China

Paradigm shift

Print edition : November 24, 2017

A view of the Great Hall of the People during the closing of the 19th CPC Congress on October 24. Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

President Xi Jinping at the opening session. Photo: NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP

The new members of the Politburo standing committee: (from left) Han Zheng, Wang Huning, Li Zhanshu, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Wang Yang and Zhao Leji in the Great Hall of the People. Photo: Ng Han Guan/AP

Xi Jinping unveils a ground-breaking road map at the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China.

UNDER grey skies and amid a steady downpour, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a stirring address at the imposing Great Hall of the People, one of the 10 iconic buildings built by Mao Zedong to mark the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

On October 18, Xi read out his work report at the inaugural of the 19th congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). In the twice-a-decade event, he took stock of the gains and pitfalls of the previous five years. But, more importantly, he unveiled a grand two-stage rolling plan. In tune with the PRC’s centenary in 2049, China will become a leading developed nation, having accomplished the unprecedented goal of becoming the world’s first advanced socialist country, he said.

A few decades ago, when its enemies rejoiced over the collapse of the Soviet Union, such words would have sounded anachronistic—the grieving utterances of diehards in a deep denial mode. But in Xi’s China, socialism rocks. China is already the second largest economy in the world. It is fast becoming the centre of a new wave of inclusive globalisation. Its Belt and Road Initiative is industrialising large parts of the world on the pillars of connectivity and investment in billions of dollars. China’s bullet trains are the envy of the world, as are its quantum satellites—the future of its unhackable cyber security.

In his marathon speech that lasted over three hours, Xi said his grand mid-century vision would be realised in three distinct phases. China will become a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021, the year that will mark 100 years of the CPC’s formation. China’s new stage of development will be consolidated by 2035. From then onwards, China will be on the home stretch to become an advanced socialist country, and the goal will be accomplished by 2050. Xi was unambiguous in declaring that China stood at a “new historical juncture” and would pursue its own path of developing “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. This implied that a Western-style “opening up” was not on Beijing’s agenda.

In the presence of former icons Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi also underscored that developing countries can appropriately adapt China’s path of development. Rather than being on the defensive, China was confidently offering the Global South its model as an alternative to Western-style democracy. In doing so, Xi was openly challenging the “end of history” ideologues who had posited the permanence of Western-style liberal democracy and neoliberal economics following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Beijing consensus

Scholars such as Joshua Cooper Ramo have proposed that the “Beijing Consensus” supporting China’s economic development model can emerge as an alternative to the Washington Consensus of policies advocated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the United States Treasury.

Xi stressed that the Chinese model was “blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernisation”. He added that the Chinese path offers “a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence…”

In an interview with the state broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN), China commentator Robert Lawrence Kuhn observed that Xi’s speech recognised the linkage and integration between achieving the goal of a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021 and the eventual goal of becoming an advanced nation by 2049. He added that by the mid-century, China will have evolved “into an advanced nation and will be a global leader in all categories of human importance—economics, governance, science and technology and culture”.

Without referring to the U.S. administration under Donald Trump, Xi underscored China’s proactive support for inclusive globalisation and combating climate change. “No country alone can handle all the challenges that mankind faces and no country can retreat into self-isolation,” he said, listing regional and economic instability, a widening wealth gap, terrorism, major epidemics, cyberspace insecurity and climate change as major challenges facing humankind.

In remarks meant to allay fears among neighbouring countries triggered by China’s rise, Xi invited “peoples of all countries to join China’s effort to build a common destiny for mankind and enduring peace and stability”. He said that Beijing would maintain a defensive policy on national security and refrain from interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries. The President unveiled his vision of China’s high-minded and momentous goals in what was, at the end of the conference, encrypted, “Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a new Era”. Xi summed up his approach in eight points. He said that China aspired to become a “great modern-socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful by the middle of the century”.

Principal contradiction

Turning to theory, he underscored that the “principal contradiction” facing Chinese society in the “new era” was between “unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life”.

An explainer published by Xinhua, the state news agency, has tried to decode the hidden meaning behind the “principal contradiction,” purposefully highlighted by Xi. “Principal contradiction” is not an “obscure piece of political jargon” but a central part of the “dialectical materialism” through which Marxists interpret the world, the commentary observes.

It adds: “Contradictions—or ‘dynamic opposing forces’—are omnipresent in society and drive social change. The ‘principal contradiction’ is what defines a society. By identifying and solving it, society develops peacefully. Left unsolved, it can lead to chaos and eventually, as Marx predicted, to revolution.”

An inaccurate reading of the “principal contradiction” can lead to disastrous consequences. China faced “prolonged social turmoil” after the CPC wrongly diagnosed “proletariat versus bourgeoisie”, or an irreconcilable class war between the working people and the affluent, as the “principal contradiction” during the Mao era. But in 1981, the CPC changed its assessment of the “principal contradiction”, which led to structural market economic reforms, leading to nearly 10 per cent expansion of the Chinese economy for the next 30 years.

