By Coline Traverson, a second-year undergraduate student in War Studies interested in environmental security, human rights and international politics.
If you had tried to contact anyone in China from abroad last week, you might have realised that it was close to impossible due to a heightened Internet censorship. Surprisingly, this is not a worrying trend due to the increase in communications’ surveillance which is perhaps a regular occurrence. Every five years in October, the Chinese Internet goes on lockdown, highlighting the sensitivity of what is without a doubt the most important event in Chinese politics – the National Party Congress (NPC). Over this crucial week, the 2268 members of the Chinese Communist Party’s legislative assembly convene in Beijing to elect the new top leaders of the party, among which is the General Secretary. Though the Congress is the formalisation of decisions taken behind closed doors by the party’s leadership than the expression of the people’s will, the outcome is shaped by a set of informal norms that guarantee a smooth transfer of power. However, this year’s NPC, 19th of the sort, marks a rupture in the history of the CCP as Xi Jinping, renewed General Secretary for 5 years, seems determined to break the conventions.
A National Party Congress that feels like a coronation
Decision-making at the top of the party has 3 characteristics: it stems from a ‘collective leadership’, it is made through consensus of the top leaders, and the top leaders are each specialised in a policy area. This collective leadership is what makes China an ‘inner-party democracy’ – ever since the beginning of the CCP, decisions for the country have been made by a small group of party officials and never by a single leader (except for the more authoritarian periods of Mao’s leadership). In today’s China, the top officials and decision-makers are the members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo.
The Standing Committee is elected every five years during the National Party Congress, whose delegates represent China’s 31 provincial-level party administrations, alongside the Politburo, the Central Military Commission (CMC), the Central Committee, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and the General Secretary. Though it is a bottom-up organisation in theory, it is very much the opposite in practice, the General Secretary being assured to govern for at least 2 mandates (10 years) and choosing the members of the Standing Committee for his 2nd mandate so as to place potential successors in his trusted circle of ‘co-leaders’. This process is totally informal – Chinese politics are currently going through an institutionalisation of all these rules – but it has nonetheless given us a way to interpret and predict Chinese elections in the past.
Thus, in the midst of all these unwritten conventions, we have to keep in mind a few primordial rules: the General Secretary stays on for 2 mandates; the retirement age for party’s officials is 68; officials are promoted according to their seniority; and during his 2nd mandate, the General Secretary will promote two relatively young officials to the Standing Committee, giving them increasing responsibilities so as to train them to the succession.
Using this reading grid, what happened during this year’s National Party Congress?
The Standing Committee for Xi’s first mandate was constituted by General Secretary Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and five other members among whom was Wang Qishan, Xi’s key ally in the government’s anti-corruption purge. Many suspected that Xi, 64, would keep Wang, 69, to break the retirement rule and open the possibility to run for a 3rd mandate in 2022 despite his own age – however, Wang Qishan was indeed forced to retire. Xi and his Premier are the only ones remaining on the committee, the 5 new members having been promoted according to their seniority, as they should be, and representing both Xi’s faction and Xi’s ‘opposition’ (the Communist Youth League, more liberal). However, they are all from the 5th generation of party officials born in the 50s – upholding the succession tradition would have required the promotion of a duo from the 6th generation to the committee. Among the new members, only 3 of them would be young enough to become General Secretary in 2022, but they would not be able to stay on for 2 mandates. Neither Hu Chunhua or Chen Min’er, serious candidates to succeed Xi, were promoted.
Then, the question of 2022’s elections is open: will Xi Jinping stay for a 3rd mandate at the top of the party, thus breaking the retirement rule, while leaving the Presidency (limited to 2 mandates) to another man? Since Tiananmen’s protests in 1989, the General Secretary also occupies the positions of President (top of the government) and Chairman of the CMC (top of the military); Xi could then decide to keep one of the positions while nominating one of his allies as President, the Presidency being subordinated to the party’s Secretary anyway.
However, the most notable and significant particularity of this year’s NPC is the definition of ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ in the party’s charter. As trivial as it might sound from a Western perspective, the fact that his ideas are added with his name has just made Xi the most powerful party leader since Mao Zedong: though most leaders have contributed to the party’s charters with their ideas, Mao and Deng were the only two leaders so far whose thoughts had been embedded in the constitution with their names– and Deng Xiaoping Theory was added after his death. Xi Jinping Thought is not just words on paper: as the new dogma of the Communist party, it is now to be taught in Chinese universities, while ‘study groups’ are being organised in the country to spread the news of this ‘New Era’.
Xi Jinping Thought shines through his 5 years’ exercise of power
What is Socialism with Chinese Characteristics?
‘We must keep on strengthening the party’s ability to lead politically, to guide through theory, to organise the people, and to inspire society, thus ensuring that the party’s great vitality and strong ability are forever maintained.’
