The 19th national congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was held from October 18 to 24 in the Great Hall of the People, a vast scarlet-carpeted theatre at Tiananmen Square, in Beijing. China’s President Xi Jinping inaugurated the event by presenting a 63-page long (30,000 Chinese characters) Political Report which took him three and a half hours. Almost 2,300 delegates—elected from over 89 million party members across China—were present. Over 3,000 journalists, most of them from outside China, covered the week-long event. Some of the details of the congress have emerged but more are likely to surface in the coming days. One of key functions of congress is to elect or endorse members of China’s top institutions (Politburo, Politburo Standing Committee, and the Central Committee). Although selection has been completed, it had not been announced by the time we went to press.
In his report, Xi discussed the performance of his government and rolled out a blueprint for the next five years and perhaps even beyond. This is an event that takes place once every five years and is the most-watched one across the world. I discuss some key features below.
While explaining the outcome of his government, Xi stated that China had stood up, grown rich and become a strong country which would move to the center of world again. (According to Chinese myth, China, the “Middle Kingdom” is in the center of the world and is representative of Heaven on earth). Xi also cautioned about the side-effects of growth: “The principal contradiction facing Chinese society has evolved to be that between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life. Now the needs to be met for the people to live a better life are increasingly broad. Not only have their material and cultural needs grown, their demands for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security, and a better environment are increasing.”
Xi set the goal of building China into a great modern socialist country by the middle of the century. It would be one with an effective social welfare system. There would be prosperity for all and cultural advancement. It would be harmonious and beautiful. It would have a responsive and people-serving government and clean politics that ensured people’s rights. It would be a beautiful country loved by its citizens. Internationally, he is determined to make the China world’s largest economy with a world-class army.
Xi said: “The principal contradiction facing Chinese society has evolved to be that between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life. Now the needs to be met for the people to live a better life are increasingly broad. Not only have their material and cultural needs grown, their demands for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security, and a better environment are increasing”
Socialism with Chinese character
One of the most significant aspects of the 19th congress was China’s decision to follow “socialism with Chinese character” as the guiding principle for the country and that China will not adopt Western democracy. “We should not just mechanically copy the political systems of other countries,” Xi stated. Chinese leadership also feels that countries facing development challenges can learn from it: “We have every confidence that we can give full play to the strengths and distinctive features of China’s socialist democracy, and make China’s contribution to the political advancement of mankind.” For the promotion of socialism, he stressed the need for “new-style think tanks with Chinese characteristics” and promotion of this ideology in the education system.
The CPC amended its constitution to include two new provisions, both Xi’s brainchild. (There might be more amendments as full details have yet to emerge): Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and the Belt and Road Initiative. Xi is now among those top Chinese leaders whose ideas have been included into the party constitution. Just to clarify; the party constitution is different than that of the country’s. The congress also endorsed Xi’s military modernization drive, reforms, strike against corruption and CPC’s key role in national affairs. China’s confidence in its political system emanates from its success story. At the time of its inception in 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), was highly impoverished, underdeveloped and a war-torn state. It adopted communism/socialism and has now lifted over 400 million people out of poverty and has become the world’s second largest economy. China made this progress by sticking to own designed system. It resisted pressure to introduce western democracy and capitalism and stuck to its roots. China learnt from the outside world especially from Western scientific and technological developments and absorbed them in into its own system without changing the nation’s core characteristics.
It may be mere coincidence, but it is quite striking that while this was being laid out at the national congress in Beijing, two notable figures were predicting challenges to capitalism. Yanis Varoufakis, a former economics professor and Greece’s finance minister, while talking at University College London, claimed that capitalism had become obsolete and would soon collapse. He warned governments to be ready for a post-capitalist order, stressing the redistribution of wealth. Varoufakis headed EU institutions over the Greek debt repayment crises in 2015. The story reporting his comments, which was published in the Independent, received 600 comments in less than a week. At the other end of the globe, New Zealand’s youngest Prime Minister-elect Jacinda Ardern described capitalism as a “blatant failure” which had resulted in homelessness, low wages and a disregard for the poor of the country.
