China’s 19th Communist Party Congress, an event held every five years, is expected to consolidate President Xi Jinping’s power for years to come. Xi’s allies will be promoted, his adversaries will be chastised, and “Xi Jinping Thought” will be impressed upon China’s future.
The South China Morning Post notes that outsiders have few clues as to the full scope of “Xi Jinping Thought,” since the Chinese president has been teasing it in closed-door speeches to top party officials where nobody is allowed to take notes. One of Xi’s objectives is to have a doctrine named after him formally added to the Communist Party Constitution, a feat only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping before him have achieved.
Reuters International suggests watching the Party Congress for a few telltale signs of Xi’s rising power, such as repeated references to him as lingxiu (“leader”), an honorific previously reserved for Mao and his successor Hua Guofeng, and a possible change in formal title to party chairman, a position no one has held since the eighties. Becoming party chairman instead of general secretary, his current title, would allow Xi to get past a current soft term limit of 2022.
Steve Stang of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London told Reuters that Xi is “now moving more in the direction of a king, of ‘I am China’ and ‘I am the Communist Party.’” Another commentator, an Asian diplomat in Beijing, said becoming party chairman would formally mark the end of “collective leadership,” which sounds an awful lot like a euphemism for assuming dictatorial powers.
Xi’s doctrine will evidently run counter to Deng’s doctrine. “Observers expect to see a major shift in direction on the economy, foreign affairs and ideology, and a new tack on power distribution within the party away from the course charted under Deng and continued with presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao,” the SCMP writes.
Analysts were left to pore over the tea leaves of Xi’s speeches and policy statements to figure out exactly what the new Xi Doctrine will look like. The picture they came up with is not terribly appealing. The formative crises during Xi’s first years in office were corruption, party discipline problems, labor problems, “one of the world’s widest wealth gaps,” and pollution. Deng was eager to modernize China and grow its economy, while Xi seems to be most interested in restoring authoritarian control.
The South China Morning Post summarizes Xi Jinping Thought as follows:
Central to that “new era” is Xi’s focus on the “Four Self-confidences”, a need for China to have faith in its system, path, theory and culture. In the aftermath of international political and financial upheaval, Xi maintains that China needs to have confidence in its one-party political system and its traditional culture, as opposed to Western political ideas and values.
Xi has also promoted “a war on fortified spots” to eliminate domestic and foreign threats standing in the way on China’s road to “becoming strong”.
[…] Unlike Deng, who said some people could “get rich first”, Xi has focused on the need for wealth redistribution, or “precise poverty alleviation”, to lift everybody in the country above the poverty line by 2020. As part of that effort, China spent 100 billion yuan (US$15 billion) last year on poverty alleviation to “leave no one behind.”
Such an ambitious agenda of central control requires power and obedience, so Xi has been cracking down hard on both government corruption and human rights criticism of his government. His anti-corruption crusade also came in handy for suppressing political dissent and “reckless” ideas.
Supposedly Xi Jinping and his fellow travelers learned a few lessons about the dangers of too much centralization from Chairman Mao’s reign, so they hit on the idea of creating a “core” party elite that provides high-level direction and enforces political discipline on top officials, surrounded by a vast and somewhat softer bureaucracy that interacts more directly with the average Chinese citizen.
One of the South China Morning Post’s analysts, Nabil Alsabah of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, wondered if Xi’s “central decision-making organ” will be able to “make adequate policies for a diverse country,” fearing that Xi Jinping will “become so entrenched that people will not dare question him during internal decision-making.”
Aggressive foreign policy and a visible drive for global hyperpower status is clearly part of Xi Jinping Thought. This poses a serious danger in Xi Jinping’s clearly expressed desire to export his ideology as a “China solution” to the world’s uncertainties.
That project is already well underway – witness China’s push for a more heavily censored, tightly-controlled Internet. The process will accelerate as the New Silk Road trade project gives China more economic influence. The coming century will likely become a decisive test of whether liberty or authoritarianism are more powerful viral forces in the Information Age.
The Communist Party’s Global Times portrays the authoritarian “China solution” as the answer to the uncertainties of free-market capitalism and libertarian disorder:
In the past five years, China has pushed forward its anti-corruption campaign on a never-seen-before scale. The rule of law has also been enhanced alongside a comprehensive economic transformation. While the country places more importance on politics, the principle of people first has been carried out in various sectors. Enormous changes have occurred in an orderly way, improving the authority of the CPC and enhancing social cohesion.
China has had different experiences on diplomatic fronts in the past five years. Major-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics has helped China’s integration with the world and the strategic space has not burst with China’s rise. With China’s advocacy and efforts, there is more hope that we Chinese can avoid the Thucydides Trap in competition with another big power.
The majority of Chinese are living a better life than five years ago, a rare thing in today’s world struggling with recession and populism. Almost all Chinese believe the 19th CPC National Congress will launch the future of sustainable economic growth and higher-quality life, a better political civilization and improved social governance. The past five years have laid a solid foundation for the future.
There will be plenty of ears in the Western left receptive to Xi Jinping Thought. The revisionist critique of 20th-century collectivism is that its brilliant designs were ruined by corruption of various kinds, from moneyed special interests purchasing influence and greedy leaders looting national treasuries to psychotic dictators turning centrally-controlled economies into murder machines. Chinese thought leaders will tactfully avoid mentioning Mao was an example of the latter.
Xi Jinping Thought will offer enlightened despotism at last, rigorously purged of corruption and scientifically inclined to achieve the greatest good for the most citizens. There will be takers for this idea far beyond China’s borders.