Photograph from China’s 18th National Party Congress.

The Xism: Previewing China’s 19th National Party Congress

On October 18th, China’s top leaders will reconvene for the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress. It’s an event that happens only once every five years, and it’s of special significance to anybody wanting to know the direction China is heading in. Among other things, the Congress will outline the next term of China’s President, Xi Jinping, and more interestingly it will reveal a host of new and retiring members in China’s top decision-making bodies — the Politburo and the Standing Committee.

The Central Committee, which encompasses about 200 members and takes the place of a de jure legislature, will also be reshuffled. But it pales in importance to the Politburo, a smaller grouping of roughly 25 politicians with more clout. The Politburo selection process, in other words who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, is important to watch as many of those politicians elevated to the body will be younger up-and-comers, likely to go even further in their political career. Or that would normally be the case, but the recent arrests and demotions of Bo Xilai and Sun Zhengcai show Xi Jinping is being more careful about encouraging successors and factions within the party other than his own. It’s now more interesting to wait and see who Xi promotes to the Standing Committee, the elite 7-person body that actually makes the final call on decisions for running China.

To put it another way, there is a bit of unpredictability to this coming Congress, or at least more than usual for the staid affair. There are a number of things that make this one especially nail-biting to watch.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo taken by Michel Temer.

A Thought About ‘Xi Jinping Thought’

Bo Xilai and Sun Zhengcai were both extremely promising Communist Party officials before they were cut down by Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Merely investigating Sun Zhengcai invalidates his promotion to China’s elite Standing Committee, and, to drive the screw in further, he was expelled from the party. Both of these politicians matured in the same vein as Xi Jinping, though, and their backgrounds are not totally dissimilar — they were all ‘princeling’ offspring of senior Communist Party officials who weathered the Cultural Revolution and saw through Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s. All of them illustrated the unspoken qualification one needs to get on China’s Politburo, which is a previous post as a Communist Party Secretary in a major city or region.

Xi Jinping’s corruption campaign, spearheaded by his close ally Wang Qishan, sent shockwaves through the party as it targeted such high-profile politicians. It’s not hard to see that there’s probably something more to this crackdown than merely solving graft, especially when it snags the biggest contenders to Xi Jinping’s spot as China’s paramount leader and any potential successors. Of those left, Hu Chunhua remains the one to watch: as the Communist Party Secretary of Guangdong, he represents a faction of the Politburo and Central Committee that has the clout and disagreement to challenge Xi Jinping’s wing of the party. However, Chunhua is likely to stay silent, considering Sun Zhengcai’s rise was a near mirror of his own and he’d prefer to avoid the same fate. Hu Chunhua’s fate at this Congress will determine an important aspect of China’s future. Will he stay in the Politburo, or be promoted to the Standing Committee? Or, in a slimmer chance, will he be ousted?

Xi Jinping has greatly altered the Communist Party to fit his vision for China. Aside from the aforementioned anti-corruption campaign, his strongest tool against political rivals, he’s modified the propaganda organs of the party to instill his message in Chinese society. The ‘Chinese dream,’ the idea of ‘rising peacefully,’ and other phrases less-known to Western audiences are all Xi Jinping’s tireless work, echoed endlessly by the party’s media apparatus. The recent focus on higher education in China is one more piece of this puzzle as Xi Jinping tries to change not only China’s fortune, but its ideology.

In the constitution of the Chinese Communist Party, which is one of the most important documents for governing the country, there are but two leaders enshrined alongside their ideas on how to guide China’s future. They are Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping. Xi Jinping is going to become the third. This is significant because of how Xi has not yet retired, and will likely attach his name to this amendment anyway. By adding himself to the constitution, Xi will be immortalized in the ideology of the Communist Party. Future cadres will use his quotes and his thoughts to justify governmental decisions. Xi, therefore, would be considered as important to China as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping before him. This is not an honor Xi’s prior two successors had.

There’s much to debate about what this contribution to the constitution will look like. It will clearly echo Xi’s speeches given thus far. Any contribution like this will look more philosophical than a Western audience might expect, as leaders’ lofty quotations and sayings are often more important in Chinese society than any explicit proscription of what China’s government should do. As such, Xi’s contribution will be that of ‘Xi Jinping Thought,’ something that can be neatly summed up and taught in colleges around the country, alongside Marxism-Leninism and Mao.

To figure out Xi Jinping Thought, we merely look at what Xi has said so far in public. He’s published books, unlike those leaders before him, that make it easier to understand what phrases the cadres will need to start learning. The ‘Chinese dream’ is but one pithy way of talking about China’s new place in the world, a subject that Xi is concerned with. Xi Jinping has been the first leader since Mao to pursue a very rapid and aggressive expansion of China’s military capabilities, and he’s also made foreign policy a key goal of his administration. His Thought is thus one of China’s global prominence, moving away from the insular view championed by his predecessors that stressed economic growth over all things. What Xi will add to the constitution will likely stake out a goal for China abroad, one that his Party will constantly need to address. Whether that is more of the same or something more aggressive remains to be seen.

There is a caveat to all of this, though: does China need a new national ideology?

