Given China’s closed system, you can interpret the outcome of the recent 19thCongress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways.
Some say that the new leadership is carefully balanced between various factions, others that Xi, the Chairman of Everything, is supreme, with his “Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a New Era” bringing him on par with Mao. Has Xi emerged as the new Emperor, or is his goal shoring up CPC’s supremacy? But one thing has come out clearly, the soaring ambition of making China the centre of the world. So we need to pay attention to the outcome of the meeting.
Xi, who was flanked at the Party Congress by his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, clearly has the support of the mainstream of the party whose members know they must hang together, if they are not to hang separately. The one dissonance is that there are no 1960s born leaders in the lineup of the 7-member apex ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). In other words, no clear successor to Xi when he is supposed to retire in 2022. Recall, Xi, who became general secretary at the 18th Party Congress, was appointed to the PSC in the 17th, his predecessor Hu Jintao was put into that committee at the 14th Congress, even though he took office in the 16th.
Continuity has been personified by the elevation of Wang Huning to the PSC. Wang, a former law professor, has little experience in administration. He is a theoretician who has formulated the ideas of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessors. He is the man shaping CPC’s ideas and messaging, suggesting that China is creating a Sinicized form of Marxism-Leninism which combines an authoritarian political system with a market economy, layered over with a generous dose of nationalism.
The second major issue is that China intends to come to the centre of the world stage. To this end China has outlined a path to enhance its economy by harnessing technology and innovation with artificial intelligence on one hand, and expanding its economic reach abroad through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China is singularly favoured at this moment by the self-defeating leadership of the United States. When Washington has signalled retreat from multi-lateralism and globalisation, Beijing has signalled its desire to take the lead on matters like climate change and trade. It is also rapidly developing its military capabilities to assume a larger role outside its own borders. Simultaneously, it has sought to tighten its authority over Hong Kong and assert its Taiwan claim emphasising its intention to strongly protect its national interests.
There is now an explicit challenge to the world order which was led by Washington. China has benefited hugely from this world order and has no intention of upending it; what it seeks is to slowly supplant the US. But where the US-led order emphasised liberal values and democracy, China insists that its illiberal ways work better, a message that resonates well in many parts of the developing world.
This said, it needs to be noted that China’s problems are also daunting – massive debt, growing inequality, an ageing population, a polluted landscape. The Party has, in its arcane Marxist-Leninist jargon, altered its understanding of the principal contradiction facing China says it will now seek to address issues arising from the persistence of poverty, regional imbalance and a poisoned environment.
CPC has brought unprecedented prosperity to the country and it is not easy for it to digest that its policies may be wrong or require correction, and its authoritarian and centralised structure often prevents effective feedback. So far CPC has shown an impressive ability to surmount challenges as they have emerged. But the obstacles of the future look even more daunting, especially when you put them in the context of the ambitions of Xi Jinping.
This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.