Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXLVII, No. 610, October-December 2017.
The Communist Party Convention, which is twice-a-decade event, is of immense political significance in People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is during the course of this Convention that the National Congress, symbolic body of Communist Party of China (CPC), ratifies key decisions made behind the closed doors by Party’s top brass. These include changes in the apex leadership structure, review of past achievements, amendments to Party constitution and realigning future direction. The Nineteenth National Congress of CPC was held from 18-25 October 2017 at the ‘Great Hall of People’ in Beijing. It was attended by 2287 delegates, elected from amongst 89 million Party members.1 Incidentally, the First Party Congress was held in Shanghai from 23-31 July 1921. Then 13 delegates had participated while the Party membership was barely 50.
As per the ancient Chinese belief, it is the ‘mandate of heaven’ (tianming), the divine source of authority that grants an individual right to rule.2 Based on Confucian idea, it ensured dynastic succession, where power and not the lineage mattered. The tradition continued to be observed by various emperors as also politicians till the demise of last Qing Dynasty in 1911, marking the end of feudal monarchy system. Post Chinese Communist revolution in 1949, collective ‘Generational Leadership’ model was instituted to rule the nation.
The ‘First Generation’ CPC leaders were revolutionaries – People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Veterans, namely Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Chen Yi, led by Mao Zedong. To propel China into the league of industrialised nations, Mao came up with an innovative idea of adopting labour intensive approach. It involved setting up backyard furnaces in the rural areas to produce steel to catch up with the West. Perceived to be ‘Great Leap Forward’ (1958-60), the initiative turned out to be a disaster, leading to serious famine, killing millions of people. To retain his popularity and defang the opponents, Mao launched ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966-76), which again proved to be a fiasco, causing serious economic turbulence. Over a period of time, Mao emerged as an autocrat. His ideology; ‘Mao’s Thoughts’, a political theory which propagated ‘collectivism in a classless society’, encapsulated in famous ‘red book’ was enshrined in the Party Constitution.3
Deng Xiaoping, a PLA Veteran assumed the ‘Second Generation’ leadership post Mao’s death. There was a brief spell of power struggle as Mao had left no successor. Deng did away with most Mao’s practices in 1978. His guiding ideology was ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, focussed on economic growth by easing government hold on the means of production.4 It entailed reforming agriculture by de-collectivising of farms. To unleash entrepreneurial spirit, Deng pushed for restructuring the industrial sector by allowing privatisation of small scale enterprises and, thereafter, opening of Chinese economy to foreign investors. It was a clear departure from ‘class struggle’ enunciated by Mao. During Deng’s regime, while the general standard of living improved, the inequality gap widened too.
Jiang Zemin emerged as the core of the ‘Third Generation’ leadership after Deng’s demise in 1997 and pursued collective style of leadership. He officially adopted market economy and reformed ‘state owned enterprises’. His ‘three represents’ ideology, (san ge daibiao) propagated that the CPC should be the representative of advance social forces (to drive economic growth), culture and core interests of the Chinese society.5 Jiang believed in status quo and was averse to the idea of bold reforms. Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao, as the head of ‘Fourth Generation’ leadership laid emphasis on reforming social security. He introduced the concept of ‘scientific development and harmonious society’.6
For the ‘Fifth Generation’ Leadership, Xi was selected as a consensus candidate. On assuming power in 2012, he moved fast. Xi systematically consolidated position by strengthening hold on Party and PLA (twin pillars of power in China’s political structure) by virtue of triple titles; Secretary General of CCP, Chairman Central Military Commission (CMC) the highest military body and President of People’s Republic.
Given the menace of corruption that had got deeply engrained in the Party culture, Xi unleashed an unbridled campaign to clean up the system. This involved targeting both the low ranking bureaucrats, referred to as flies, to the highest level officials referred to as tigers. As a result, 278,000 persons have been implicated in the anti-corruption drive including 440 high ranking officials holding ministerial or higher positions in the government, both civil and military.7 Some of the stalwarts against whom disciplinary action had been initiated are; Zhou Yongkang – former member of the apex political body, Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and Bo Xilai – member Politburo and Party Secretary Chongqing. Besides, two senior most PLA Generals – Guo Boxing and Xu Caihu, Vice Chairmen of Central Military Commission (CMC) too faced corruption charges. The anti-corruption campaign has also proved handy in purging the political rivals.
