By Nigel Inkster, IISS Special Adviser
The announcement in Chinese official media that the Nineteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party would take place on 18 October 2017 ended months of often fevered, but not very well-informed, speculation. Party congresses are highly scripted affairs, designed to set the seal on policies and personnel changes that have already been reached, and they rarely deliver surprises. The announcement of a date for the congress is widely interpreted as meaning that the current Secretary-General, Xi Jinping, now feels confident that he can impose his agenda on the party and establish a new top leadership team that forms part of his patronage network. Much of the final horse-trading that precedes events such as a party congress typically takes place in the summer, during the leadership retreat in the coastal resort of Beidaihe, a place almost Proustian in its redolence of times gone by. But, this year, the absence of rumour from the leadership conclave has led to speculation that the main outlines of the congress had already been decided.
The run-up to the announcement of the congress date has, however, generated a great deal of noise, by no means all of which has translated into comprehensible signal. Since assuming office in 2012 Xi Jinping has adopted a very different, more extrovert leadership style than that of his two immediate predecessors, raising questions about the continuance of a collective leadership style designed to mitigate the risk of Maoist excess. He has also vigorously pursued an anti-corruption campaign that has served both to emphasise a genuine conviction that continuing high-levels of corruption could fatally compromise the party’s hold on power, and to bring into line potential challengers to his leadership. In this context it is significant to note that the most recent high-level casualty of the anti-corruption campaign has been Sun Zhengcai, Party Secretary of Chongqing, who, until his detention, was widely seen as a leading candidate for promotion to a top-level leadership post and possible identification as Xi’s eventual successor.
As matters stand, it is unclear who from the so-called Sixth Generation of leadership is likely to be appointed to the seven-strong Politburo Standing Committee, or which, if any, of the incumbents may stay. For some time now, the tradition has been to enforce a retirement age of 68, which would mean that all existing standing committee members except for Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang should step down. There has however been speculation about whether this will apply to Wang Qishan, until now one of Xi Jinping’s closest confidantes and, in his role as Secretary of the Party’s Discipline Inspection Committee, Xi’s chief enforcer for the anti-corruption campaign. There have been, in any event, recent suggestions that the 68 retirement age could in future be relaxed.
Wang has been little in evidence in recent months, although he finally reappeared in the media, undertaking a discipline inspection tour of Hunan province. His future has become the subject of speculation following explosive but as yet unsubstantiated revelations by the US-based fugitive financier Wen Guohui about Wang’s own involvement in corruption. Whether or not Wang does remain, it is safe to assume that Xi has lined up his own men for the key posts. In recent months a number of new appointments have been made including that of Chen Min’er as replacement party secretary for Chongqing and Cai Qi as Beijing party secretary, both moves that could be a prelude to yet higher office.
Of perhaps greater interest is the speculation that Xi may break with tradition by not appointing a successor and may in fact be planning to extend his tenure beyond the now normal ten-year limit. There has also been speculation that Xi may seek to have his own body of theoretical work – now regularly referred to as ‘Xi Jinping Thought’- incorporated into the Party constitution, as was done with Mao Zedong Thought. Such a development would set Xi apart from his immediate predecessors, and confer on him a special status. If Xi were to opt for a third term, this decision, while not necessarily being approved of by all his peers, might well not encounter open opposition.
But if the details of personal and factional manoeuvring – the Game of Thrones – remain opaque, the broad direction of travel is clear enough. On 26 July, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua published a speech made by Xi Jinping at a workshop for senior provincial cadres entitled ‘Preparing for the 19th Party Congress’. The Xinhua report, stripped of its catatonia-inducing Marxist–Leninist terminology and bewildering obsession with arithmetic – Two Firmly Grasps, Three Key Issues, Five Whats, Nine We’s, Eight Mores, Three So Whats, Two Needs and Two Wants – reads remarkably like any conventional political manifesto. What it does, in essence, is to set out the achievements of the Party under Xi’s leadership, list the priority tasks still to be undertaken and highlight the risks associated with failure to deliver.
Key achievements of the Xi era include strengthening the leading role of the Communist Party and improving ideology, promoting a new development concept, deepening reforms and improving governance, modernising national defence and the armed forces and developing a model of great power diplomacy. This latter point was reinforced in a speech given by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi published in the Party theoretical journal Study Times on 1 September, in which, inter alia, Xi’s thought on diplomacy is described as having ‘transcended the traditional Western theories of international relations for the past three hundred years’.
Most telling, however, is the reference to improved governance of the party, which involves ‘working hard to solve the most salient problems voiced by the people that are most threatening to the Party’s foundation of power’ – a reminder of Xi’s conviction that the greatest threat to continued dominance of the Communist Party comes from within. On a more positive note, the Three So Whats are listed as the Chinese people becoming prosperous and strong; socialism in China having acquired strong vitality; and socialism with Chinese characteristics having expanded the path through which developing nations can pursue modernisation. The to-do list consists of recognising the desire of the masses for a good life, and, specifically, for better education, employment opportunities, higher incomes, better social welfare and healthcare, a better environment and a more fulfilling spiritual and cultural life.
The Nineteenth Party Congress can be expected to focus relentlessly on the positive – and there can be no doubt that there is much to be positive about. But while some of the very real challenges facing China – high levels of indebtedness, a slowing economy, popular disaffection with corrupt and unaccountable officials, high levels of pollution, regional turbulence – will be downplayed, China’s leadership will be acutely aware of these threats to its continued hold on power. The key question the congress is unlikely to answer is whether the Leninist imperative to hold onto power at all costs will run counter to the laudable – and sincerely held – objective of giving the Chinese people a more satisfying and fulfilling existence.