With Xi at helm again, China may become strong but less transparent

New Delhi, Delhi, India Oct 25, 2017, 07.00 AM(IST) Written By: Jagannath P. Panda

File photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photograph:( AFP )

It is time to read the Chinese politics. If every Congress in the Chinese political chronicle has been “special” in offering something new to the country’s political trajectory, the just concluded 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held from 18-24 October 2017 offers equally a number of entries that makes it one of the most “special” events in post-Mao China.

The Congress seems to have not only solidified Xi Jinping’s authority in the Chinese political system as “paramount” leader but also offers a blueprint for the CPC which will guide China through 2022 and beyond.

Known as the real “political heart” of China’s statehood, the Congress is the national chorale through which the CPC sets the direction of China’s rise (????), both domestically and internationally. Though many would still like to view the Congress essentially as a domestic political event of China, it is the party’s National Congress that is the most important political event that determines the landscape of Chinese politics, which is the real basis of China’s ascendancy to power today.

In fact, almost every domestic development in China has its correlation with China’s external posture and the 19th Congress was no different in that regard. What however made this the “most special” event in China’s post-Republic political history is the CPC parameters which have embraced Xi Jinping’s “core” (??) thoughts and ideas to guide China over the next two or three decades to mark the authority of the Communist system in the country as a reference to the rest of the world politics.

The 19th National Congress was ‘special’ for several reasons. First, it marked the formal endorsement of Xi Jinping’s second term as President of China till 2022. Even though it was quite apparent before this event that Xi Jinping would continue as President for the second term, the 19th Congress clearly making Xi Jinping the “custodian political figure” of the CPC while inducting his political thoughts and key ideas into the Chinese Constitution that Xi will decide the nature and future of Chinese politics in the decade to come.

If the beginning of Xi’s second term as President was quite apparent, the 19th Congress sheds light that Xi’s control over the country’s “elite politics” has been so strong that he would probably continue to remain in power beyond 2022. Will Xi aspire to become President for the third term?

Not really. Even though Xi would continue to retain good control over China’s “elite politics”, he would not like to break the recently established usual convention to hold the Presidency beyond the second term since this will cast doubt over his motive and question his stature as China’s true “political reformer”, which he has gained through the anti-corruption drive and many other domestic reforms.

Xi’s continuation in power beyond 2022 is subject to debate, but it is becoming clear that he would probably like to retain the position of General Secretary of the CPC and perhaps the Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) after 2022 to control the Chinese “elite politics” in the near to middle terms.

Second, the 19th National Congress formally endorsing Xi’s political thought and ideas as the fundamental basis of China’s political graph in times to come by amending the Chinese constitution. While the catchphrase is on how to promote a culture of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, Xi’s emphasis involves new ideas and strategies to carry forward reform while offering greater role to market forces in allocating resources, advancing the Chinese soft power network globally and to carry out structural reform in China that will enhance party’s stature.

The CPC has smartly built a context over the last five years to mark Xi’s political slogans as key ideas and thought in China’s ever-evolving political process.
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In fact, the CPC has smartly built a context over the last five years to mark Xi’s political slogans as key ideas and thought in China’s ever-evolving political process. Inducting Xi’s thoughts into the Chinese constitution while making an amendment makes the 19th National Congress a special event. Amending the constitution, however, is not a big call; rather inducing a political leader’s core thoughts and ideas by specially naming a particular leader in the constitution is a special call.

Even though every National Congress and eventually the Chinese constitution have mentioned the political thoughts and key ideas of previous Presidents of China, the Constitution so far has only mentioned the name of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping exclusively along with the great names of Marx and Lenin. Acknowledging Xi Jinping’s political thoughts and ideas by naming him is a special recognition since both the previous Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have failed to earn.

Jiang Zemin’s core idea of “three representatives” was based on empowering the CPC through economic production, thrusting on Chinese culture and building political consensus. Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development” was equally a powerful economic mantra aimed to change the Chinese discourse of development under the CPC from an “over-reliant” society to a progressive society that would thrust on a “high-quality” workforce through improved science and technology.

Neither Jiang’s nor Hu’s name directly figured against their thoughts or core ideas even though their political thoughts and ideas have been widely acknowledged in the constitution. The 19th Congress becomes “distinct” in this regard since Xi Jinping seems to have managed to develop a consensus among the political elites of China to induct his name as a reformer and path-maker for China. Legitimising the process to acknowledge Xi’s political thoughts and ideas in the constitution has not only marked a new beginning for the CPC but also made Xi a “generational leader” equivalent to the stature of Mao and Deng.

Third, Xi’s political thoughts and ideas surrounding the concept of “Four Comprehensiveness” (?????), popularly known as four Cs, makes the 19th National Congress a special event. Xi publicly started talking about the four Cs concept during his visit to Jiangsu province in December 2014 where he appealed to the party workers and people of China to restore faith in the CPC.