The world is changing fast. The global champion of free trade, the US, is becoming increasingly protectionist. A number of European countries that were ardently capitalist for decades is struggling to avert economic bankruptcy. On the other hand, China through its communism/socialism is achieving unprecedented economic growth (for a consecutive three decades China maintained an average 9% rate which has no parallel in contemporary history). There is no universally applicable system in which capitalism is an economic order or democracy is a form of government. Pakistan unwittingly adopted whatever it inherited from its colonial masters but this has not delivered by any measure and the country should give a thought to emerging voices in Europe and New Zealand, at least to get a different perspective.
In his speech, Xi stated that his government will show zero tolerance to those who took bribes and those who offered them. China will institutionalize anti-corruption mechanisms through legislation. In the past five years, an anti-graft crackdown has swept through all levels of the party. “No place has been out of bounds and no [stone] left unturned. No tolerance has been shown in the fight against corruption. We have taken firm action to take out tigers, swatted flies, and hunted down foxes,” Xi added. Thus far, over 1.4 million people have been punished since the anti-graft crackdown started in late 2012. Xi also put emphasis on the rule of law and assured concrete measures and legislation.
Xi, who is also the Chairman of Central Military Commission which controls the world’s largest army, placed emphasis on modernization of the army, navy, air force, rocket force, and strategic support force. He explained that the PRC would develop a strong and efficient joint operations commanding institution for theatre commands and would create a modern combat system and adopt modern warfare technologies in two stages. By 2035 it would accomplish defense modernization, and by 2050 (200 years from the beginning of humiliation at the hands of “Western barbarians”) it would become a world-class power. US military power is always a gauge for Chinese leadership. While stressing the need for military modernization, Xi assured the world that China would never seek hegemony nor would it impose its will upon others. Regardless of these assurances, his words will trigger reaction from adversaries such as India, Japan and the US. Harsh V Pant, a professor at King’s College, London, in his article in The Hindustan Times stated that modernization in China’s armed forces “will have an impact on an already lopsided India-China military balance”. He urged Indian policy makers and defence planners to “rise from their slumber to take on a China which is getting better by the day at mobilising its hard power to achieve its foreign policy and national security objectives.” In fact, a rapidly emerging Indo-US nexus is based on the common belief in the “China threat theory”. Unlike previous US administrations under Clinton and Obama that covertly supported India against rising China, the Trump administration is overt in its approach. The hardline, right-wing government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is aptly exploiting this opportunity.
Japan is another regional rival that will react to China’s military modernization. Just as the national congress was taking place in China, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gained a landslide victory in their elections. China’s military modernization coupled with a threat from North Korea, which recently fired two missiles over Japanese airspace and threatened to “sink” Japan into the sea, might reinforce Abe’s desire for a revision of the country’s pacifist Constitution. Article 9 prohibits it from developing its armed forces beyond self-defense. Given Japan’s technological advancement, it will not take much time for it to develop armaments, including nuclear weapons once it decides so. The US, which has a formal military pact with Japan and which is increasingly welcoming to India for closer strategic relations, will support them to stand against Beijing.
China will also deepen market-oriented reform of its exchange rate as well as its financial system, and at the same time strengthen the role of state firms in the economy
Relations with Taiwan is a perennial theme that recurs in every congress. Making it clear to the current “pro-independence” government of Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan, President Xi stated that the CPC had the resolve, confidence and ability to defeat separatist attempts for “Taiwan independence.” “We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China,” he added.
