Preparing the XIX CCP party congress

Preparing the XIX CCP party congress

The next big Party Congress – and the beginning of Xi Jinping’s second term – is still a year away, so the decisions taken now will show how strong Xi’s hold on power really is.

From 24th to 28th October, the Central Committee will decide China’s way until 2022 and beyond. In the Party’s politburo, eleven out of twenty-give posts will change, along with five out of seven seats in the Standing Committee of the Politburo; among these will be Mr. Xi’s successor. The last six months saw a third of all party secretaries replaced at provincial level, and many of Xi’s henchmen have good chances to become member of the next Central Committee.

Mr. Xi has a chance to tighten his grip on power, but given the numerous challenges his country is facing, there is the risk of destabilizing the situation.

One risk lies with the rule of succession: Xi will have to build up a successor, but the fear is that this person will become too powerful too quickly. There are rumors that Xi could stay on for a third period of five years, but any hint of a prolonged stay at the head of the government could cause tremendous tensions among the political elite, whose rules should prevent a one-person-dictatorship. Only an economic or security crisis would theoretically legitimize such a move. The great potential for conflict can already be observed across a number of issues. At present, official communications concern to what extent the country’s success depends upon the leadership of the party, including calls for unity and please to solve problems of leadership fatigue; Xi’s prohibition of criticism, coupled with deviating opinions on his policies, also point towards imminent conflict.

Xi’s previous political course is mainly responsible for this; his fight against corruption within both “tigers and flies” meant low-level officials were paralyzed for fear of breaching their duties, and the fight against high ranking “tigers” has not shown the expected results. At the same time, Xi tries to exploit this fight to silence his critics and cement his power, which will become more difficult given the economic situation. Due to overcapacities, mass layoffs are likely; the all-powerful SOEs tear holes into the government budget, and the gap between the poor and rich causes social tensions. At the XIX Party Congress, strategies need to be put in place to counter the various issues facing the country: exploding real-estate prices, the growing indebtedness of the private and public sector, national security issues and the persistent background noise regarding whether the measures taken to control society are sustainable in the long run.

Xi’s position is complicated by the role of the party’s elder statesmen, who still wield considerable power. As Xi owes the elder statesmen for his own position, he will have to consult them when appointing new leaders – an unspoken norm in the inner workings of the party since the 1980s. The statesmen’s influence is typically seen as a source of stability, but in the present climate it is unclear to what degree they should participate in major decisions. There is, for instance, evidence that Zhu Rongji – a former head of government – has privately criticised current economic policies. Jiang Zemin, Zhu’s counterpart, has remained conspicuously silent, yet if these two figures should team up in their criticisms of the concentration of power, or of the prestige project “One Belt One Road”, their influence on the political distribution of power could be enormous.

Furthermore, Xi’s is paying emphatic attention to centralizing power, as counter-current to the decentralization tendencies and experimental policy making under Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Control and discipline over the party is an important move in guaranteeing China’s stability, but the policy approval and implementation procedures became inflexible and less adaptable. Necessary reforms are blocked and political projects protracted, as local administrations do not dare to take decisions anymore. However, if unsuccessful, Xi’s intentions will not seem to be catering for the needs of the people anymore, undermining his political credibility and authority.

While Xi and his closest advisors are in a good position to secure their position of power, their influence is more precarious than first appears, with potentially devastating effects on China’s stability and economic outlook. Xi will thus have to be very careful who he puts on a ticket for the Politburo Standing Committee of Communist Party; he will also have to consider with great care the direction in which he and his allies will propose to take if populism does not work.

Not only must Xi manage the symmetry between economic realities and vested interests, but also restore a sense of harmony between the needs of the population and the ruling elite – and at the same time continue legitimizing his position.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Florian Anderhuber

Florian is a policy analyst at the European Parliament working in energy and financial market regulation. He specialises in Asian, Eurasian and European political risk analysis, speaks German, English, French, Mandarin, Russian and Vietnamese and pursues a PhD in Southeast Asian studies at Bonn University. The views expressed on this site are Mr. Anderhuber’s and do not reflect those of the European Parliament or any groups within.