On Wednesday this week, on a capacious stage in the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping unveiled the new Standing Committee of the Politburo: six men in addition to himself, of similar age, wearing almost identical suits. The only distinguishing feature in the line-up was that two of the successful candidates were wearing ties of a different colour to the prevailing red. It was the closing moment of a congress that has entrenched Xi Jinping in a position that more closely resembles the imperial son of heaven than the first-among-equals leader of a communist collective.
The moves completed last week had been widely rumoured. Even the Standing Committee list, normally the big reveal at the end of the quinquennial congress, had been leaked in its entirety to the South China Morning Post, now owned by the Alibaba tycoon, Jack Ma, a sign perhaps that XI’s path to total control had been well prepared.
Of all the changes confirmed at the congress, the incorporation of Xi’s “thought” into the party constitution is the most significant: it makes Xi’s word law, and it will remain the guiding direction of the party, by which all other ideas are judged, until such time as a new set of thoughts supersedes it, or the party no longer rules China. Neither is likely to materialise in the short term.
Xi has proclaimed a new “era” for the party and for the country. It is an era of heightened nationalism, of open assertion of Chinese interests in the world; of increased surveillance and tighter control of the national story at home. He is incorporated as a major historical figure in the story of the evolution of the People’s Republic of China: in the first era, the story now goes, Mao saved the country; in the second, Deng saved the economy; in the third, Xi is saving the party.
Although party chroniclers will struggle to weave this narrative into a single thread, this moment is also a rupture, most immediately with the legacy of Deng Xiaoping. Deng was an authoritarian, but one who advised the party to step back from its attempt to control all aspects of Chinese society and the economy, to allow other productive forces the space they needed to allow China to grow. The China Deng bequeathed in 1989 was, by the late 1990s and in the early years of this century, becoming more open, building a legal system, allowing greater freedom of information and ideas and encouraging the emergence of civil society in recognition of the fact that the state could not do everything and should not try. Deng’s China was open to the world, despite the hostility of the party old guard. China had to open the window, he said, and it did not matter if a few flies blew in.
“This moment is a rupture—most immediately with the legacy of Deng Xiaoping”
Deng also attempted to resolve one of the party’s most troublesome questions: how to ensure an orderly leadership transition instead of the ferocious power struggles that have characterised it from the beginning. Deng’s solution was a consensus based collective leadership, to put a definitive end to the Mao-style dictatorship from which he, like so many others, had suffered, along with effective term limits and retirement ages.
Xi’s coronation signals an end to that legacy. What is revealed is a China in which the party is reasserting its primacy in every aspect of the economy and society, and one man has successfully defined himself as the arbiter of the party line. All that remains is to identify which of the men around him will be designated the scapegoat, should anything go wrong.
The rest of the world must now adjust to the unprecedented challenge of partnership with an economically powerful, highly nationalistic and nominally communist regime. China is asserting its power in its own interests and will increasingly aim to build a network of influence in which Chinese rules apply.
In some respects China’s actions will be helpful: China regards global climate constraints, for example, as an economic and technological opportunity, and will not seek to undermine global mitigation efforts. Other aspects will be less comfortable: maintaining censorship at home has increasingly entailed efforts to impose the party’s view of its own history abroad. China’s muscular nationalism requires designated enemies to distract from domestic troubles: Japan is historically convenient and the closest US proxy; foreign influence is the catch-all enemy, and in geo-strategic terms, limiting US power and influence is the main objective.
And as China sails into the headwinds of a growing debt burden, a shrinking workforce and an ageing population, while trying to avoid being becalmed in the middle income trap, the regime will seek to shape its partnerships and trading relationships to benefit its own companies and its own global ambitions, continuing to limit access to Chinese markets while challenging rivals abroad with its own powerful and state subsidised competitors.
In this respect, China resembles great powers that have gone before. Where it does differ is in the secrecy and opacity of a guiding system in which the interests and practices of the party trump those of the state and the law. Doing business with Xi’s China means dealing with a system that seeks to combine imperial bureaucracy and nationalist ambition with Leninist secrecy. It is likely to be an interesting experience, but not an easy one.