The four Cs principles are – comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepen reform, comprehensively implement the rule of law, and comprehensively strengthen party discipline. These ideas may seem to be full of jargon, but they certainly hold utmost relevance in China’s domestic political context since they are linked closely with the future of the CPC.

These principles are closely linked to reforms- political, economic and legal- that China is craving for long. How much these reforms will be achieved is still a matter of debate though: but politically, these are attached to Xi’s core idea of executing the “Chinese dream” (???) and building a “prosperous society” which are essentially linked to address the poverty in the country, challenges emanating from environmental degradation, and the existing regional disparities primarily between urban and rural China. 

Besides, Xi has advocated these ideas with the spirit of restoring China’s historical glory as a powerful nation through the supremacy of the CPC in the 21st century where the goal is to rejuvenate the Chinese nation. Core to Xi’s idea is “two 100-years goals”: (a) to build a moderately prosperous society in China by 2021, and (b) to establish a “strong, affluent and modern country” as a developed nation by 2049.

Massive corruption, intra-party rivalry, and the party’s disinclination to accept transparency have been some of the issues that had cast doubt on the future of the CPC.
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These ideas may look ambitious and superfluous, yet the aim is to mark the CPC’s authority while building China’s future through an impressive economic fortune. This was systematically planned by Xi in his first tenure as President since the acceptability of the CPC was waning rapidly in Chinese society over the last one decade.

Massive corruption, intra-party rivalry, and the party’s disinclination to accept transparency have been some of the issues that had cast doubt on the future of the CPC. Xi’s four Cs concept therefore comes not only to rescue the declining stature of the CPC but also to raise the party’s legitimacy in Chinese society to bring necessary economic and political reforms. 

Fourth, the 19th National Congress displays shades of the return of the CPC’s “command culture”, which would be recurring under Xi’s authority in 21st-century China. The return of the “command culture” is a subject that is less about the style of party functioning but more about the style of the functioning of the leaders.

While the 19th National Congress making Xi one of the most powerful leaders in Chinese history after Mao, the Congress also witnessed how the “command culture” of the CPC can be restored with the “general secretary” of the CPC, which is the earlier version of “Chairman of the Central Committee” of the CPC. Mao always has been referred to as “Chairman Mao” while Deng Xiaoping managed to enjoy the tag of “Chairmanship” for a few initial years before the position of “Chairman” was eventually removed in 1982.

Since then, “general secretary” has been the main political label in China, which Xi currently holds after Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Though the 19th Congress still continues to persist with the position of “general secretary”, still the term “Chairman” has been used against Xi’s name symbolically in the recent past to augment his stature in the Chinese political spectrum. For instance, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was noticed addressing Xi as “Chairman” and “Comrade” during the recent 20th commemoration ceremony of Hong Kong’s handover to China. The phrasings of “Chairmanship” and “Comradeship” were most frequently used during Mao’s period.

China has not only emerged as the largest trading partner with 128 countries in the world but equally emerged as a favourite destination for investment.
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In brief, the 19th Congress was not just a National Congress that it appears to be. This Congress would be remembered for two precise reasons: first, for strengthening Xi Jinping’s stature in China’s evolving political process; and second, to prepare a ground for the CPC to guide China to the third decade of the 21st century. Besides, the 19th National Congress occurred when China has emerged as the second-largest economy in the world.

China has not only emerged as the largest trading partner with 128 countries in the world but equally emerged as a favourite destination for investment. Therefore, the 19th National Congress has prepared the path of political fortune of a stronger ‘economic power’ that will deeply influence the global politics in times to come. 

Amidst all these, one needs to ask: what impact the 19th National Congress really leaves for China’s broader decision-making process? Politics, political rulers, and their complex background decide what China is today. Understanding the complex functioning of an administration is always a difficult task, particularly in a country like China, where the leadership intentions and the decision-making course remain highly secret.

Xi Jinping’s growing personality as a tall leader with the conclusion of the 19th National Congress makes China’s political process much more opaque and leadership-centric. There is no denying that the political process in China would continue to remain complex where Xi Jinping will decide the fortune of major decisions for the moment, be it domestic or international. 

Debates regarding the success and significance of the 19th National Congress will continue in the ensuing days and months. The importance of this Congress will also be seen in the context of leadership changes that have already been made in the Central Committee of the 19th CPC and eventually in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and the Central Military Commission (CMC). New leaders and their rank profile will make the headlines.

Amidst this, it is difficult to ignore that the CPC’s stature is apparently growing. The world might continue to question the CPC’s realness: but China’s fate unquestionably depends upon the CPC’s governance structure and the authority of its leadership, which the 19th Congress aptly explains. Though the CPC has gone through many changes since its first Congress in 1921, the core element of the Party and the Chinese state still remain intact: that is to build a stronger “socialist structure”. Xi Jinping seems to be reinstating the same through the 19th National Congress. Above all, the Congress signified China’s rising character as a successful Communist system even though the democratic world would like to question the transparency and sheerness of this system.

Jagannath P. Panda

Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the Series Editor for ‘Routledge Studies on Think Asia’.