According high priority to defence modernisation, President Xi initiated path breaking military reforms. The rationale was twofold; firstly to prepare defence forces for their future role and secondly, maintain Party’s firm control over the PLA. On 30 October 2014 at Gutian, a small town in Fujian Province, President Xi reiterated; “PLA remains Party’s Army and must maintain absolute loyalty to political masters”; exactly repeating what Mao had said eight and half decades back.8 The reforms process started in 2013 with the establishment of National Security Commission, with Xi as the Chairman. As a sequel to the reorganisation of CMC, President as the ‘Commander in Chief’ exercises direct operational control over the military through the ‘Joint Operational Center’. By ordering series of reshuffles in the top military ranks, Xi ensured that his loyalists occupied the key positions.
Nineteenth Party National Congress – Xi Sets Course
The Party Congresses are primarily about leadership, political vision and ideology. As brought out above, President Xi had worked assiduously during his first five year term to gain control of all levers of power. Nineteenth Party Congress was only a culmination of the power play wherein Xi further entrenched his position. By cementing CPC’s absolute authority and enshrining of “Xi Jinping Thought for New Era Socialism with Chinese Special Characteristics” in the Party constitution as guiding principle makes Xi China’s most powerful leader, in the league of Mao.9 His eponymous political ideology proposes an alternate to liberal democracy around which CPC coalesces. Here on, any criticism of Xi policies will be deemed as an attack on the Communist Party itself.
In a clear departure from the Party’s well established tradition being followed over last two decades, PSC did not choose ‘Sixth Generation’ leader as successor to be groomed to take over from Xi when he completes his second five year term. Hence, it is apparent that Xi is set to continue well beyond 2022, by seeking third term, which will mean setting a new precedence. Interestingly, two probable contenders; Hu Chunhua (Party Chief of Guangdong Province) and Chen Miner (Party head of Chongqing City), Xi’s protégé did not make to the PSC; a mandatory requirement for the incumbent Party Secretary General.
It is evident that for the long term survival of ‘one party system’, it is an inescapable imperative that China sustains its fast pace of growth. This demands deft management of socio-economic transformation while excluding political reforms to avoid internal instability. Xi’s focus is on revival of CPC to improve the state governance. To achieve this, new generation of competent people are being inducted into the Party. Enforcing ‘rule of law’ is high on Xi’s agenda which implies strengthening the institutional mechanism, while idea of independent judiciary remains elusive. To navigate through the above paradoxes is a tall order for the Communist leadership.
Xi has unfolded ‘China Dream’ (fuxing) which envisions powerful and prosperous China. It aims at national rejuvenation, besides encouraging people to seek fulfilment beyond material wealth. While presenting his report during the opening session of the recent Party Congress, Xi rolled out his grand design. It referred to China, entering a ‘New Era’ marked by social contradictions. He has propounded policy of ‘striving for achievements’ (fanfa youwei), while advocating a greater Chinese leadership role in the world affairs. This marks an obvious departure from Deng’s strategy being followed implicitly for last over two decades, which professed China to ‘maintain low profile and bid for time’ till it completes peaceful rise.
To translate ‘China Dream’ into reality, Xi has outlined ‘twin centenary objectives’; to become ‘fully modern’ economy and society by 2035 and acquire ‘great power’ status by 2050, timed with the centenary foundation of the PRC.10 Xi’s vision envisages China to be a key player in shaping new world order with Chinese characteristics and regain its past grandeur; rightful place in the global polity.
Today, the global order is in flux. Three key players – the US, Russia and China are in the fray to shape it in consonance with their respective national interests. Given President Trump’s ‘Doctrine of Uncertainty’, the USA is in a state of ambiguity regarding its global role. Russia, under President Putin is still in delusion of Cold War symmetry. It seems to be heading for a major political crisis.11 On the other hand, President Xi has articulated a clear vision and long term strategy on China’s future role.
During marathon recital at the Party Congress opening session on 18 October, Xi stated that ‘no country alone can address the many challenges facing mankind and no country can retreat into isolation’. His envisioned architecture of great power interface is based on parity in US-China relations. Xi also reiterated China’s rejection of ‘Cold War political mentality’. Now as a paramount leader, he is expected to pursue proactive diplomacy in restructuring the international systems, whose underlying rules will be increasingly framed by China.
