Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies
Xi Jinping is officially China’s strongest leader in decades. The Communist Party of China’s Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) was unveiled at the end of the 19th National Congress of the CPC in Beijing yesterday with Xi Jinping reelected General Secretary for a second term. The 7-member PBSC includes besides Xi and his Premier Li Keqiang, at least four of Xi’s close allies in key positions. Also, in a departure from Party norms it offers no choice of potential successors to take over from Xi in 2022 when again according to norms, he is supposed to step down from power.
This composition of the PBSC in favour of Xi is the culmination of a series of steps he has taken over the past five years, foremost of which was a popular and far-reaching anti-corruption campaign that netted hundreds of senior Party and military officials including a potential rival and a former PBSC member, no less. Among the steps were his being designated ‘core leader’ of his generation of political leaders that effectively allowed him to sideline Premier Li Keqiang, – nominally No.2 in the Party hierarchy and once seen as a balancer to Xi in the PBSC. Equally important was Xi’s pushing through of major and long-pending reforms and restructuring of the military and taking on the title of ‘commander-in-chief’ of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Xi’s reviewing of the 1 August military parade celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA all by himself without any other PBSC member present was another clear sign that Xi would get what he wanted at the 19th CPC Congress.
The Party is Supreme
Xi opened the 19th National Congress of the CPC on 18 October with a long report that mentioned the word ‘Party’ over 300 times, which is more than a 100 times than each of his predecessor Hu Jintao’s two reports at the 17th and 18th Party Congresses. Such statistics are sometimes important in China analysis as they provide a general sense of the trend or emphasis of a report or statement that is otherwise often excruciatingly bland or short of detail. Similarly, the Chinese word for ‘persevere’ appears over 120 times, again more than in previous reports suggesting the stress that Xi places on the CPC in the vanguard role for China. Taken together with his calls for national ‘rejuvenation’ – more than thrice as many times as the last report by Hu – these suggest a more authoritarian, centralizing turn in China.
Xi is not unaware of the challenges before him and the Party. He was careful to call on the Party to consider the kind of modernization and national rejuvenation China should seek and to warn the Party not to let down its guard. While stating that China ‘is in an important period of strategic opportunity in its development’ and stating that the ‘outlook is extremely bright’, he also stated that the challenges are also extremely grim’. Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, was forthright in calling corruption, ‘the greatest threat to the Party’.
At the same time, Xi did not neglect to place his legacy and contribution to China and the CPC on firmer footing by getting ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ adopted as part of the Party constitution – the only man since Mao Zedong to achieve this while still in office.
It is also worth noting that unlike Hu Jintao who took care to refer to his predecessor Jiang Zemin at least twice in each of his political reports, Xi showed no such deference to either Hu or Jiang. Even his references to Mao and Deng or to Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory were far fewer in number than in the case of previous reports. This suggests a certain confidence or at the very least the desire to convey the impression of confidence in his own capabilities. This is certainly also evident in Xi’s references to other concepts of his own making including ‘the Chinese Dream’, and his foreign policy ‘belt and road’ initiative.
Foreign and Security Policies
Moreover, what lies at the heart of any concept that Xi has put forward so far is the belief in a uniquely Chinese way of doing things. In this approach, there is no openness to Western political concepts including Western-style democracy. This presages an era of deep and sustained ideological conflict between China under the CPC and the West. India with its own liberal democratic structure and a history and civilization that rival China’s cannot be a bystander in this conflict if it has any ambitions of its own to be a global power.
These trends suggest that under Xi, China will be evermore assertive and increasingly unabashed in seeking the mantle of global leadership.
The 19th CPC Congress changes little, however, with respect to India. China will have learned from the Doklam standoff that India cannot be treated the same way that Beijing has hitherto treated its neighbours elsewhere.
Nevertheless, China’s rapidly modernizing military and its asymmetric capabilities will pose several challenges for India. Glib talk in New Delhi of being capable of fighting a two-front war is based on outdated military thinking and hide severe deficiencies in command and logistics. There is a refusal at the highest levels of political and military leaderships to take the bull by its horns and implement India’s own long-pending military reforms and restructuring. Rather, what we have is piecemeal reform and half-measures. If the Chinese can grasp the nettle and acknowledge that their military is bloated and poorly educated and prepared for modern warfare, India’s equally bloated and poorly educated military needs to do the same.
This article was originally published as, ‘In Offering No 2022 Successor to Xi Jinping, China Has Broken With Tradition’, News18, 26 October 2017.