Since the democratization of Taiwan started in the late 1980s, it has been governed by two political parties: the KMT (Kuomintang) also known as the Nationalist, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The former has a reconciliatory tone towards Beijing and is not against unification. The latter is known for its “pro-independence” tendencies. In 1992, China and Taiwan reached what is known as the 1992 Consensus in which both sides agreed on a “One China Policy”, though with different interpretations. One China Policy states that there is only one China and Taiwan is its integral part. This provided a basic framework for cross-Strait relations. From 2008 to 2016, Taiwan was ruled by KMT led by President Ma Ying-jeou. Bilateral relations during this period grew in a healthy way. Millions of Chinese visited Taiwan and provided a huge boost to its economy. This also led to the historic Ma-Xi handshake in November 2015 in Singapore. This was the first meeting between the political leaders of the two sides since 1949.
Cross-Strait relations took a reverse turn following the 2016 elections in which the DPP won a majority and formed the government with Tsai Ing-wen as its President. Tsai and DPP have not endorsed the 1992 Consensus. Beijing thus cut off official communication with Taiwan, and took steps to squeeze its international space. Although China has the capacity to impose its will, it treats the Taiwanese as “compatriots” and waits for a peaceful unification. During the 19th congress, Xi urged Taiwan to recognize the 1992 Consensus so they could have better relations. He invited his compatriots to benefit from China’s economic growth: “We will ensure that over time, people from Taiwan will enjoy the same treatment as local people when they pursue their studies, start businesses, seek jobs, or live on the mainland, thus improving the wellbeing of Taiwan compatriots.” How Tsai’s government responds to Xi’s remarks will have an effect on cross-Strait relations in years to come.
Openness and innovation
China’s decision to open its market and lower barriers for foreign companies is likely to bring investment to the country. “Openness brings progress for ourselves, seclusion leaves one behind. China will not close its doors to the world, we will only become more and more open,” the Chinese President said. China will also deepen market-oriented reform of its exchange rate as well as its financial system, and at the same time strengthen the role of state firms in the economy. He vowed to “protect the legitimate rights and interests of foreign investors” and said “all businesses registered in China will be treated equally”. In the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the outside world, it was China’s need. The pendulum in the last 39 years has taken full swing. Now China’s opening up is awaited by the world. According to analysts, multinationals across the world were waiting for this part of Xi’s speech impatiently. China, which was once known for copying the technologies of others, is now bulk investing in research and development. Xi put considerable emphasis on innovative approaches and technologies. “We will strengthen basic research in applied sciences, launch major national science and technology projects, and prioritise innovation in key generic technologies, cutting-edge frontier technologies, modern engineering technologies, and disruptive technologies,” he said. Efforts in these areas will provide powerful support for building China’s strength in science and technology, product quality, aerospace, cyberspace, and transportation, as well as build a digital China and a smart society. Xi wants China to become a “country of innovators”. The PRC is already on its way. For example, in 2017 World University Rankings, China’s Peking University emerged 27th and Tsinghua 30th.
Paradoxically, the US, once a global leader on climate change, with the advent of the new administration under Trump, has backed away from its commitments. China seems to have taken the wheel. CPC has included “beautiful China” in its two-stage development plan. An analyst termed Xi an “environmental evangelist” and a “torch bearer” for ecological issues: “Lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets,” he said. “We should be good friends to the environment … for the sake of human survival.” There is a fundamental improvement in the environment and the goal of building a beautiful China is basically attained, he added.
Xi will continue his position for the second five-year term. The 19th party congress has further consolidated his position in party, in the army and at the world stage. Under his vision, China is confidently moving in the right direction. His policies such as the anti-corruption campaign, measures for environment protection, emphasis on transparency, urgency for the rule of law, the opening up of the economy to the outside world and lower barriers for foreign investors will make China economically and socially strong while a world-class army backs national strategy both domestically and internally. According to Laurence Brahm, Senior Fellow with the Center for China and Globalization, until this point all congresses had primarily focused on domestic affairs. This is the first time that China has emerged on the world stage as a key player. The decisions made at this congress would thus have an impact on global politics.
Dr Ghulam Ali teaches at Department of Political Science, School of Marxism, Sichuan University of Science & Engineering, Zigong, PR China. Views expressed in this article are personal. firstname.lastname@example.org