By Clay Chandler
October 21, 2017

We’re halfway through China’s crucial 19th Communist Party Congress. As of this writing (Saturday night China time) there have been no momentous revelations. It’s not that major policy or personnel issues have yet to be decided (undoubtedly they have); rather it’s that those decisions won’t be shared beyond the party’s inner circle until this week’s gathering officially concludes on October 24th.

Still, the first days of the congress offer tantalizing clues to China’s future. If nothing else, Xi Jinping’s opening speech to the congress on Sept. 18 highlighted the degree to which he has consolidated his control over the party and the Chinese state. That speech was notable for its length (well over three hours) and convoluted phraseology. Pundits read much into the title of one section of the address: “Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” That’s not a formulation that trips off the tongue. But many China watchers interpreted it as a signal Xi aspires to a stature equal to Mao Zedong in the pantheon of Chinese politics. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is the phrase associated with Mao’s successor, “paramount leader” Deng Xiaoping, who opened China’s economy to global trade and investment. But in the canon of Chinese communist party ideology, Deng’s ideas rank only as “theory” (lilun) a notch below those of Mao, which are enshrined as “thought” (sixiang). There is wide speculation that the Xi speech suggests the congress will vote to have “Xi Jinping Thought” written into the party’s constitution, which would elevate Xi to Mao’s level and, according to some experts, assure that he remains a dominant force in Chinese politics for the rest of his life.

Many have interpreted Xi’s repeated use of the phrase “new era” (xin shidai) as a sign he is laying the groundwork for bold departures from Deng’s thinking and the collective, consensus-driven approach to leadership that characterized the party after Deng’s death.

We still have no word on who will be chosen for the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, or whether the party will stick to its internal rules for rotating membership of that group. Currently the committee has seven members, five of whom are due for retirement if the party sticks to its “seven-up, eight-down” rule, which holds that leaders 67 years-old or younger are eligible for reappointment to the Standing Committee while those 68 years-old or older are not. All eyes are on Wang Qishan, a key Xi ally who serves as chairman of the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Wang is 69, but it’s widely assumed that Xi wants him to remain on the committee anyway. Many argue that if Wang stays, it would create a precedent for Xi, who is 64, staying on as party chairman after his second five year term expires. Oki Nagai, writing in Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review, argues that Wang will step down, and be succeeded by Li Zhanshu, a Xi ally who now serves as director of the party’s General Office.

It’s a good guess. My take—and this is pure speculation—is that Xi already is powerful enough that he doesn’t need to reappoint Wang. But to keep his options open he will probably try to avoid appointing to the standing committee young officials he thinks might potentially challenge him for a third term. The South China Morning Post suggests that neither Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua, nor Chongqing party boss Chen Min’er will make the standing committee. Both men have been widely described as Xi loyalists, but they have also been tipped as possible Xi successors. The Financial Times has a nice primer on potential standing committee members here. Its headline sums up all you need to know for now: “Only Xi is indispensable.”

More China news below.

Clay Chandler


You May Like