As curtains fell on the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, a new era opened for the Chinese nation. This was the predominant sentiment in the official Chinese media on October 24. The public mood, on the other hand, was focused on everyday issues: what does the new era portend for small and medium enterprises, for healthcare reform, or property prices? For expats within China, urgent questions had to do with the unblocking of VPNs, WhatsApp and other platforms that had been targeted ahead of the big meeting. Everyone agreed, though, that a great transformation had taken place in modern Chinese politics, a tectonic shift of sorts.
President Xi Jinping became the first leader since China’s modernisation to have his name inscribed–during his tenure–in the CCP’s Constitution. ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’: although the English translation reads as “thought”, the precise meaning is ideology. In that sense, Xi Jinping ideology (Si xiang) occupies a position that is different from Marxist-Leninist Thought (Zhuyi), Mao Zedong Thought, or Deng Xiaoping Theory. Yet, there is no mistaking the elevation of Xi among the pantheon of Party greats.
Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who governed China through its extended phase of meteoric growth, are also recognised in the Party Constitution for their ideological contributions, but their names are not enshrined alongside their guiding concepts. It is worth noting that Xi chose to repurpose Deng Xiaoping’s phraseology: ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’. This is a famous, and famously misunderstood, catch-phrase of the 20th century. To clear misconceptions and apprehensions, Xi intends to fine-tune and popularise his eponymous ideology for a new era, and to posit this as the guiding policy for China’s next growth phase.
In this daunting task, Xi will have his most loyal and trusted aides in the CCP Central Committee (CCP-CC) in various government Commissions and Departments, and the powerful Central Military Commission. On October 25, the First Plenum of the 19th CCP-CC approved the new Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). As predicted by the South China Morning Post two days prior to the official announcement, the five retiring PBSC members were replaced by Li Zhansu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Han Zhen. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang retained their posts. In the weeks leading up to the Congress, there was worldwide speculation regarding: the diminishing status, and perhaps removal, of Premier Li (his portfolio is trimmed, with functions being transferred to new high-level Commissions directly supervised by Xi); the potential continuance of Xi loyalist and anti-corruption campaign chief, Wang Qishan; and the possible grand entry of sixth-generation leaders, Chen Min’er and Hu Chuhua.
Each of these potential scenarios is likely to have involved rewriting Party rules and conventions and to have provoked controversy. This is not the sort of distraction that Xi Jinping desires. He is focused on the metaphorical longer-term and bigger picture. His priority since his first term in office remains CCP strengthening and clean-up, and rebuilding the Party’s role, status and authority in the lives of the citizenry. He has managed a seamless transition to a ‘new era’, adhering to Party rules, while subtly subverting long-standing traditions, such as ‘hiding capabilities while biding time’, governing through collective leadership, and grooming the next generation of principal office-bearers. Hu Jintao’s leadership style was more democratic and ‘collective’, but his ability to push forward meaningful reform agenda was hamstrung by factionalism, and the ambition of colleagues, such as Zhou Yongkang, who was eventually removed by Xi.
Xi will have none of this. The new PBSC is quintessentially his Cabinet. The PLA is being rapidly restructured and refitted along the contours of Xi Jinping Military Thought. Economic tools at the state’s disposal will assume the characteristics of the new-era Socialism propounded by Xi.
There will be a corresponding nationwide cultural resurgence and rejuvenation. Not all the measures are about outright control. Xi and the Party are right to identify unbalanced and uneven growth as potential sources of social conflict. Thus, the goal of aggressive GDP growth will be replaced by thoughtful, balanced and green growth that reduces scope for official corruption. Over seven Plenums, to be held over five years, the tactical initiatives and policies will be forged and rolled out within the framework of the ideology endorsed at the 19th Congress.
As indicated in the first two parts of this series (part one & part two), the CCP is the hero of this epic story. True, Xi Jinping has rebranded CCP and re-energised its connection to the people, but the narrative is essentially owned by the Party.
Most interesting of all, is the extent to which a domestic Chinese political event has extended its appeal to an international audience. This is because the Party Congress has huge ramifications for foreign nations and companies. At press meets held on the sidelines of the Congress, officials from the CCP-CC and the government promised a more egalitarian environment for foreign investors, where they will be treated on par with domestic enterprises.
There are implications, as well, for media access, for ideological message control and image management. At the October 25 press conference, when Xi presented his PBSC colleagues to the world, he made a point of welcoming foreign journalists who wished to cover the true stories of development and change within China. The irony was not lost on those foreign media outlets that were denied invites to the event: the BBC, Guardian UK, the Economist, the New York Times and Financial Times. Correspondingly, the South China Morning Post, owned by the Alibaba Group, has emerged a star in the international media domain, and it is now clear that it has unprecedented access to news, as it happens, in Beijing.
Over the next several months, Xi Jinping’s work report to the 19th Congress will be scrutinised and interpreted for political, economic, social, legal and cultural policy clues. Actions, however, will ultimately speak louder than words, and the people of China will judge by the usefulness of the deliverables, not by the elegance of the ideology.
Indira Ravindran is Adjunct Fellow, China Studies, Gateway House.
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