The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China brought to Beijing over 2000 delegates representing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), between October 18th – 24th, 2017. The National Congress is a twice-a-decade party convention wherein key posts of the party leadership are reshuffled – most importantly for the 7-member Politburo Standing Committee, which is the highest decision-making institution in the state.
This year’s Party Congress began with a monumental three and a half hour speech by Chinese President and CCP Secretary General Xi Jinping. Indeed, Xi was the primary focus of this year’s Congress, as the gathering provided both an opportunity for him to cement his influence through political appointments as well as review his presidential legacy from 2012 to 2017. His comprehensive speech outlined both domestic and foreign policies that will shape his administration for the next five years – focusing on topics as wide ranging as global engagement, domestic political economy, the environment, and the overarching vision of China’s place as a definitive global power in the international system. Below is a selection of some of the most important elements in his speech:
China Engaging The World
Under Xi’s leadership, China has steadily continued its rise as a global power. Thus, it was perhaps unsurprising that this was one of the primary themes of his speech, as he outlined plans for the state to become a “leading global power” by 2025. China’s rise has been the source of intense political debate for decades, and Xi has shown awareness of this by the attempts to soften fears of hegemonic disruptions by emphasis on the state’s peaceful rise within the international community. This was reiterated in his speech, as Xi called for states to understand their presence in a “shared world” with a “shared destiny”.
While Xi has long been an advocate for greater Chinese engagement with the international system – marked by landmark devotion to global initiatives and institutions such as being the largest UNSC provider of peacekeepers to the United Nations – his words on international commitments are undoubtedly strategically timed, to reflect a strategy that wildly contrasts the isolationist US’ foreign policy under the Trump Administration. The juxtaposition of China as a champion of international cooperation with Trump’s “America First” policy highlights the drastic dichotomy between the two states – potentially underlining a relative decline in American hegemonic status as it reverts to international disengagement.
It is important to note that while Xi’s leadership has experienced economic volatility through a stock market crash and increased public debt, overall economic indicators have been positive. The growth of the Chinese economy continues to impress, and has been largely cited as a reason for the high approval and confidence in Xi’s leadership. While reaffirming the legacy of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics – China’s unique brand of a political economy that infuses socialist thought with capitalistic market economy principles – Xi also laid out his vision for the future of the Chinese economy during his speech. In terms of monetary policy, he promised to increase market access for foreign companies and also widen the markets’ role in the financial system and the exchange rate – although no concrete policies to achieve this were announced. Furthermore, he pledged to transform the state into a “country of innovators”, through increased funding for research in science and technology in order to cement the digitization and modernization of Chinese society.
Interestingly, a highly specific and direct tackle was made on the state’s irregular housing market. Aiming to calm fears over a real-estate bubble, Xi stated, “Houses are built to be inhabited, not for speculation”. This outlines plans for the state to establish a “system with supply from multiple parties, affordability from different channels, [ensuring] the availability of affordable rental housing as important as home purchasing.” This is a clear attempt to assuage fears over economic volatility and to establish Xi’s reputation in safe economic leadership, while also reaching out to average citizens who are increasingly being priced out of homes across the state due to overheating in the market.
Zero Tolerance Towards Independence
The longest applause for Xi’s speech came after his straightforward challenge on actors attempting to subvert Chinese autonomy through attempts to “separate one inch of land from China”. This comes as a direct warning to the silently growing distrust with China in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The election of Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 has led to an increased hostility between the Mainland and Taiwan, due to Tsai’s refusal to clearly and publicly accept the “One China” doctrine – the 1992 consensus that states the existence of only “one” China, without specifications as to which entity is the rightful representative. During his speech, Xi warned that China has “the resolve, the confidence, and the ability to defeat separatist attempts for Taiwan independence in any form.” While not explicitly referencing growing calls for Hong Kong independence to achieve democracy in the Special Administrative Region, Xi’s ominous warning that “blood is thicker than water” may potentially increase the resistance towards increased CCP control in the city, as increasing Mainland influence has done in the past.
Chinese concerns about the environment have long plagued domestic and international discourse in the state. The state’s economic miracle has definitively benefited due to initial neglect over the impacts of environmental degradation – indeed, recent research has suggested that up to 4400 people die a day due to outdoor air pollution. However, recent policy pushes by the Xi administration have attempted to mitigate the environmental crisis.
Xi continued this positive approach to the environment through calls for cooperation amongst all members of Chinese society in creating a “Beautiful China”. By encouraging citizens to adopt conservation and recycling, and by calling on industries to innovate towards environmentally friendly industrial practices, Xi has clearly indicated his administration’s contributions in “ensuring global ecological security”.
While the domestic environmental benefits of this approach are obvious, it is also crucial to note that the notion of global environmental strategies ties in with Xi’s attitude towards engagement with the international system, as previously seen through reaffirmations of the Paris Climate Accord right after the withdrawal of the United States from the agreement. This support of global institutions during China’s rise showcases the state in a positive and peaceful light – contrasting with traditional disruptions of dominance in the international system.
Xi’s Legacy Institutionalized
Xi’s prodigious speech was later complimented by one of the most significant events in the 19th Party Congress – the ratification of his own political theory, titled Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, in the constitution of the Communist Party of China. This endorsement solidifies Xi’s power, making it harder for rivals to challenge his policies due to fears of being labeled traitors to the party, while also ensuring the immortality of his legacy beyond his term. This reiteration of a philosophy that calls for stability of the one-party state is an indicator of the tightened grip the party will hold over China – clearly eliminating any hopes for political liberalization within the country.
Alongside the codified assurance of Xi’s legacy in the Party Constitution, the 19th Party Congress showcased his continued consolidation of power within the CCP through the appointment of close advisors and factional peers in both the 25-member Politburo and the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). Out of the six members appointed to the PSC, four came through the same factional ranks as Xi – the elitist princelings, who descend from historically revolutionary families. The fifth, Vice-Premier Wang Yang, rose through the rivaling tuanpai faction and the sixth, Mr. Han Zheng, is linked to the Shanghai based Jiang Zemin clique. The justification for the appointment of these two minorities is twofold: firstly, it is critical to understand that the political strength of rivaling factions has greatly diminished under crackdowns perpetuated by the anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by Xi. Thus, the appointment of these two minorities underlines Xi’s confidence in controlling the elitist stronghold over the party, by keeping factional members in check. Secondly, Xi is able to highlight that he is the ruler of the entire CCP – showcasing stability and unity under his leadership, thereby strengthening his own leadership and power over the state.
The 19th Party Congress can therefore be safely said to have reaffirmed the era of Xi Jinping – from a monumental speech, to the codification of his legacy in the Party Constitution, and to the appointment of his close allies to key decision-making posts across the state. The semi-decade gathering indicated vast approval and trust in the leader, showcasing unity and strength as China continues to rise on the global platform. While Western superpowers stumble through rises of domestic populism and isolationism, China has signalled to the world that it is steadily continuing preparations to emerge as a globally engaged superpower.
Editor: Shivang Mahajan