October 26, 2017
The curtain has fallen on the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress, but the era of President Xi Jinping is only just beginning. Having been in power for five years already, Xi is embarking on his next half-decade term, and the events of the Party Congress suggest he may be leading the country — both formally and ideologically — for many years to come.
The president kicked off the quinquennial gathering with a 3.5-hour speech in which he laid out an ambitious vision for the country — not just for his upcoming term, but also for the next 30 years. A week of discussion followed, with some 2,300 delegates determining the country’s key policies. And the summit ended with a one-two punch of power consolidation for Xi. First, the Party approved a much-anticipated amendment to its constitution that enshrines Xi’s guiding theory, titled “Xi Jinping’s Thoughts on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” The move effectively places Xi, already a “core leader” in the Party, above Deng Xiaoping and on the same level as Chairman Mao Zedong in the Party’s ideological pantheon. Then, in the final event of the Congress, the Party introduced the new lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee, led by Xi. Premier Li Keqiang also maintained his seat, but the other five members are new faces: Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Han Zheng.
Notably, there are no clear successors to Xi within the new Standing Committee, reinforcing the perception that Xi might intend to retain power beyond the next National Congress in 2022. This is in contrast with previous iterations that clearly identified Xi as Hu Jintao’s heir 10 years ago and Hu as Jiang Zemin’s successor before that. The new lineup also quashes earlier speculations that anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan might retain his post despite passing the Party’s customary retirement age, and that Xi ally Chen Min’er might receive a two-step promotion from the Central Committee directly to the Standing Committee. Moreover, the selections reflect a careful balancing of the interests of various — now largely subservient — party factions, such as the Communist Youth League and the Shanghai cliques. Over the past five years, Xi had adeptly reshaped the Party’s structure, securing his place above the disparate political and industrial factions while preserving the Party’s internal consensus.
Although the Party replaced more than half of the Politburo and its Standing Committee because members had reached retirement age, the overall process of filling Party positions was remarkably stable compared to the leadership transitions of years past. Of course, the Communist Party is still fraught with factional disagreements and internal compromises. The surprising dismissal of Sun Zhengcai — the Chongqing Party secretary and once promising successor — from the Politburo and Party rank, and the ongoing hassle of oversea dissidents such as Guo Wengui cast uncertainty over the latest leadership transition. But under Xi’s leadership, the Party demonstrated stability and cohesiveness.
China is undergoing a major socio-economic and diplomatic transition, and to weather the profound challenges that come with that, the Communist Party has largely embraced Xi’s insistence on internal restructuring and his ascendency to near-undisputed power. In his landmark speech, Xi gave a candid assessment of the country’s internal and external changes, which he described as markers of a “New Era.” The president declared that the Party was facing a new “Principle Contradiction” — a contradiction “between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing need for a better life.”
Beneath this nuanced rhetoric lies a key message: China has moved past the paradigms that defined the previous three to four decades and is entering a new phase in modern history. Specifically, Xi indicated that after years of unprecedented economic growth, China will need to address its myriad inequalities and structural imbalances and embrace the prospect of only moderate growth. Likewise, he sent the message that China has come out of a “century of humiliation” and a period of self-strengthening, and must now step up to protect is ever-expanding interests and find its place on the world’s stage. Perhaps most importantly, Xi sent a message about the resilience of the Communist Party, which has always been willing to reinvent itself after hardships.
China’s transition period has been ongoing for nearly a decade. And when Xi entered office five years ago, he focused on consolidating power and weakening his opposition, setting the stage so that he could lead the country through that period and into the future. Now Xi’s era truly begins, though he and the Communist Party face a daunting path. To achieve its goals, China will have to survive its current economic restructuring — a feat that took Japan and South Korea decades to accomplish. Such transformation will require substantial wealth redistribution and could potentially yield high unemployment rates, and it will constantly test the government’s resolve. Among other challenges, the Party will need to manage vast and disparate regional, bureaucratic and industrial interests as well as a surging middle-class population. And all the while, Beijing will face the necessity of outward expansionism and assertiveness, its stated long-term goal of cross-strait unification, and the ongoing rise of nationalist sentiment.
Xi has set a demanding two-part strategy for the country, with the ultimate objective of achieving “socialist modernization” between 2020 and 2035 and making China a “global leader in terms of strength and influence” by 2050 — around the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The latest Communist Party Congress has cemented Xi’s position and given him the power to pursue his ambitious ideas. And though those plans may be challenging, Xi and the Communist Party understand — like their predecessors did before them — that time is their biggest enemy, and they are going to move fast.