Last night, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) kicked off its twice-per-decade event known as the National Party Congress, during which its central leadership is reshuffled and policy goals for the foreseeable future are presented. The 19th installation of this massive gathering has likely garnered more global attention than any Party Congress in years past.
The real politicking has already been conducted over the past several months (if not longer), so what we see unfold over the course of the next few days will largely be ceremonial in nature. There are several major headlines, questions both answered and unanswered, that will filter out of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Thus, here are four things you need to know about this year’s CCP National Party Congress after Day One:
1) Xi Jinping will bolster his position atop the CCP hierarchy
The Party Congress began late last night with an exhaustive speech from Xi Jinping, CCP General Secretary and President of China. In the 3-hour address, Xi covered every conceivable aspect of the CCP’s all-encompassing governance of China, and yet he was able to remain impressively vague.
Delivered in his hallmark slow and deliberate pace, Xi’s speech was significant for one major reason. He finally introduced his new political mantra, an unwritten tradition of Party leaders dating back to Mao Zedong. The new slogan, “thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era,” though perhaps not the final wording, will be enshrined in the CCP constitution. There is talk that Xi’s name will be affixed to this amendment, which would place him in the company of only two other CCP leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
Should this happen, there are no two ways about it—Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. He was already anointed as the “core” leader late last year. A clause in the CCP constitution bearing his name and his new political theory will only expand his already mountainous authority.
On top of that, the actual restructuring of the CCP Politburo—and the even more mysterious (and powerful) Politburo Standing Committee—should place even more power firmly in Xi’s grasp. It is predicted by many experts that Wang Qishan, Xi’s anti-corruption czar, will remain on the PBSC despite being above the generally accepted (though not codified) retirement age.
It is also believed that Xi will be able to secure positions on the Politburo and PBSC for his closest allies, particularly Chen Min’er, a rising star in the CCP and current Party Secretary of Chongqing. One indicator that this will happen is the recent purging of Sun Zhengcai on graft charges in June. Sun was widely thought to be headed towards a seat on the PBSC.
If Xi seizes victory in some, if not all of these political games, there will be very few Party members in the highest ranks who are able to question his authority. Whether this will help or hurt the advancement of “thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era,” is anyone’s guess.
2) Broadened Party control will dispel all theories of political liberalization in China
During Xi’s speech, emphasis on CCP control over all aspects of life in China was front and center. He said, “The party, government, military, society, education, north, south, east, west—the party leads everything.” Not exactly reminiscent of a Washington or Jefferson inaugural address.
He also reaffirmed political theories such as the “mass line” and the “people’s democratic dictatorship,” both pillars of Maoist doctrine that, in a socialist utopia, evenly disperses political power among the masses, but in reality consolidates authority only in the highest echelons of the ruling party.
Xi has been more of an ideological stalwart than any of his predecessors, save for Mao. His devotion to Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and socialism with Chinese characteristics remains undeterred. The ramifications of this will continue to play out to varying degrees in all of China’s institutions, from banks to classrooms.
China experts have been trying to predict for decades now whether greater marketization in China’s economy serves as a prerequisite for inevitable liberalization within the government. This will never happen. Though Xi promises the continuance of Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening Up” into the 21st century, maintaining the CCP’s authoritarian state is and always will be the top priority.
3) Xi may not identify his successor, leaving open the possibility of a third term
This one has China experts, global leaders, and everyone with a remote interest in Chinese politics eagerly anticipating the completion of the 19th Party Congress. Will Xi indicate who will take his place atop the Party? Or will he leave it a mystery, keeping the door open for a third term?
There is no consensus on what will happen here. China hawks are already shouting that Xi will definitely disregard the two-term tradition and become the Vladimir Putin of East Asia. More prudent analysts believe the unwritten rules and political norms will prevail, and we’ll know who China’s next president will be after this week.
As is often the case in such debates, I think the actual result will be somewhere in the middle. Xi will likely position a qualified successor on the Politburo Standing Committee, someone who is an ally, but there will be some other factor at play that diminishes the guarantee of succession five years from now.
4) Efforts to present China as a model for development around the world will be on full display in Xi’s second term
From a geopolitical and international affairs perspective, this was perhaps the most troubling portion of Xi’s speech to me.
“China is not on a path of convergence with Western capitalism,” he said. We all knew this, of course. However, this was the first time I noticed Xi posit that China’s model of economic and political development could be implemented elsewhere around the world. Who knew that socialism with Chinese characteristics could be seamlessly introduced in Africa or South America?
China will undoubtedly continue to play a more dominant role in global economic and security issues. It is vital for the United States to counteract this influence with our own. The last thing the world needs is more countries taking after China’s Leninist government and state-controlled market system rather than the United States’ republican model of government and free-market capitalism.
It’s unclear how China’s efforts to market their model of development to the world will actually look on policy or propaganda fronts, but Xi will no doubt be the final arbiter in any plan to make China an attractive blueprint for other nations to follow. The United States should be very wary of this. Thankfully, if we can get our own house in order, this shouldn’t be an overly difficult task.
Cover image courtesy of Wang Zhao/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images