With the US yielding strategic space in pursuit of Trump’s ‘America First’ policy coupled with eroding credibility of Western leadership, Xi has projected himself as the flag bearer of globalisation and trade liberalisation. At Davos World Economic Forum 2017, Xi strongly batted for globalised economy. Over the last five years, new institutions like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) have been established. Concurrently, major projects like the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Route (MSR) have been launched. These initiatives have been termed as the “community of common destiny”; extension of neighbour centric ‘periphery policy’ enunciated in 2013. Such measures will facilitate China to leverage its Comprehensive National Power (CNP) in pursuit of revised strategic objectives.
In his recent Congress speech, Xi had stated that China would strive to resolve disputes through dialogue but will not compromise on national sovereignty. He has begun his second term by exhorting over two million strong China’s military to be combat ready by focussing on how to win wars. China’s official stated position on the integration of claimed territories does not discount use of force as an option. For India, China under a powerful autocratic leader does not augur well, given the past record. 1962 War, standoffs in 1967 and 1987 occurred during Mao and Deng rule. Recent face-offs at Depsang, Demchok and Doklam have all taken place during Xi’s time. India will have to be prepared to counter growing Chinese assertiveness.12
Today, Xi rides the Dragon which is externally formidable but internally fragile. He is well aware of the consequences should his policies go awry. As political reforms are not on Xi’s agenda, it is economic growth that is the key to translate Xi’s China dream into reality. There is skeptism about the sustainability of China’s current economic model, given signs of slowing down. Therefore, some tough reforms are inevitable in the future which are likely to lead to social turbulence.
While beginning his first five years term, Xi had stated that to forge iron, you ought to be strong. Hence, he went about systematically to grab power and pushed through the process of consolidation ruthlessly, making himself unassailable. Xi envisions China to be a beacon of stability and prosperity following an alternate path, defying the Western model. Ironically, Chinese leadership’s oft-touted claim of peaceful rise is not in sync with actions. As per eminent scholar Graham Allison, the founder of Harvard Belfer Center, greatest challenge facing the globe is China’s rise. In his latest book “Destined for War – Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap”, he has stated that only through moderation and imaginative diplomacy can the conflict situation be avoided.13
Xi joins the league of Mao and Deng while he does not belong to the tribe. Being smart and compared to the likes of Nelson Mandela by no lesser person than late statesman Lee Kuan Yew, he is not likely to commit the same mistakes as his predecessors. Xi is in quest of legacy as a great reformer. To this end, he has unfolded a grand design and set the course to usher China into a ‘new era’ and acquire superpower status in coming three decades. It’s a tough call fraught with high risks; but a price Xi is willing to pay to secure his ordained place in the history.
1 China Daily Supplement -Hindustan Times, 03 Nov 2017, New Delhi.
2 Jonathan Fenby, (2008), The Penguin History of Modern China, Penguin Group, London p 4.
3 Mao Ideology, available at https://www.britannnica.com. Accessed 20 Nov 2017, 3pm.
4 China Report 34, (1998), Sage Publication, New Delhi
5 Three represents CPC (23 June 2006). Available at http://english.CPC.people.com.cn/66739/4521344.html. Accessed on 19 Nov 2017, 11 am
6 Kerry Brown (2012), Hu Jintao Silent Ruler, World Scientific, London, p 141-142.
7 Kevin Rudd (22 Oct 2017), Xi Jinping offers Long Term view of China’s Ambition, Financial Times Ltd. Available at http// Kevin rudd.com/blog/2017/10/23 kevin rudd, accessed on 15 Nov 2017, 11am.
8 David Shambaugh (1996), Soldier and State in China, and The Individual and State in China, Clarendon Press Oxford, New York, p 108.
9 Mark Moore, (24 Oct 2017), New York Post, New York. Available at https:// my post.com, accessed 20 Nov 2017, 4 pm.
10 Op. Cit. Note 1.
11 Oliver Carrol, (19 Nov 2017), Russia’s Uncertain Future, Independent Available at https:/www.google.co.in, assessed 20 Nov 2017, 5pm.
12 Chankya, Hindustan Times, 29 Oct 2017.
13 Graham Allison, (2017), Destined For War – Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap?, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, p vii.