Bhim Subba, ICS-HYI Doctoral Fellow, University of Delhi
The 19th CPC National Congress convened from 18-24 October 2017. As the established norm, a congress has two functions: a political report, and personnel arrangement. Likewise, the congress also makes substantive policy guidelines for the party-state. In this session too, General Secretary Xi Jinping, in his role as ‘core’ leader, put forward important policy guidelines, which was endorsed by the Central Committee. However, the most important is the canonization of Xi Jinping Thought in the party charter alongside Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory, which has made Xi the most powerful leader in present-day China. Thus, questioning Xi will mean questioning the CPC!
Xi Jinping Thought – Part of a Continuum
Xi Jinping’s more than three hour-long speech outlined achievements of the last five years of his tenure, and announced that China is entering a ‘new era’, and laid a new guiding ideology as ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ which subsequently was added to the party charter in power.
Looking at the report, one can analyze that this formulation is not ‘new’. Rather it is a collection of his ‘important’ speeches—focusing on improving governance, and establishing the ‘socialist’ rule of law. In fact, it is built in a continuum on earlier theoretical formulations for the leader to legitimize his authority within the Party and polity, and enjoying ‘unassailable’ concentration of power. At the same time, Xi Jinping Thought is a ‘comprehensive’ guideline for the future of the party-state that has tried to address contemporary challenges.
Reclaiming the Party
One of the major aspects of the report and Xi Jinping Thought is the primary focus on the Party. Xi stressed ‘Party leadership in all work,’ bringing the Party right back in the discourse once again through mobilization of ideology, cadres and organization. He also stressed that only under the CPC leadership, can the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation and ‘socialist modernization’ be achieved.
The report also stresses the Party’s goal of building a strong military, which is world class, and ‘obedient’ to it.
Xi’s emphasis on the Party as an epitome of ‘trust’ given by the people should not be underestimated by cadres for selfish ends. Anti-corruption campaigns, san yan san shi (‘three stricts and three earnests’), liang xue yi zuo (‘two studies, one action’), and other such rules and regulations were formulated to rectify party nihilism. Xi is thus, ‘resurrecting’ the legitimacy of the CPC, which is increasingly centralized in the top leadership.
One of the primary functions of the Party congress is the leadership reshuffle or new arrangements in Party organization. As speculated, the top decision-making body the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and the 25-member Politburo (PB) were filled with Xi Jinping’s affiliates. Beside Li Keqiang, Xi’s contemporary since the 2012 in the PBSC, the newcomers are Li Zhanshu (67 years old); Wang Yang (62); Wang Huning (62); Zhao Leji (60) and Han Zheng (63). These leaders are in the sixties, and this congress did not elect any younger sixth generation leader. Though Hu Chunhua, a party secretary from Guangdong and PB member since 2012 was not promoted to the PBSC, neither did Chen Miner, a Xi confidant, a Central Committee member, who replaced Sun Zhengcai as Party Secretary in Chongqing.
However, the most interesting development is the non-inclusion of Li Yuanchao (66 years) and Wang Qishan (69). If Liu was eligible, then Wang was above age-limit. But there were also recent revelations about corruption surrounding Wang’s family by Guo Wengui, a fugitive Chinese businessman living in the US. Similarly Liu’s name being dragged into some graft cases may also have dented his political career.
It is too early to say how many Central Committee members are ‘blessed’ by Xi. But considering the present PB and PBSC, one can also find ‘factional bargaining’ among the ‘party-elders’ who act as powerbrokers. Not all are Xi’s men. Li Keqiang, Han Zheng and Wang Yang have different powerbases. The concern for political weiwen or leadership stability is important for the survival of the Party. So, it is quite early to conclude that Xi, as ‘core’ leader, faces no checks and balances.
Succession Politics – Factional Balancing?
Non-anointment of a successor is also not unusual in Chinese politics, but since the ‘open door’ policy and reforms, grooming of successors has played an important role in institutionalizing political succession in the Party-state. The 1989 Tiananmen incident was only an unusual moment when Jiang Zemin was appointed as the ‘core’ of the third generation after replacing Zhao Ziyang as CPC General Secretary. Zhao had in turn replaced Hu Yaobang in 1987.
Xi, is thus under no duress to appoint a successor. One may also speculate that naming a ‘successor’ can also lead to bandwagoning and cultivation of patron-client relations of the younger leaders, and can challenge the incumbent’s authority and create different power-centres. He has taken a risk not anointing a successor – the governance of the Party-state will depend on Xi’s good health, and especially if he wants to remain at helm even after 2022. But given the general longevity of life Chinese leaders enjoy unlike in other Party-states in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the odds that Xi will stay in power after 2022 are high. But how he will exercise his power – whether formally or informally – remains to be seen.