BY ITAMAR WAKSMAN
There is arguably no nation more politically opaque than the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Leadership and policy are all decided behind closed doors, with dissent thoroughly eliminated by the most elaborate censorship apparatus in the world. This is why the entire nation, and legions of watchers throughout the world, enter a frenzy of speculation when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) comes together for its Party Congress every five years. This year’s congress, which met from Oct. 18 to Oct. 24, is one of the most significant in recent memory due to one man: Xi Jinping. President of the PRC, Secretary of the CCP, and chief of the military, Xi assumed his position as leader of China in 2012 and has been amassing power ever since. Xi now holds twelve official positions in the Chinese government, with a broad array of responsibilities ranging from economic reform to Taiwan affairs. Xi has been deemed China’s “core leader,” a title that has never been bestowed before. The results of this year’s congress will decide the continued trajectory of Xi’s spectacular rise to political dominance.
Ever since Deng Xiaoping handed power over to Jiang Zemin in 1992, Chinese politics, operating within the framework of the CCP, has been governed by rules and norms. In order to avoid the negative consequences associated with absolute leaders like Mao Zedong, the Party instituted a series of regulations to ensure that effective, stable changes in leadership could continue. No member of the Party could serve at one post for more than ten years, serve at one level of power for more than fifteen, or be elected by the Party to any official position after the age of 67. Party politics have also been characterized by the relationship between two loosely defined factions: the Shanghai clique, a collection of politicians associated with former leader Jiang Zemin who are mostly children of revolutionary leaders, and the Communist Youth League (CYL) faction, a group of politicians who rose through the ranks of the Party’s youth organization associated with former leader Hu Jintao. Xi is more closely associated with the Shanghai clique, though his connection to this group is not very well-defined. The Shanghai clique became dominant at the last Party Congress in 2012. Of the seven members elected to the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the most powerful decision-making body in the Party, six were connected to the Shanghai clique, with only Premier Li Keqiang coming from the CYL faction. This compromise allowed Xi to have a strong political base to execute his vision. However, it was clear that this imbalance of power was not the new equilibrium, and eventually the CYL faction will be given a greater place in policy. This year’s Congress will decide if the two decades of rule by consensus will continue, or if Xi will use his high level of popularity and consolidated power to break conventions and extend his rule in a way not seen since the era of Deng.
What has emerged thus far shows that Xi understands the importance of Party norms and believes his rule to be fundamentally different from that of his two predecessors. Xi has presented a new slogan to be integrated into the constitution, a move that echoes Mao and Deng’s influence on the country’s direction. “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” is the culmination of Xi’s vision for China, a China that is affluent, powerful, and led by the CCP with Xi at its helm. Xi has outlined a two-stage development plan, in which he will work towards “realizing socialist modernization” by 2035 and turning China into a powerful country by 2050. It is yet to be seen is if this will be recorded as “thought,” the most paramount title only enjoyed by Mao’s vision, or “theory,” like that of Deng. Either way, this means that Xi is being compared to the two great leaders of the PRC and will have a lasting influence on future policy. Xi’s new theory is a divergence from the particular vision last set by Deng. Deng emphasized industrialization and development at all costs, believing that the more competitive coastal regions should first get rich and that wealth would later spread to the rest of the country. In a nod to the vein of populism throughout the world, Xi has promised to fight for a more equal China by reducing the rampant inequality between rural and urban residents, as well as continuing his fight against poverty and pollution. Xi believes China should no longer be centered on increasing gross production, but instead on building an affluent Chinese society ready to lead the world through innovation and soft power. In doing this, Xi is adjusting almost four decades of policy, a feat reflecting his confidence in his position as China’s supreme leader.
Xi understands that placing constraints on the Party is essential for its continued existence. Wang Qishan, head of China’s anti-corruption agency and Xi’s close ally, will retire at age 69 due to party rules. If he was re-elected, it would have signalled that Xi does not attach importance to rule-based politics and could seek a third term at the next Congress in 2022. With Wang stepping down, it is clear that Xi values continuity over personal ambitions and was not willing to weather the political storm required to keep Wang on. Another interesting move was the omission of Chen Ming’er and Hu Chunhua from the PSC. Chen is the party chief of Chongqing and Xi’s protege, while Hu is a rising star closely associated with the Shanghai clique. While both will have terms on the Politburo, their exclusion from the PSC signals that Xi is more focused on realizing his dream for China than future leadership struggles. Instead, he has assembled a PSC balanced between both factions with strong, experienced leaders. At Xi’s opening speech for this year’s congress, he had both of his previous predecessors at his side, revealing his emphasis on a CCP that moves past factional struggles and power plays and is instead focused on its governance of the nation.
After this Party Congress, Xi will be influential as ever and his power is only increasing. He has a vision for a China at the center of the world, a return to a philosophy that is evident in the very name for China, the “middle kingdom.” Xi has altered the social contract between the Chinese people and the CCP, placing himself firmly in the center of the relationship between the two, personally guaranteeing the success of the nation in return for their absolute loyalty. Only time will tell if he has the craftiness and nuance to realize his “Chinese Dream.”