THE CRITICAL 19th Party Congress is due to get underway on October 18. A three-day preparatory meeting of the Party’s top leadership wrapped up today in Beijing.
It is commonly held that President Xi Jinping will emerge from the forthcoming Party congress with an even greater grip on power. That may well be true; Xi will certainly be reappointed to the Party’s top post, general secretary, and might well be able to prevent Politburo Standing Committee promotions that indicate a designated successor in five years time — suggesting that Xi might stay beyond the now customary two terms.
An extension for Prime Minister Li Keqiang is less likely, with Hu Chunhua, Party boss in Guangdong (a post Xi’s father once held), being lined up to succeed him.
However, Xi’s enhanced power will not be as absolute as the personality cult building up around him might suggest. He will still have to horse trade with nodes of power and influence within the Party that have been diminished but not extinguished by his anti-corruption campaign.
The outcome of those compromises will offer a measure of the willingness of China’s elite to accept another five years of Xi’s tightening and highly personalised political control.
Little of that horse trading will be on public view at the Party Congress. Instead, there will be much play given to the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ and the ‘Chinese dream’, two somewhat ill-defined distillations of Xi’s “four identifications” that he believes all Chinese should make (with the motherland, the Chinese race, Chinese culture and the Chinese socialist road).
Part of that, also likely to be prominently presented is China-centric alternatives to the US-dominated Western international order, if not couched in quite such confrontational terms. Ambitious attempts to redraw the global geostrategic map, such as Xi’s pet ‘One Belt One Road’ project, will be presented not in terms of Chinese assertiveness and expansionism on the global stage but ‘win-win’ partnership and cooperation. China will also be presented as the rational counterpoint to US President Donald Trump that the world needs now, with Xi himself as its embodiment.
Meanwhile, much of the backroom dealing will already have been done.
Xi’s goals are twofold. First, he will wish to drive forward his self-appointed mission of reinventing both party and country so that the Party retains its monopolistic grip on power, which history suggests is at risk as China becomes richer.
Five years ago, managed economic reform was at the forefront of Xi’s agenda, but has been thwarted by vested interests, which have had to be systematically removed, mostly through the anti-corruption purge. Economic reform needs to be restarted, and before the country’s debt problem causes political problems. He still does not have the control over the economy that he does over the state security apparatus, military and, increasingly, the Party.
Second, he will want to put in place people who can carry forward that mission if and when he is gone, and to make sure they do not suffer the purges that Xi has used to decimate his rivals.
We use the verb deliberately. Roughly one in ten officials have been warned, put on probation, demoted or expelled from the Party since the crackdown started. According to Central Commission for Discipline Inspection figures published earlier this month, 1.34 million township-level and 648,000 Party members and officials in rural areas have been punished in the five years of the campaign, as well as more than 70,000 officials at or above the county-head level. More than 35,000 officials have been prosecuted.
That is a lot of ‘flies’, but several ‘tigers’ were tamed, too, including Sun Zhengcai, a Politburo member seen as a potential successor to Xi, and Wu Aiying, 65, justice minister from 2005 until this February past and one of only a handful of senior female officials in China. The flies represent, as this Bystander noted before Xi ascended to power, how he is driven by a sense of a loss of the Party’s traditional moral values of honesty, dignity and self-respect; the tigers reveal his political ruthlessness.
This crackdown consolidated Xi’s control but also broke the implicit post-Mao pact that effectively banned large-scale purges within the elite. Xi’s followers no longer have that self-preservation guarantee, either. Xi needs to gather more power to himself now to protect them, and thus his legacy, in the future.
There are risks. The anti-corruption campaign has had a chilling effect on officialdom and morale is low. The security apparatus and military can be kept onside through expanded missions, new toys and reorganisations that elevate Xi loyalists. But the civil administration is a different matter.
Xi will need China’s massive administrative apparatus to implement his economic reforms. Their disciplined enthusiasm for doing so will be critical, especially as they will no longer be able to skim off their piece of economic progress. The anti-corruption campaign appears to have eased back on the Communist Youth League, the faction that draws heavily from cadres and government officials.
Xi’s leadership is likely to be more openly challenged within ruling circles should the economy run into serious problems, perhaps as a result of the debt crisis being mishandled or from an external shock, such as a trade war with the United States, although the state security apparatus would likely prevent either from triggering social unrest. Similarly, failures connected with his signature international projects, notably One Belt One Road, could undermine him domestically.