As Donald Trump Stumbles, Chinese President Xi Jinping Consolidates Power
The Chinese Communist Party held its Party Congress from the 18th to the 24th of October. This event, which happens every five years, is where the party draws up its priorities for the next five years, makes changes to the constitution, and choose new Central Committee members, as well as senior leadership heads (here is a more detailed description.) It is somewhat similar to an American party convention, except that since the party controls almost all facets of government, the decisions at this Congress have major implications for the future of the country as a whole.
This was also a crucial event for China’s President Xi Jinping, as he seeks to shore up power for himself. He has already pursued great reforms to this end during his first term. His longstanding anti-corruption campaign, which has netted high-level officials and seemingly cut down on graft, has also allowed him to place his own allies in key positions. Major reforms of the country’s military structure also seem to have been conducted for the same purpose.
This, along with Mr. Xi’s insistence on cementing the party as the source of all facets of governance, suggests he wants to do away with the institutional, “first among equals” leadership structure favored by Deng Xiaoping, the president credited with initiating the reforms which brought about China’s economic boom. His preference for Mao Zedong, the People’s Republic’s founder, is well known. Mr. Xi seems to view such consolidation as essential to lead China into a future era of superpower status.
The People’s Congress was therefore essential to this end. With a plethora of committee members retiring, Xi was able to install many of his own people. It was who wasn’t installed, however, that was more important.
Usually, the President appoints his successor onto the seven-member Standing Committee, a sort of governing inner circle. This is usually a younger member of the Standing Committee, that is to be groomed for the job. However, none of the Standing Committee members elected seemed to fit that bill. This raises the longstanding concern that Mr. Xi may not give up the job in five years, as has been the standard practice, and may rule until 2027 or beyond.
Even this was not the biggest event to happen at the Congress. That was surely the passing of an amendment to enshrine Mr. Xi’s ideology into the constitution. The ratification of the so-called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” essentially cements Mr. Xi’s agenda as party directive. More importantly, it elevates Mr. Xi personally to the level of Mao, the last person to have their Thought enshrined in such a way.
Enshrining Xi’s policies as “Thought” is more or less the equivalent of an American President amending the Bill of Rights to reflect his personal platform. Schoolchildren, college students, and Chinese policymakers will study and debate Xi Jinping Thought for generations. Laws and policies will also draw their legal basis from Xi’s Thought.
In a three and a half hour speech at the Congress, Xi gave a hint as to what his Thought would mean for China. The emphasis of bringing the Socialist system to the new era suggests that policies to modernize the economy might be pursued, which would be welcome for an economy that has been slowing in recent years. Earlier this year, Mr. Xi indicated he would pursue more market-based approaches, limit China’s protectionist policies, and continue its pursuit of environmental policies. He will also press on with his corruption purge.
Yet, rather than undertake measures to modernize the economy and regulations around it, Xi seems to think that the changes that are needed lie in the party itself. Wary of the sort of reforms that brought about the end former communist countries, Mr. Xi believes a more dedicated and loyal party class will be all that is needed to energize the country into the new era. Given this desire to strengthen the party’s grip on governance over the pursuit of concrete reforms, it is hard to say how much will really change in China during the rest of Xi’s reign.
Mr. Xi also indicated that he will continue to pursue a more expansionist foreign policy. This will include a continuation of China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, a large-scale infrastructure scheme that aims to link China to the rest of the world. They will also seek to take charge of global climate change policy, especially after Donald Trump’s threatening to withdraw from the Paris Accords.
This, along with other aid projects the country funds, will increasingly draw China into an active leadership role in the global community. Optimists will see this as an opportunity for China to do their fair share on maintaining world order that their rise has warranted, and a potential for a stable counterbalance to Donald Trump’s America. Pessimists will point to the China’s rapidly increasing military spending, its plethora of territorial disputes, and its recent tougher stance on democracy movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as just the overture to a more belligerent and destabilizing global agenda. Only time will tell who will be right.
The implications of Xi’s consolidation will be profound. On one hand, he has been able to maintain order and stability, even in the face of slower growth; not an easy feat for any leader. However, in expanding the role of the party, suppressing dissent and civil society organizations, and cultivating his own personality cult, Xi has also set about returning China to a Maoist state of rule, with Xi governing with little checks or balances on his power. The Party Congress was the latest step towards this goal. Such a prospect is concerning, given both the history of authoritarian leaders in general and Chinese history in particular. Mao Zedong himself presided over a Cultural Revolution that killed as many as 60 million people.
While Xi has not yet shown a penchant for such violent repression, he has been keen to stamp out any opposition to his rule, be it from online activists or minority groups. The aftermath of recent power grabs from the likes of authoritarian colleagues Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin show that fairly pragmatic reformers can quickly turn to ego-maniacal tyrants when at the top for too long. In the words of fellow ego-maniac Kanye West: “No one man should have all that power.”