Picture Courtesy: Reuters (SCMP)
Article No. 0090/2017
The defining slogan for Xi Jinping’s second term is finally here: “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping, presented his mammoth work report to delegates at the October 18 inaugural plenary of the 19th Party Congress in Beijing. Like prior work reports, this too detailed achievements of the past five years, and laid out the vision for the next five. Unlike prior reports, however, this one was intended for a global audience, not merely for the CCP. The work report was delivered over three and half hours, and in about 30,000 words (compared to the 28,000 of his predecessor Hu Jintao’s 2012 report to the 18th Party Congress). The content was an amalgam of the spirit of Xi’s signature “Chinese Dream” and “national rejuvenation”, and of his pet project, Yi Dai Yi Lu or the Belt and Road Initiative.
Team Xi didn’t disappoint: the grand messaging was matched by spectacular optics of a confident Communist Party. In Chinese political culture, the Party’s show of unity is paramount, for its own legitimacy, and for social stability. The invocation of the memory of Marx, Mao and other revolutionaries; and the presence on the dais of the elderly Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, as well as of former Premiers and Politburo members, was crucial in emphasising continuity and tradition.
And yet, this continuity is accented by profound change. In his 14-point policy statement, Xi Jinping declared that China had entered a new era, and was ready to share its governance model, ideological wisdom and cultural riches with the world. At the same time, China will not seek to disrupt the international order or aspire to hegemony.
The policy priorities have been earlier articulated in Xi Jinping’s Five-in-One strategy, Four Comprehensives, and Three Confidences: Party leadership over all work, rule of law, rule by the people, comprehensively deepening reform, upholding core socialist values, ecological values, party control over armed forces, One China policy in all aspects, and promoting shared human community. Above all is the discipline and rigorous governance of the Party, as proved by the success of the ongoing anti-corruption campaign.
As such, there is no doctrinaire breakthrough. This did not, however, stop the Party propaganda wing from using the label, “Xi Jinping Thought” almost immediately. Within the CCP ideological universe, Marx-Mao duo have “thought” attached to their names, for their history-defining ideas. Even Deng Xiaoping’s ideas are documented under the more modest term, “theory”. Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three Represents’ and Hu Jintao’s ‘Scientific Development Concept’ are enshrined in the Party Constitution as “concepts”, without authorship. There is no doubt that the 19th Party Congress will endorse some version of Xi’s ideas, but the nail-biting suspense worldwide and the subject of widespread commentary is whether this will be called “Xi Jinping Thought”. Such a move will validate assertions that Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong himself.
At the same time, Xi Jinping appears to have deliberately used Deng Xiaoping’s phraseology of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, to pivot away from the Mao comparison. Deng has greater acceptability in the West and in Asia, and his name is forever associated with reform and opening-up. Xi’s new era, however, will see reform of a different sort. The Party may well tighten its supervision and control over economic and social life, including of the media and internet. CCP officials at a press conference on “Culture, Theory and Ideology” stated that cultural products ought to be guided as much by ideology as by market and box office demands.
There are three top takeaways from the conference:
Principal Contradiction for the new era: Marxist dialectics identifies a “principal contradiction” in each generation – opposing social forces that need to be reconciled to propel historical forces forward, and to prevent revolution. Xi Jinping has identified the current contradiction as the one between unbalanced and inadequate development, and people’s ever growing need for a better life. This formulation will inform economic and social policy in China in the conceivable future. For instance, GDP growth will no longer be emphasised (consistent with the “new normal” from Xi’s first term.) The focus will shift to rebalancing development across regions, classes and sectors. This will likely manifest in the quality of growth, development of all provinces, especially the western hinterland, and environmental protection in the grasslands, wetlands, waterways, agricultural areas and so on. Indeed, Xi mentioned “rural rejuvenation” frequently in his speech, and “ecology” and “environment” more than he did “economy” or “market”. In a direct allusion to malinvestment in the real estate sector, he said, “Houses are meant for people to live in, not for speculation.”
On One Country, Two Systems and national sovereignty: Xi issued stern warnings to separatist and extremist elements that were threatening the nation’s unity or sovereign territoriality. Beijing will exercise “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong and Macau, and this will organically meld with the “high degree of autonomy” enjoyed by these regions. China made clear that it will not entertain any claim of sovereign independence by Taiwan. As for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a press conference by the United Front Works Department of the CCP Central Committee (held on October 22) slammed the world’s nations that welcomed or hosted the Tibetan leader, stating that it offended the sentiments of Chinese people.
As ever, the Hero of this Epic Story is the Communist Party of China. Although Xi Jinping will emerge stronger, having effectively muted internal party checks-and-balances, he is relevant only within the context of the Party. Xi has strengthened and rejuvenated the Party by establishing its dominance in every sphere, especially over the People’s Liberation Army. The work report suggests that the market will guide the economy, but there will be enhanced supervision by the Party: in comparison, the preceding two decades were marked by greater market intervention, entrepreneurialism and foreign consultancy.
Twin centenaries will mark China’s ascendancy to the targets it has set for itself. The CCP’s Centenary in 2021 will set the goalpost for the achievement of a “moderately prosperous society”. By 2035, China aims to eradicate poverty and joblessness, and acquire middle-income status. The centenary of the People’s Republic of China in 2049 will see it emerge as a prosperous, powerful, democratic leading nation in the world.
This democracy is not to be confused with open elections or free press: rather, this will, arguably, be elemental rule by the demos, by the people. In the Chinese view, it will be people-centred governance, and reflect people’s will and desire at every level.
 Ravindran, Indira, 19th Congress is CCP Dominance on Display, (Mumbai: Gateway House, Indian Council on Global Relations, 2017), <http://www.gatewayhouse.in/19th-national-congress/>
[Dr. Indira Ravindran wrote this article as Adjunct Fellow, China Studies, Gateway House. She is Member, C3S and serves on the Faculty of International Relations and Public Affairs at SISU (Shanghai International Studies University) in China. The views expressed are her own.]