IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

19th Party Congress: Charting China’s Way Forward

(Pequim - China 01/09/2017), Encontro com o Senhor Xi Jinping, Presidente da República Popular da China. Foto: Beto Barata/PR

Written by Lauren Dickey.

Each iteration of the quinquennial National Congress of the Communist Party of China (or Party Congress) has Sinologists watching for slivers of insight into the black-box operations of the Chinese political apparatus. Of particular concern to many onlookers this year has been whether Xi will stick to Party traditions or forge new rules in the selection of the 19th Party Congress Politburo and Standing Committee on October 25. On the policy side of the equation, a debate between whether Xi will pursue economic or political reform has emerged. But if there is one thing that Xi’s opening remarks at the 19th Party Congress made clear, the CCP General Secretary aspires for China to have its cake and eat it too.

The sweeping vision for national strength and prosperity described by Xi at the 19th Party Congress certainly extends far beyond Xi’s second five-year term. In delineating how the Party must chart its path forward, Xi’s work is ultimately about one core task: ensuring the Chinese people continue to place their confidence in the CCP for governance, security, and a prosperous socioeconomic environment.

Xi’s work report – a nearly three-and-a-half hour long, 32,000-character text – inevitably underwent a lengthy process of consultations, drafting, and revision prior to delivery last week. As Alice Miller of the Hoover Institution has noted, the Party Congress work report is a highly political product, ‘reflecting compromise and negotiation among competing leaders and Party constituencies.’ The final text (available here in Chinese), builds on the five years since the last Party Congress to set a base Party line across major policy issues for the next five years, effectively establishing guidance for work across all levels of the Chinese government. The content is far too expansive to cover in this brief piece, meriting a quick glance at five core themes instead.

Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era (新时代中国特色社会主义思想)

The concept of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was widely touted under Deng Xiaoping as a panacea to China’s economic revitalisation. With time, this phrase has evolved to encompass far more than the economy. Xi has since given the demands for continuing to build a socialist society new life, advocating its continued development in a “new era” defined by both internal and external strategic environments. In elaborating on this new line of Party-endorsed thought, Xi outlined fourteen principles ranging from ensuring Party leadership over all endeavours to improving living standards. Putting aside Party speak, what does this actually mean? To put it simply, it all comes back to the China Dream and the realisation of modernisation and national rejuvenation. Envisioning two stages to make China a “great modern socialist country” by the mid-21st century, the introduction of this new ideological lens is Xi’s personal stamp on the Party roadmap for China’s future and a formal segue into the era of Xi Jinping Thought.

China’s domestic situation takes precedence

The strategic vision of “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” serves as the basis for policy work; actions which the Party envisions will “turn China into a great modern socialist country in every dimension.” Foremost among China’s high-priority policy issues is the economy. While Xi outlined (again) the demands for modernising and pursuing supply-side structural reform, it should be noted that he broke from tradition by opting not to explicitly set an economic growth target. Beyond the economy, the work report also addressed a whole host of issues which impact on the lives of most Chinese including pollution, healthcare, and education. Taken in sum, what will make or break these policy initiatives not only rests on whether Xi has the right people (and bureaucratic mechanisms) in place to execute his agenda, but whether there is adequate political capital vis-à-vis the Chinese populace to do so.

China on the global stage: an alternative model

As America under Trump shirks global leadership roles and Brexit reverberates across the European Union, the Party turns such crises into opportunities by defining a greater space for China on the global stage. Until the 19th Party Congress, much of this was done in deed rather than word – new institutions, economic initiatives, and tools of statecraft have all been employed as an “alternative” to the West. In his delivery of the work report, Xi noted that China’s successes offer “a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence” and that offers “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to the problems facing mankind.” Such remarks add further colour to the debate on whether China is revisionist; whether it is simply expanding influence within, or actively seeking to usurp, the existing international system. One thing is for certain, China is more determined than ever before to play a bigger role – and its leadership is confident in its ability to do so.

China’s military might

Since assuming chairmanship of the Central Military Commission in 2012, Xi has made reforming the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a high priority. So far, he has overseen the reorganisation of military theatre commands, the addition of new units, and personnel cuts. Such efforts are set to continue, with the 19th Party Congress work report setting three important deadlines: (1) achieving mechanisation (机械化) of the armed forces by 2020; (2) completing modernisation of the PLA by 2035 and (3) achieving a world-class military, capable of fighting and winning wars across all theatres, by the 2050s. To do so will require a focus on personnel, institutions, and platforms. One can thus expect additional institutional and organisational reforms, increased emphasis on scientific and technological innovation, and renewed focus on civil-military relations.

China’s periphery: Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan

Preserving Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity has historically remained a priority for Chinese leadership – in their eyes, as Richard Bush of Brookings noted, a divided China cannot be great. The “one country, two systems” framework which allows Hong Kong and Macau to retain separate systems as two of China’s Special Administrative Regions has, by most measures, been a failure. Yet, Xi was unwavering in the Party’s commitment to ensure both regions “are in strict compliance with China’s constitution.” Despite the platitudes to advance democracy, or allow a “high degree of autonomy for both regions”, Beijing’s concerns to safeguard national sovereignty will continue to outweigh all other considerations. This is similarly true in the case of Taiwan, where the CCP will continue to push for reunification via cross-Strait economic and cultural exchanges to draw the two sides ever closer together.

The sweeping vision for national strength and prosperity described by Xi at the 19th Party Congress – of which but only a few themes have been highlighted herein – certainly extends far beyond Xi’s second five-year term. Yet, in delineating how the Party must chart its path forward, Xi’s work as CCP General Secretary is ultimately about one core task: ensuring the Chinese people continue to place their confidence in the CCP for providing governance, security, and a prosperous socioeconomic environment. To be the alpha and omega requires not only the support of the Chinese people near and far, but the political will to implement his highly ambitious agenda. The 19th Party Congress is just the beginning of a new chapter in the Xi era.

Lauren Dickey (@lfdickeyis a PhD candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore where her research focuses on contemporary Chinese strategy toward Taiwan. Image credit: CC by Michel Temer/Flickr.