Among the 14 elements that constitute the Thought, the supremacy of the CCP over every aspect of Chinese society and politics is primordial – a major change from Deng Thought that advocated for a greater separation between the party and the state. During his first term, Xi’s belief in the one-party rule motivated him to strengthen the party’s administration, notably by reactivating 77,000 weak party branches in villages, schools and small communities across China. Strict rules concerning NGOs, religious practices and Internet were enforced, leading to the detainment of human rights lawyers and activists. He also launched an aggressive anti-corruption campaign to purge the party, instil discipline and loyalty in the ranks, and inspire respect from the population. This strengthening in control will be pursued and extended during his second term, notably with the creation of a National Supervision Commission, a state anti-graft body that will be coupled to the party’s infamous anti-graft institution, the CCDI.
‘China’s economy has been transitioning from a phase of rapid growth to a stage of high-quality development.’ 2,
Faced with social and economic challenges that resulted in an ‘unbalanced and inadequate development’, China’s poverty rates have gone down but the wealth gap has widened in the recent years. Xi Jinping is faced with two objectives for his economic policy: the ‘first centennial goal’ is to build a ‘moderately prosperous society’ by 2021, the ‘second centennial goal’ is to become a ‘fully developed nation’ by 2049. Xi seems to be on track to realise the first centennial goal, but according to Louis Kuijs from Oxford Economics, his preference for politics over economics has been detrimental to the efficiency of the system (a very Chinese problem). The General Secretary has thus renewed his commitment to fighting inequality in China; however, the path that Xi will use to achieve this objective is still unclear as he seems committed to both continue to open up the Chinese economy to foreign companies while increasing government’s intervention.
‘Openness brings progress for ourselves, seclusions leaves one behind. China will not close its doors to the world, we will only become more and more open.’ 2
Finally, as a major turn from Deng’s foreign policy, the Xi Jinping Thought stresses the fact that China should become an active actor and leader in international affairs. Xi had already distinguished himself with an aggressive policy concerning the territorial disputes China entertains with most of its neighbors while restructuring the military. The importance given to the military is highlighted by 11th point of Xi’s Thought, which proclaims the ‘absolute leadership’ of the CCP over the PLA – also, at this year’s NPC, an impressive 90% of the military delegates will be first-time delegates, the largest turnover of the military elite in the history of the party. However, a specificity of this year’s Politburo points to Xi’s preference for diplomacy rather than military coercion: for the first time since 2003, a diplomat, Yang Jiechi, head of China’s foreign policy establishment, has been promoted to the Politburo. Commenting on this leadership shuffle, Ma Zhengang, a former Chinese ambassador to Britain, stated that ‘we are seeing an unprecedented transition of China’s role, which will not be confined to domestic interests but demonstrate more interest in having a greater say on global issues.’ The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative that should facilitate trade between the Asia-Pacific, Europe and Africa which costs an estimated $26 trillion -, the country’s first foreign military base in Djibouti and the strong Chinese commitment to the Paris’ climate agreement are all examples of Xi’s strategy to weigh more in international affairs through soft power, development aids and the definition of a global ‘common destiny’.
What implications for China and the World?
The CCP’s Third Era is likely to make China a – if not The – superpower, directly competing with the U.S. for hegemony. In domestic affairs, ‘China Dream’ is a nationalist appeal to restore the country’s greatness and will be achieved at the cost of less tolerance for diverging views. Xi has renewed his belief in the strength of the one-party rule that is a real asset on the international scene as it portrays a certain form of political stability. To be expected: an increase in the repression of the civil society and in censorship while the grip of the party tightens over every aspect of Chineses’ lives, as well as a continuation of the anti-graft purges and a concentration of powers on Core Leader Xi Jinping. The way the government succeeds in handling the demographic and economic transition will also be decisive for the country.
In international affairs, China has grand ambitions as explained in ‘China and its superpower diplomacy’, a documentary screened in every school of the country last September under the direct order of the CCP. As China does not benefit from the same aura the US does with its American way of life, its soft power relies primarily on innovation, the promotion of a South-South cooperation and development aids. Xi Jinping has massively increased investments in technology during his first term, and the number of Chinese tech unicorns (start-ups valued at more than $1 billion) has gone from 10 three years ago to more than 50 today. 3 On its way to become the world’s leader in futuristic technology, the country also seems to have understood, unlike President Trump’s climate change deniers, that environmental responsibility is likely to become a powerful lever of influence in the international community, especially in regards to developing countries in South East-Asia who are directly suffering from climate change. Xi’s intentions in that regard were clear as he announced in 2015 that he would establish an RMB 20 billion South-South Climate Cooperation Fund. Though China’s record on the matter is not bright, the health issues resulting from the over-pollution has led to protests from the population and the need to work for ‘energy conservation and environmental protection’ constituted the 9th point of Xi’s Thought.