The Communist Party’s constant refrains of Marxism-Leninism, contrary to what outsiders might think, have changed. Or at least adapted to a modern age, where words like ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ are incorporated into party propaganda but are completely redefined under the guise of giving them Chinese characteristics. There is still an unconvincing, empty tone to much of the talk about socialism, but the contribution of Xi Jinping Thought and Xi’s rampant consolidation of power shows that he knows this, and is creating a substitute. Perhaps Marxism-Leninism will stay in official rhetoric, but it will go alongside a stirring sense of nationalism and patriotic pride — a sense that Xi has already cultivated within Chinese society.

Xi Jeeping.

Xi Dada

It might sound weird to talk about Xi Jinping in such stark terms, as having consolidated power, and as having purged his party of rivals. Xi Jinping, to many in the West, is not a very charismatic fellow. In contrast to strongmen around the world like Vladimir Putin or Nicholas Maduro, Xi Jinping seems distinctly boring. This is a reflection of how the Communist Party operates. Stiff, formal, and with a disdain for the excess personality of the Mao era, of which many officials suffered through. The proceedings of the National Party Congress will thus be dreary enough that many Westerners likely won’t sit through them.

But this is also a mistake. Xi Jinping is not trying to appeal to the West, and doesn’t care to. Within China, he has made unprecedented moves towards building a cult of personality. This may seem impossible to outsiders, but it’s absolutely clear when looked at within China’s walls. Xi has personally inserted his name and achievements into party propaganda where possible, and his recent appearances at military parades break with a long tradition of Chinese leaders eschewing militaristic show-boating. The scenes of Xi Jinping, stuffed to his gills with microphones, driving up and down the People’s Liberation Army ranks and spouting motivational slogans at them, bring back disconcerting images of Mao Zedong’s fervor during his worst days of cultish extravagance.

This isn’t to say Xi actually has just such a cult of personality, though. Propaganda, by its own systemic issue, isn’t convincing everybody. Certain initiatives to increase Xi’s stature come off as out-of-touch, unusual, and more than a little funny. But they still signal to Chinese society his importance. For this National Party Congress, Xi Jinping will begin his new five-year term, and the current wave of propaganda praising him will just be an inkling of what he hopes to accomplish after successfully consolidating power.

Guangzhou, China. Photo courtesy Drake Long.

Rule By Law

The Chinese system is confusing, and labyrinthine, to many outsiders. How exactly does Xi Jinping’s term expire, some might wonder if they’re worried by the previous section. The truth is simple — China does not actually have any law or rule about when a Communist Party official has to step down. Instead, an informal rule has taken hold, where the de facto leader of China (who can be anyone from the President, to the Premier, to the General-Secretary of the Party) steps down after two five-year terms. On top of that, any official that reaches 68 years of age is expected to retire and make way for the new generation.

But, as I said, this is informal. There is no actual law codifying this. Thus, there is one person to watch during this National Party Congress for an indication about this agreement’s future: Wang Qishan.

Wang Qishan is 69, putting him right around the time for retirement. Indeed, he’s been out of the public eye, except for an eyebrow-raising run-in with Steve Bannon. However, he’s still on the Standing Committee, and his anti-graft campaign was only possible due to his close alignment with Xi Jinping. In other words, he’s a key Xi ally, and his status as an anti-corruption attack dog could still be useful to a President wanting to keep his officials in line. If Wang Qishan retires, then his seat on the Standing Committee could go to any number of officials, including Hu Chunhua, or Wang Yang, China’s Vice Premier.

If Wang Qishan doesn’t retire, then Xi Jinping has signaled he no longer cares much for the informal retirement rule. Which then paves the way for Xi Jinping to stay in power past 68 as well (Xi is 64).

Naturally, this would be somewhat ground-breaking, and alarming for China-watchers. Xi Jinping has changed multiple aspects of Chinese government, including a massive overhaul of the military, business sector, and education. China’s military districts were reorganized under Xi, and he rebranded the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force into a distinct branch. The era of cordiality between the Chinese government and private business has been virtually eroded under Xi, who now prefers subservient state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that can compete with major American companies abroad. Coupled with his cultivation of his own personality and the enshrining of himself in the constitution, these aspects make the prospect of a long-reigning Xi Jinping somewhat foreboding. It’s thus understandable that of the five open spots on the Standing Committee, many analysts are watching Wang Qishan’s seat the closest. It’s a sign of a new era in Chinese government.

This is not to alarm anybody who still thinks of Xi as sort of uninspiring, or who believes the bureaucratic ‘meritocracy’ of China will keep a single leader in check. It’s instead to point out that under the current Chinese government, there really is no rule of law making it easy to take such comforting thoughts for granted. The Chinese government rules by law, making it up where it suits itself, and thus opening itself up for an abuse of power not seen since Mao times. This could be a direct result of the short-sighted social contract the Communist Party set up in the 1980s. In return for constant economic growth, the Chinese people would agree to Party governance. However, now that the prospects for an economic slowdown look more likely, Xi Jinping might think of himself as a savior for the Party. By rebranding himself and the notion of Chinese patriotism, he could be shifting the social contract to one of mere obedience for obedience’s sake. There’s really no law or constitution, that anybody has contributed to, that would keep him from doing so.

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