contributor perspectives

Deciphering China's 19th Party Congress

Bao Pu
Board of Contributors
7 MINS READOct 31, 2017 | 16:05 GMT
Delegates attend the closing of China's 19th Party Congress in Beijing on Oct. 24.
(NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

Delegates attend the closing of China's 19th Party Congress in Beijing on Oct. 24. This year's summit offered a stark reminder of an uncomfortable truth: Few of us truly understand the inner workings of Chinese politics.

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Since the death of its founding father, Mao Zedong, the People's Republic of China has transformed itself from a stagnating autarky into the world's largest trading nation. Throughout the country's ascent, the global media has naturally paid closer attention to the Chinese Communist Party's quinquennial congresses. But because of the secrecy in which China's high politics are shrouded, the proceedings have become increasingly difficult for analysts to cover, and for their readers to understand. Five years after the 18th Party Congress, no one knows for sure how President Xi Jinping came to power, let alone the true nature of his relationship with his predecessors.

To make matters worse, this year Chinese officials excluded the most influential Western media outlets — including the BBC, the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Economist and The New York Times — from Xi's presentation of his new leadership lineup. Prior to the meeting, members of the media simply had to guess who would join the president's innermost circle, the Politburo Standing Committee. During the last four party congresses, the most credible predictions were based on leaks. But this time those leaks never emerged, offering a stark reminder of an uncomfortable truth: Few of us truly understand the inner workings of Chinese politics.

Looking at the Facts

"The one thing we do predict with high confidence is that media coverage of the events of the 19th Party Congress will box Chinese politics into overly clean and confident-sounding narratives about Xi's power, with little mention of the crippling information gaps that should temper our conclusions," wrote Jessica Batke and Oliver Melton in their aptly titled article, "Why Do We Keep Writing About Chinese Politics As if We Know More Than We Do?" Their analysis is perhaps one of the best and most accurate assessments on the subject published in English so far.

Acknowledging the existence of information gaps is a necessary first step toward better understanding Chinese politics. What we really must ask is "What information is missing?" and "How can we begin to gain a better understanding of the situation?"

Let's take the recently concluded 19th Party Congress as an example. The new composition of the Politburo Standing Committee sends some obvious messages. Of its seven members, only Xi and Premier Li Keqiang belonged to its previous lineup. More important, the committee's new additions — Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Han Zheng — make one thing perfectly clear: No successor has been chosen to replace Xi at the Party's helm five years from now.

Making the next in line known to the world a half-decade in advance has been a crucial component of the peaceful transfer of power in China's recent history. After all, the Party's vast propaganda machine needs time to boost a successor's public image and political status before he takes charge of a country that is home to more than 1.4 billion people. Yet no candidate appeared in this year's party congress, which is typically where they are announced. Instead all official statements and media outlets focused overwhelmingly on Xi.

In the absence of a clear explanation, we can only speculate on the meaning of the Party's personnel changes. The promotion of five new committee members suggests that the president is determined to position himself as a one-man show by downgrading the Politburo Standing Committee to a supporting role. Meanwhile, the ousting of anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan is likely the result of a recent scandal that has tarnished his image and rendered him a liability to the Xi administration.

Reading Between the Lines

Even when Western analysts finally get clarity on who China's next leaders are, they often still struggle to divine much meaning from the official announcements and documents that the Chinese state makes available. According to Beijing, the most important change to come from this year's congress is an amendment to include "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" as a guiding principle in the Party Charter, which passed with unanimous approval on the last day of the summit. But the true meaning of this phrase is elusive. The only portion that is clear is "Xi Jinping"; the rest is subject to interpretation.

History, however, may give us a way to fill in the gaps. After being purged from the Party's ranks for his opposition to the violent crackdown on student protests in Tiananmen Square, former Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang published a memoir overseas called Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang. His recollections, untouched by Chinese censorship, provide a rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes process of drafting Party congress reports.

Zhao describes his use of a semantic trick to overcome the opposition of powerful conservative Party elder Chen Yun to an economic reform bill in October 1984, just before the Third Plenum of the 12th Party Congress:

"Chen Yun sent me the draft of his speech for review, and I felt uneasy reading it. ... I visited him at his home and suggested that he add a paragraph: 'The so-called "market adjustment as auxiliary" applies to the scope of production ... free of planning.' He himself had used similar expressions in the 1950s, so he gladly accepted my suggestion. ...

"Why did I make such a suggestion? ... By adding the phrase ... at least half of all commodities were produced according to market demand. ...

"Of course, Comrade Chen Yun would not have explained things in this way."

By tricking Chen into adding what seemed to be a benign phrase, Zhao undermined his rival's desire to preserve the state's extensive role in economic planning, creating an opportunity to fundamentally alter the structure of the economy in the process.

Five years later, when drafting the report for the 13th Party Congress in 1987, Zhao similarly persuaded its participants to endorse the idea that China was in just the "initial stage of socialism," a rhetorical invention that resolved the increasingly unsustainable paradox of a Communist Party enacting reforms to create a market economy. He explains:

"As I started to organize the drafting of the 13th Party Congress Political Report, my vision was to further advance major policies and strategies for reform, but also to formulate a theoretical basis for carrying it all out. ...

"For those intent on observing orthodox socialist principles, how were we to explain this? ... I came to believe that the expression 'initial stage of socialism' was the best approach, because not only did it accept and cast our decades-long implementation of socialism in a positive light; at the same time, because we were purportedly defined as being in an 'initial stage,' we were totally freed from the restrictions of orthodox socialist principles."

These passages are the only published accounts in existence that reveal the real nature of the Chinese Communist Party's unfathomable official documents. Their lessons are threefold. First, parts of the text — even if just a few phrases — are incredibly important to the leaders who insert them. Second, those leaders are the only individuals who have the right to interpret what their phrases mean; all other explanations are purely speculation. Third, the purpose of these documents is not communication, but in part, deception. They are the Party's political camouflage.

As Australian political theorist Kenneth Minogue says, "Politics is in part a theater of illusion, ... new names and concepts are easy to invent." This holds true even for the powerful Chinese Communist Party; some of its social programs would collapse if their true natures were revealed.

Somewhere Only Xi Knows

So what is "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era"?

After years of practical experience, the meaning of "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics" has become clearer to me than the rest. Put simply, it suggests that the state will continue to use market forces to control large sectors of the Chinese economy. All the while it will protect the Party's monopoly on power by rejecting universal values (hence the specification of "Chinese Characteristics").  

And what about "Xi Jinping Thought ... for a New Era"? All we can be certain of is that this phrase is of the utmost importance to Xi, and that only he can interpret its full meaning. But the president clearly wishes to cast the coming years as an era of his making, in which every moment of every Chinese citizen's life bears his imprint.

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