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

While China under Xi Jinping is going to be challenging for the region, ultimately the Party Congress is about what the leadership is doing for China.

Photo:  Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Published 19 Oct 2017   Follow MLVarrall

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.

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