A Party Congress Tests China's Progress

7 MINS READOct 16, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
The 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress that starts this week will be a test of President Xi Jingping's consolidation of power.
(Feng Li - Pool/Getty Images)

The extent of Chinese President Xi Jingping's grip on power will become clear during the 19th Communist Party Congress, which starts this week.

Editor's Note

The 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress runs Oct. 18-24. The convention marks the start of a transition as delegates name new members to lead China's most powerful political institutions. But the change in personnel is only part of a larger transformation underway in the Party and in the country — a process that began long before the party congress kicked off and will continue long after it ends. This is the first installment in a four-part series examining how far China has come in its transition, and how far it has yet to go.

The moment China's leaders have been waiting for is almost here. The weeklong Chinese Communist Party Congress, held every five years, will kick off Oct. 18, marking nearly a century since the Party's founding in 1921. For China's leaders, the 19th Party Congress will be the year's most significant and politically charged event, an opportunity to reflect on the organization's performance over the past five years and to plan for the next half-decade. The convention will also begin a political transition: Delegates will name officials to the country's most powerful decision-making bodies, the 300-member Central Committee and the Politburo and its all-important standing committee. Their picks will go on to lead China toward its political, economic and diplomatic goals for the next five to 10 years.

At the same time, Xi Jinping will embark on his second term as China's president, a post in which he has undertaken several daunting tasks over the past five years. During his first term in office, Xi helped move China along in its transition from an economic model based around low-cost manufactured goods with low value added to one focused on higher-end industry, services and domestic consumption. He oversaw changes to the country's military and diplomatic strategies, too, as China pushed the traditional bounds of its foreign policy to accommodate its expanding interests abroad. The evolutions had already begun before Xi came to power, and they're still works in progress, having run up against formidable challenges including staggering social and regional inequality, soaring debt, and environmental problems. Still, China is a far different country today than it was five years ago. The question now is where the country is going in the next five years — and how the Chinese Communist Party will get it there.

Granting China Market Economy Status

A Defining Moment

As China has evolved over the years, the Communist Party has adapted in kind to ensure its continued monopoly over the country's political system. But the rapid pace of change over the past five years has kept it especially nimble. The Party launched a campaign to consolidate China's bureaucratic, economic and regional powers while also trying to position itself back at the center of the country's affairs. To counter the economic slowdown that threatened its legitimacy, the Communist leadership harnessed nationalism as a tool to build unity and pride among its people. More important, Xi started a sweeping anti-corruption drive and reshuffling across the Party, his administration and the military that enabled him to become one of China's most powerful political leaders since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Gone is the consensus-driven system that had reigned in the Chinese Communist Party for three decades.

After five years of dizzying change, the upcoming convention raises several questions — in no small part because of the infighting and uncertainty that have characterized past transitions. This year, 11 of the Politburo's 25 members — and as many as five of the seven standing committee members — are set to retire, leaving a large number of vacant seats to fill. Who will replace the outgoing members, what the bodies' new makeup will mean for the power structure of the Party as it continues its quest for continuity and how the incoming leaders envision China's future are all up in the air.

The latter issue will inevitably boil down to a series of difficult choices for the Party. China's leaders, for example, will face a dilemma over whether to keep pursuing socio-economic reform — a difficult process that has slowed recently, but one that is essential to fuel sustainable growth in the country's economy going forward. Similarly, balancing China's expanding interests and influence abroad with the growing resistance to and risks associated with them will be no easy feat. But perhaps the most important question is whether the Party can again reinvent itself, despite its tumultuous history and faltering legitimacy, to usher China through its transformation and attendant challenges in the decades ahead.

The Life of the Party

At the center of these questions is Xi. The president's role in the Party — officially as "core leader" and unofficially as the common thread among the various political and regional cliques in its leadership — cannot be overstated. In the years since he took office, Xi has made impressive strides in his efforts to consolidate power and transform China's political, social and economic landscape. The country today is home to a significantly more nationalistic and less ideologically divided society compared with five years ago, a burgeoning yet still compliant middle class, and a more streamlined central bureaucracy. In addition, Xi has brought many of his policy goals to fruition, including the growing network of maritime and overland routes connecting China to markets abroad. The upcoming leadership transition, then, is less about promoting his cult of personality or advancing his policy agenda than it is about solidifying the president's grip on the Party's top institutions and completing his quest for power.

China's Belt and Road Initiatives

Xi's accomplishments notwithstanding, China is still a country rife with substantial socio-economic problems, public dissatisfaction and political dissidence. His approach to governing, moreover, has sparked its share of controversy over issues such as heightened media censorship and Beijing's increasing control over the state and the economy. The president and the Party made a risky gambit by embracing such an authoritarian leadership model, and the power arrangement that emerges from the impending party congress could make or break Xi's success during his second term. Consequently, the convention will be a litmus test for Xi and for the Communist leadership as a whole.

Passing the Test

All signs so far indicate that they will pass. In the months leading to the convention, Xi reaffirmed his supremacy over the Party, the state and the military and promoted many of his associates to fill the Party's upper ranks with trusted allies. The political conformity, support for measures to include Xi's guiding theory in the Party Constitution and lack of infighting ahead of the congress also suggest a relatively uneventful transition this year.

A biographical sketch of Chinese President Xi Jingping
The party congress will, however, reveal how far Xi is willing to go to tighten his grip on power. It remains to be seen, for example, whether the president will look past the customary retirement age to name Wang Qishan, the 69-year-old anti-corruption czar, to the Politburo Standing Committee. (Beyond his age, allegations of corruption have, perhaps ironically, clouded Wang's prospects in recent months.) It's also unclear whether Xi intends to extend his presidency beyond the two-term limit set forth in the Chinese Constitution. The way in which Xi's guiding theory is expressed in the Party's charter, meanwhile, will provide an early indication of the position he will occupy in the canon of great Communist leaders — perhaps on a par with those of Deng or Mao.
Candidates to become members of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee

Only Half the Battle

Barring unforeseen external or internal disruptions, Xi seems all but certain to clinch his power consolidation during the upcoming party congress. Even so, the president will have to contend with enormous challenges in his next term. China will run into increasing complications as its transformation progresses, and Xi — having established himself more firmly at the center of the country's political system — will have fewer scapegoats to blame for any problems. What's more, the president came to power in a time of relative stability; he has not yet been tested by crisis. If the Chinese economy underperforms in the next five years or if a foreign policy emergency erupts, the president's strength could quickly become a liability, leaving his administration, and, indeed, the entire political system, vulnerable. Aware of that risk, Xi and the Communist Party will try to keep some element of the collective leadership system intact, even as they move toward a more authoritarian model of government.

Their bid to cure China's ills and to keep their grip on power, however, will be a dangerous endeavor nonetheless. Furthermore, achieving the objectives will be exceedingly difficult. But the Communist Party has little choice but to try.

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