners are not given a notice of eviction or time to clear out and find new premises. In many cases, people are told that their building will be knocked down or bricked up within days. Contracted labourers then turn up, often protected by a ring of riot police, and proceed to knock the building down and brick up holes. They leave behind a mess of glass, timber and nails

Those I know among the affected seem to accept their losses with equanimity. The owner of one small shop which has been bricked up continues to sell supplies through the tiny window space left in the wall, eight feet above the ground. Customers buy their water and toilet paper by stretching up to scan a WeChat QR code on their phone to pay. It is an odd situation, to say the least.

Not far away, a tailor whose hometown is outside Beijing simply sits in the shade outside his former shop, chatting with his friends and neighbours, with his tape measure and order book in his bag. Customers try clothes on in the nearby public toilets. He will move soon, but hasn't found a place yet. He simply shrugs and says with a wry smile, 'It's because of Xi Jinping, he's improving things, you see.'

Western businesses are also being affected by the Beijing clean-up, but apparently for different reasons. Even those in well-established (and even iconic) locations that have been operating for many years, employ Chinese staff, are fully registered and pay their taxes are being shut down. One international restaurateur has, inexplicably, had his food licence revoked after operating for more than a decade. Other cafes and restaurants, many of which are institutions that draw Chinese and international tourists, are likely to suffer a similar fate.

The result of the efforts to shut down and brick up large parts of Beijing is certainly a tidier city. However, the the lack of transparency, accountability, or any appeals process suggests the Beijing government has taken a rather blunt approach. The primary impulse of decision-makers seems to be to please those above them in the hierarchy by meeting or ideally exceeding neatly quantifiable targets. There appears to be little regard for the wellbeing or livelihoods of the people affected, or the liveability of the city as a whole.

While that may be rather depressing, the humour and resilience of the Chinese people is still apparent. As has so often been said, for every measure from the top, there are multiple creative ways to sidestep it. The people of Beijing accept, reshape, and reinvent. They are the embodiment of flexibility and adaptiveness.

China: No country for old men?

On 18 October the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will kick off, and the new makeup of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) will be revealed. The policy direction and success of President Xi Jinping's next term depend on who makes the cut.

A mostly informal set of rules govern eligibility for a spot on the PSC. One important convention holds that promotion to or retention on the committee is dictated by the candidate's age when the National Congress is held. This precedent, started and upheld since 2002, is encapsulated by the catchphrase 'seven up, eight down' (七上八下) – if a candidate is 67 at the time of the congress, they may advance upwards in the ranks. If a candidate is 68 or older, they probably expect to be retired.

In theory, this norm precludes five out of seven members from staying on the PSC this October. According to the age norm, only one member of the PSC (apart from Xi, aged 64) will not be of retirement age come October: China's second-in-command, Premier Li Keqiang, who is 62.

If the age precedent is upheld, which candidates will fill the remaining five spots in China's leadership? How will the leadership line-up change? What the age rule means in practice has sparked a flurry of speculation in the run-up to the National Congress – but perhaps a more illuminating question is whether Xi will uphold the 'seven up, eight down' convention at all.

Last October, Deng Maosheng, a senior Party official from the Central Committee's Central Policy Research Office (overseen by one of Xi's top policy advisors), called the notion of a binding rule on age 'folklore', saying that age limits 'are party practices that can be sometimes adjusted as needed'. Since then, speculation has been rife that Deng's statement aimed to create space to bend the rules, perhaps to keep one man in particular by Xi's side on the PSC: Wang Qishan.

Wang, who will be 69 by the time of the National Congress, is the PSC member for whom Xi would be most inclined to negotiate an exception to the age norm. Wang's achievements stand in sharp relief against those of his colleagues. He has spearheaded Xi's signature anti-corruption campaign, cleaning up the Party and eliminating Xi's opponents, and has gained a reputation as a 'firefighter' due to his deft handling of economic, political and health-related challenges. He may be one of Xi's most irreplaceable allies.

Xi could easily argue that Wang must stay on the PSC because he is the lifeblood and sine qua non for the success of the anti-corruption campaign, which is still ongoing. But Xi might also be keen to knock the age convention on the head so he can put Wang's 'firefighting' ability to use in new, more critical roles. If 'everything Wang Qishan touches turns to gold' (as one senior government official reportedly put it) then why not install him as head of a new National Supervisory Commission? Or even as Premier, in place of Li?

In a poll conducted by Sinocism's Bill Bishop, 66.4% of respondents believe that Wang will stay on, suggesting that about two-thirds of China-watchers think that Xi will override the 'seven down, eight up' norm and keep long-time ally Wang Qishan on the PSC. If Wang remains, Xi will be breaking with a 15-year precedent – but it's hardly a doctrine steeped in Party tradition. CSIS's Christopher K Johnson argues that former President Jiang Zemin introduced and used these age rules for political purposes to eliminate his rivals, and that his successor Hu Jintao adhered to the convention because of his 'political impotence'.

Xi might feel confident breaking with precedent, especially with the greater authority that his entitlement as 'Core Leader' has brought. But after five years at the helm of an anti-corruption campaign that has seen over a hundred high-ranking officials arrested, Wang may well have more foes than friends in the Party, making the retention of Wang a challenge for Xi. Ultimately, breaking with the status quo might cause a headache for Xi inside the Party, but one that he can probably manage and endure for the stability that Wang's skills promise.

For Xi, any type of instability is a failure. In this context, keeping Wang on could help Xi weather the economic, political and social challenges that lie ahead. Though breaking with the age norm would signal that Xi's power is not constrained by informal precedents, it could also reveal a dependence on Wang – not just a desire but a need for him to remain.

But there still remains a sizeable chance that Xi does not have the stomach for a tussle over age norms. In the 'Wang retires' scenario, Xi might instead concentrate his political capital in the traditional horse-trading that precedes the National Congress by brokering deals within the Party and ensuring eligible and loyal allies have a place on the Politburo and its Standing Committee, stacking the odds in his favour.

He could plausibly mix these two – retain Wang and stack the PSC full of his allies. But this is perhaps the hardest option of all. It would require a high-octane performance from Xi, as he would need to build consensus in his favour without making too many concessions to his adversaries within the Party. This is not inconceivable for a man who has gained a reputation as 'Chairman of Everything', but it would certainly be a challenge.

The way in which Xi deals with the age question in the make-up of the PSC will be a good indicator of the nature of his power and the extent of his success. It will indicate if and when Xi is willing to compromise, his future policy priorities and perhaps even his political insecurities.


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