The 19th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China sends a clear message to the wider world – that China under President Xi Jinping aims to build by 2035 a modern society that is ready to take the lead on the world stage, opined China experts at a workshop on the party Congress organised at Observer Research Foundation on November 9, 2017.

They said Xi will continue with his reform agenda, which is multidimensional. The objectives in the short run, which include tackling corruption, improving governance, modernisation of the armed forces and innovation, are intrinsic to realising the Communist Party’ goals for China under President Xi, they said.

The Congress, that convened at the Great Hall of People in Beijing between October 18 and 24, is a rare spectacle giving outsiders knowledge of the inner workings of China’s opaque Communist party. As expected, Xi was successful in gaining a second term as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China. The  Congress incorporated Xi’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics into the constitution, fueling debate about Xi becoming the undisputed leader of China like erstwhile Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

The highlight of the 19th party Congress was the unveiling of a new Central committee of politburo, Politburo Standing committee (PSC), Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and a scaled down Central Military Commission (CMC). These measures were complemented by the stress laid during the Congress session on transforming the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a world-class military force and further opening China’s economy.

Dr. Manoj Joshi, who chaired the workshop, observed that the message passed at the conclusion of the Congress was that Xi  is now the all-powerful leader of China in charge of the helm of affairs and that China now stands as a formidable force at the global stage, with big-ticket projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

As was evident from the discussion, China’s domestic concerns would always prevail and remain a priority for the current leadership. China will now seek to address the issues of ‘principal contradiction’, the existing regional imbalance and the widening gap between the rich and poor that could generate social tension in the future.

Xi, who tasked himself with tackling widespread corruption, China’s regional imbalance, apart from realising the ambitious BRI, has amassed huge power, said Prof. Bali Deepak from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Professor Alka Acharya, also from the JNU, said there was a need to reexamine the events of the 19th Congress and de-hyphenate Xi’s ascendancy with it. During the workshop, both Prof. Deepak and Prof. Acharya dealt with the question whether the Congress session signaled any departure from previous years or not.

Continuity or change?

China’s rise has implications for everyone. As Prof. Acharya observed, “if China sneezes, the world catches cold”. She continued, “I think in many ways we are still in the phase when things which happen within China are going to affect the way in which the world economy is functioning”. Prof. Deepak terms the transformation of China under Xi, since he took over in 2012, as impressive, accounted, by the fact that China’s GDP now stands at $USD 12 trillion as compared to $USD 5 trillion in 2012. Xi’s goal is to eradicate poverty by 2020-21 and achieving complete modernisation by the year 2035. Prof. Deepak said under Xi, China is much closer to tackling these two issues, which the 13th party congress outlined under the 1987 development strategy.

Xi has specifically added 14 new dimensions, which include principally developing a quality work force, innovation driven development strategy, rural vitalisation strategy, and regional development strategy that addresses China’s concerns over the differential development across provinces within China and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life. Prof. Acharya agreed with Prof. Deepak that China would remain engaged with the questions of corruption, governance and of inequalities.

Prof. Deepak observed that Japanese strategic incompetence, US retrenchment from global institutions and India’s domestic preoccupations give China space to build a ‘community of shared destiny’ to which the Belt and the Road Initiative (BRI) is crucial. China thus will aggressively push for global rebalancing and reshaping; though it realises the need to bring various other states, including India, on board.

On the question of whether there is a continuity in Xi’s domestic strategy, Prof. Deepak felt that  there appears to be a continuity in the Chinese system and their thinking which is people centric as was reflected in Xi’s speeches. Accordingly, he said though Xi has not defined socialism, China will continue to traverse the socialist path. However, Prof. Acharya opined that under Xi, the party is developing a new kind of philosophy that is distinct from the socialism that was practised during Mao’s or Deng. She pointed out that after all, under Jiang Zemin, the party opened to entrepreneurs and the business classes.

The need to de-hyphenate Xi and the Congress

Prof. Acharya challenged the western media’s analysis that Xi has amassed huge powers in his hand. “This is not a very useful way of understanding the ascent,” she said, adding the party Congress is an event of the party, for the party and by the party. It is an instrument to connect with China’s 1.5 billion people. The 19th Congress was distinct from the previous ones, since the leadership has become aware of the rise in inequalities and the growing dissent, which have contributed to the erosion of the party’s legitimacy.

Prof. Acharya argued that Xi’s agenda therefore revolves around meeting what the party demands. In her words, “a party is obviously as good as its leader and therefore this leader is going to establish his credentials in fighting against corruption, in improving governance and in addressing the principle contradiction”. Hence, Prof. Acharya is skeptical when parallels are being drawn between Xi Jinping and Mao. She further added that the hype generated because of Xi’s ascendancy and consolidation of power was surprising since most of the decisions that emerged in the 19th Congress were expected.

Currently, the leadership faces enormous challenges and will remain focused on dealing with them. Xi, according to Prof. Acharya, would want to be in a position where he can manage the pulls and pressure within the party. This would then allow him to address the major challenges such as lifting 40-60 million people out of poverty and achieving balance between the super-rich, rich with aspirations and the poor. Catering to the demands of these three sections is going to be a challenge and the party is going to be tested to the utmost because at the lower levels this relationship with local cadres and people has not always been one of the most harmonious.

This report is prepared by Ketan Mehta, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi


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