As the Communist Party of China (CPC) held its 19th Party Congress, the world watched closely to see what it meant for China and for the rest of the world. The main question that the party grapples with domestically is how to ensure political accountability and deliver public goods without ushering in further political reforms.
This was also the highlight of what party General Secretary Xi Jinping called the principal contradiction facing Chinese society. A cursory look at his report to the Congress confirms that it focuses on ensuring better governance within the country and developing an extended engagement externally.
Implications for India
There are many areas where India’s strategic interests overlap with China’s. Strategic contact with Beijing is bound to rise further as China’s global ambitions increase. At the same time, neither conflict nor cooperation is pre-ordained. How the principles listed by Xi evolve into policy over the next five years will have a crucial impact on this area.
Along with “Xi Jinping Thought,” the newly constituted CPC also included the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is a significant move, since it gives more urgency and political legitimacy to the “New Silk Roads” initiative. Constitutional sanctity means that the entire party has rallied behind the BRI and that it will be pursued in an unswerving manner.
India has already rejected the BRI on the grounds that it raises serious questions about sovereignty. Whether connecting the BRI to the party’s identity will lead to it being treated as a core interest remains to be seen. Will that also lead to a more aggressive promotion of the BRI and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)? New Delhi feels that both violate India’s sovereignty and have the potential to create security challenges.
Xi’s statement that “China will accelerate development in border areas and ensure security and stability of border areas as well” is significant for India. Will China’s desire for reforms and openness create more opportunities for Indian business? How China treats India’s core interests will be the key drivers for the bilateral relations.
Xi as the core leader
An important trend besides the slowing down of reforms has been the changing style of governance in China. The trend before Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 was that of the highest leader being first among equals. However, this process began to erode after the 18th Party Congress.
Its previous high point was in November last year, when Xi was enshrined as the “core leader” of the party. As a next step, this past Wednesday, Xi’s “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” was written into the party constitution. He is only the third leader to have his name in the party charter, after Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and that too in the middle of his 10-year term.
Moreover, he is the first leader since Mao whose name is added in the charter while alive. Xi Jinping today enjoys the status of being a “paramount leader,” again a term hitherto reserved for Mao and Deng.
Domestically, hard authoritarianism is likely to continue, as seen from Xi’s speech when he said, “China’s socialist democracy is the broadest, most genuine, and most effective democracy to safeguard the fundamental interests of the people”. Thus political reforms are not on the agenda, at least for the next five years.
Xi has also not appointed a successor in the Politburo Standing Committee, and how that pans out will determine the nature of political parleys in the days to come.
Governance and anti-corruption
The “China Dream” and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation have been the most important parts of Xi’s regime since 2012. The anti-corruption drive has had the mandate through the work report of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao presented in November 2012. Based on that, Xi has run a tight anti-corruption campaign that has hurt “tigers and flies” alike.
Recently, Chinese media have been promoting the country’s top 10 achievements under Xi, and anti-corruption finds a prominent place in that. Hu Jintao in his 2012 work report had said, “Combating corruption and promoting political integrity, which is a major political issue of great concern to the people, is a clear-cut and long-term political commitment of the party. If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even its collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”
Treating corruption as an existential crisis in the work report provided the strongest base for Xi to act in the way he has. Xi’s work report mentions the fight against corruption on multiple occasions, and it will continue with passing of new laws and establishing new mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation.
His emphasis on the need to improve the functioning of the primary-level organizations, such as the Communist Youth League, is a reflection of his displeasure with such bodies as well the nature of political rivalry in China.
Over the next five years, China is looking to boost qualitative and innovation-driven growth, even as Xi’s report acknowledged that the days of high-speed growth may be over.
It aims at reducing inter-regional and inter-ethnic inequalities. It aims to improve transparency through digitization of governance and delivery systems.
Fiscal reforms may be another key area that Xi will look into more deeply. He particularly expressed his displeasure at the housing and banking sectors during his speech.
Xi acknowledged China’s serious environmental challenges and promised to reform the environmental regulation system.
On security interests, the work report says that China will “resolutely safeguard its sovereignty, security and developmental interests” and “realize the goal of building a powerful military in a new era.” Xi Jinping Thought will also guide the People’s Liberation Army, and Xi is likely to introduce further reforms in the PLA and the Central Military Commission (CMC).
The first reform that Xi brought in was to dismantle the military regions and to introduce theater command. He has also repeatedly stressed the PLA’s role as the party’s army and emphasized deployment and combat-readiness and interoperability involving diverse wings of the PLA. Defense innovation and use of information technology are other areas of modernization in the PLA.
At the same time, one can expect a reorganization at the CMC within a short time after the Party Congress, as some posts may be eliminated to change the balance between various forces.
The 19th Congress of the CPC establishes that Xi Jinping is the paramount leader in no uncertain terms. The outcomes of the congress will leave a lasting Xi legacy for China and the world.
(Views expressed here are strictly personal and do not reflect the author’s professional affiliations.)