Still pursuing its South-South cooperation strategy, China’s dedication to foreign aid has been growing quickly ever since the beginning of the century, averaging a growth of 29.4% from 2004 to 2009. According to AidData, Beijing has spent a total of $354.3 billion in 140 countries between 2000 to 2014 against $394.6 billion for the US, the world’s biggest contributor. China’s foreign policy is very different from the American one in that regard: when Official Development Assistance (ODA), constituted of concessional loans and intended for welfare, accounts for more than 90% of the US foreign aid budget, it only represents about 20% of the Chinese funding. The remaining China’s finance is constituted of Other Official Flows (OOF) which are non-concessional loans primarily intended for commercial purposes. China’s foreign policy is therefore based on reciprocity – the aids provided go largely to infrastructure and transport building so as to secure trading partners and energy supplies. Another big difference is that, unlike the Americans, the Chinese government does not distribute aids on governance criteria, upholding its non-interference policy: 13 out of the 20 top borrowers from China ranked ‘bad’ on the World Bank’s indicator for rule of law.
OBOR, the ‘One Belt One Road’ Initiative described by Xi as a contemporary Silk Road, is the very embodiment of the new Chinese leadership’s conception of active international initiative. It would consist of a huge infrastructure network from the Asia-Pacific to Western Europe and Africa. In theory, the project could concern 65% of the world’s population and three-quarters of global energy resources. Facilitating China’s trade with the rest of the world, it would also contribute to the development of regions with a very heavy infrastructure deficit, thus placing China as the world’s major provider of economic development assistance. Still blurry as Beijing invites anyone who wishes to hop on, the plans of itineraries, pictured on the map below, show the extent of Xi’s ambition.
However, though China’s South East-Asian neighbours will be direct beneficiaries from this initiative, the project also appears as threatening to most of them as it overlaps on disputed areas in the Chinese Sea and feeds suspicions over China’s real motives.
Indeed, Asian countries have faced an increasingly emboldened China ever since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, especially when it comes to territorial expansion in the South China Sea. Though territorial disputes in that area are nothing new, the country has become particularly aggressive in its foreign policy and has multiplied provocative military actions in the region such as this July when Chinese warships circumnavigated Japan, its long-time rival. Recent Reuters images show China building surface-to-air missile launcher facilities on the disputed Paracel Islands, claimed by Vietnam. The country also had its tensest 72-days-stand-off with India this year because of another territorial dispute with Bhutan (India’s ally) over the Doklam Plateau, at the tri junction point between China, Bhutan and India. While Indian and Chinese troops were jostling for control over this highly strategic location, Chinese officials showed a high level of aggressiveness and confidence in their statements, barely hiding the threat behind them as they reminded India to ‘not push [its] luck and cling to any fantasies’.
In that tense context, the adoption of Xi Jinping Thought as the party’s dogma comes as a confirmation of regional fears: the ‘Chinese dream’, defined as a ‘national rejuvenation’ by the President, is a direct appeal to the Chinese Imperial tradition in a contemporary setting. We can expect from Xi Jinping second-term a large emphasis put on the PLA, which is now under absolute control of the CCP. The army will surely be reduced to focus on professionalism and skills, China’s adventurism in the South China Sea will continue as OBOR infrastructures secure energy supply routes and the number of foreign military bases like the one in Djibouti is likely to increase, under the guise of humanitarian efforts. In reaction, alliances are forming to try and counter China’s regional hegemony: the announcement on October 30th of Japan’s $9 billion aid to Philippine President Duterte, who will chair the upcoming ASEAN meetings in November, is not a coincidence. As Japan feels threatened and thinks about amending the pacifist Article 9 of its Constitution, the way China and the US deals with North Korea will be decisive in the power struggle that is East-Asian politics.
 Howard French, ‘China’s Dangerous Game’, The Atlantic, November 2014
 Wu Qian, statement on August 4th 2017
 Tom Philips, ‘Xi Jinping Thought to be taught in China’s universities’, South China Morning Post, October 27th 2017
 ‘The road ahead for China – in Xi Jinping’s words’, South China Morning Post, October 18th 2017
 Viola Zhou, Sidney Leng, ‘What has Xi Jinping achieved in his first years as China’s leader ?’, South China Morning Post, October 17th 2017
 ‘Being Xi Jinping : the difficult art of juggling growth and control after China’s Communist Party congress’, South China Morning Post, October 10th 2017
 Cheng Li, ‘Forecasting China’s largest ever turnover of military elite at the 19th Party Congress’, Brookings, September 18th 2017
 Shi Jiangtao, ‘It’s a good day for China’s diplomats as foreign policy chief lands seat on Politburo’, South China Morning Post, October 25th 2017
 Nectar Gan, ‘Xi Jinping Thought – the Communist Party’s tighter grip on China in 16 characters’, South China Morning Post, October 25th 2017
 Alain Frachon, ‘La Chine redevient une superpuissance globale’, Le Monde, October 21st 2017
 Shrey Das, ‘Climate Change and China’s Mission’, Modern Diplomacy, October 10th 2017
 ‘China’s Foreign Aid’, UNICEF, 2011
 ‘China’s Global Development Footprint’, AidData, 2017
 Nyshka Chandran, ‘5 charts that show how China is spending billions in foreign aid’, CNBC, October 13th 2017
 Charlie Campbell, ‘China Says It’s Building The New Silk Road’, TIME, May 12th 2017