The following article originally appeared in The Times of India on October 26, 2017.
The National Congress of the Communist Party, held every five years, is the closest thing authoritarian China has to an election. The most recent Congress – the 19th – was held October 18-24, and was an occasion for the over 2,000 delegates to deliberate and agree on policy matters guiding the nation. It also witnessed the selection of the Party’s Central Committee, the 25 member Politburo, the 11 member Central Military Commission, and the 7 member Politburo Standing Committee, which forms the country’s most exclusive leadership circle.
Observers in China and around the world had been on the lookout for signs about the degree of centralised power that will now lie with President Xi Jinping, and hints about his future succession plans. The implications are potentially significant. Among other things, they will affect India’s economic prospects, border security, neighbourhood relations, and global ambitions. With the unveiling yesterday of the Politburo Standing Committee, we now have some tentative answers, although they are far from encouraging.
First, on policy, Xi laid out his thoughts in a marathon three-and-a-half hours speech on October 18, the central theme of which was ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. With the goal of achieving “national rejuvenation”, Xi has advocated a “people-centred philosophy of development” grounded in “Four Comprehensives”: the continued centrality and strengthening of Communist Party rule, further reform, “law-based governance”, and the building of a “moderately prosperous society”.Xi also spoke of the need for a strong military capable of winning wars and “a new type of international relations”. A cynical reading of Xi’s speech would suggest that the party’s governance philosophy now clearly constitutes a mix of authoritarianism, populism and nationalism.
This broad approach has Xi’s strong personal imprint and ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ has now been written into the Communist Party’s charter. This week, the 19th Congress “unanimously” agreed that Xi Jinping Thought will guide the party for the foreseeable future. Xi and the Party are now effectively one and the same, and opposition to one constitutes opposition to the other. Moreover, the inclusion of Xi Jinping Thought in the charter now sets China’s president on par with only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping as major leaders of Communist China identified with their own philosophies.
The second indicator of Xi’s power – the politics, rather than the policy – resulted in more ambiguous outcomes. To some degree, there was steady continuity, particularly on accounts that directly affect relations with India. General Zhao Zongqi, commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s vast Western Theatre Command (with responsibility for the entire border with India), has retained his position in the Central Committee. The country’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi, who acts as the special representative for the border talks with New Delhi, was elevated to the Politburo.
Of greater curiosity, observers were looking to see whether the 69-year-old Wang Qishan, who has led Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and is sometimes described as the country’s second most powerful person, would retain his position on the Standing Committee, in contravention of informal age limitation rules. Wang’s retention would have been a key indicator of Xi’s dominance over various rival factions within the Party, and a sign that Xi would have a recent precedent to hold on to power for another five-year term beyond 2022 after he crosses the age threshold of 68. However, Wang was not included in the Central Committee list, and is expected to be replaced by new Standing Committee member Zhao Leji.
Furthermore, questions lingered about who would fill the leadership vacuum caused by Xi’s purge of those who have opposed his rise to power. Bo Xilai, the charismatic head of the party in Chongqing and once considered a potential rival of Xi’s, was found guilty of corruption in 2013 and sentenced to life imprisonment after a high profile trial. Xi also went after the old guard. In 2015, Zhou Yongkang, once one of the country’s most powerful people as head of internal security and law enforcement, was similarly charged and sentenced. Sun Zhengcai, who until recently was considered a future senior leader, was suddenly expelled from the party.
Eyes were therefore on a handful of younger political leaders as potential successors to Xi. Hu Chunhua of Guangdong Province was seen as an earlier frontrunner, but the rise of Chen Min’er as the party chief of Chongqing following Sun’s expulsion had created an alternative. Heilongjiang chief Zhang Qingwei, a former aerospace engineer, represented an outside possibility. But as it turned out, none were appointed to the Standing Committee, leaving open the questions about Xi’s likely successor.
In sum, the 19th Congress has seen Xi consolidate power to a degree not seen since the days of Deng Xiaoping and possibly since Mao Zedong. He has maintained the authoritarian, populist, and nationalist tone that has characterised his presidency to date, and now has fewer checks on his power and vision. At the same time, questions about his succession remain as open as ever. For India, as with other countries around the region that have been confronted with China’s growing assertiveness under Xi, these are discouraging signs.