The situation has changed yet again. Pointing to the dawn of a “new era”, Xi has underscored that the principal contradiction was now “between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life”. The commentary explains that aspirations among the Chinese people have spiralled. Many of them are now seeking an education at Oxford or Cambridge, a vacation in California, or a villa in Sydney. “This demand for a better life overseas is derived from an inability to satisfy these desires at home. The very highest level of education is not available or in acute short supply. There are long waiting lists in the very best hospitals. Tourist sites are crowded and services there have hardly advanced at the same pace as people’s expectations.”

Chinese regions have also developed unevenly. Besides, the gap in personal wealth is a major concern. “The country’s three richest men—two Internet gurus and one property magnate—are each worth more than 30 billion dollars. Meanwhile, millions of people struggle to get by on less than a dollar a day,” the report observes. The fulfilment of aspirations for equitable growth, a cleaner environment, a richer cultural life, and a secure external environment identified by the current “principal contradiction” will guide policy formulation in the coming decades.

Xi’s Thought embeds his earlier “Four Comprehensives” formulation. With focus on achieving what are called the two century goals of 2021 and 2050, Xi has made relentless “all-round” reforms—economic, political, cultural and ecological—as the centrepiece of his doctrine. He has also stressed strict internal vigilance over the CPC, including a relentless anti-corruption campaign, and the “rule of law” as the pathway for China’s all-round socialist modernisation.

Analysts point out that the slogan of “deepening reform” includes the focus on “supply-side” economics. That covers production and consumption of the most advanced goods and services, achieved by pursuing and developing Germany’s Industry 4.0 model. It includes focus on 10 most advanced industrial sectors, such as eco-friendly electric vehicles, aviation products and Big Data.

The “Four Comprehensives” have highlighted the relevance of a supporting legal regime, showcasing the importance of “rule of law,” in tune with achieving economic, environmental and other goals.

Xi has insisted on a corruption-free party as the bedrock to steer the country’s current “decisive stage” of transition. The “strict” governance of the CPC, one of the “four comprehensives, has unleashed an anti-corruption campaign that has already netted six tainted leaders who once occupied the top echelons of the party: the former security Czar Zhou Yongkang; two former vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou; Ling Jihua, a powerful insider in former President Hu Jintao’s camp; and former Chongqing party chiefs Bo Xilai and Sun Zhengcai.

Xi stressed that the “defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the leadership of the CPC…The Party is the highest force for political leadership”.

Xi’s Thought in the Constitution

In its closing session on October 24, the CPC formally embedded Xi’s Thought in the Constitution. Only Mao’s “Thought” and Deng’s “Theory” have been incorporated in the basic law of the party-state. Deng’s name was added after his death in 1997.The contributions of two other former Presidents—Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao—do not carry their names in the Constitution. Xi’s Thought will act as a guide to the party’s work in the coming decades.

As expected, the amended Constitution affirmed that Xi’s signature fight against corruption will continue. The Belt and Road initiative, an ambitious programme to build infrastructure linking China with its neighbours and beyond, was also included in the party Constitution.

At the end of the party congress, the 2,336 delegates drawn from across the nation approved the new central committee consisting of 204 members along with their 172 alternate members. They also voted for the 133 member Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the county’s top anti-corruption body. A day later, the central committee endorsed a 25-member Politburo, and the top seven leaders comprising the apex standing committee of the Politburo. On October 25, after the new central committee concluded its first plenum, the stage was set for Xi to present the seven-member standing committee, China’s highest decision-making body. Xi was to become general secretary of the CPC for a second consecutive five-year term.

New team

Against the backdrop of a giant Chinese painting, Xi’s team made a carefully choreographed appearance on a vast red carpet. The President smiled and waved at the selected media pool assembled hours in advance in the spacious hall hand-picked for the ceremony. Xi then introduced the remaining six men of his team: Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Han Zheng.

In his opening remarks, Xi, flanked by his brand new team, underscored the importance of achieving China’s two centenary goals. “Not only must we deliver the first centenary goal, we must also embark on the journey toward the second centenary goal,” he observed.

There appeared to be no dearth of talent in the seven-member panel. Li Keqiang, who has served his first term as Premier and headed the State Council, China’s cabinet. is expected to continue as Prime Minister for a second term. The portfolios of the rest of the team are yet to be announced. Observers point out that the new standing committee is the result of a delicate balancing act that the CPC carried out, steered by Xi.

“Among these seven leaders, Xi Jinping is very familiar with Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji. They really worked as a team in the past five years,” said Cheng Li, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, in an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.

He added: “Li Keqiang and Wang Yang—they are actually the proteges of Xi Jinping’s predecessor Hu Jintao. Han Zheng and Wang Huning both worked in Shanghai—very familiar with another predecessor Jiang Zemin. So this is actually a team of rivals who will be working together. That shows the solidarity and unity of the leadership.”

Regarding specific portfolios, there is widespread expectation that Li Zhanshu will take over as the head of China’s National People’s Congress (CNPC), the country’s top legislative body. The decision will be in tune with Xi’s focus on cementing the Socialist Rule of Law in China, requiring extensive interaction with the CNPC.

Wang Yang is likely to head the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country’s top advisory body tasked with generating fresh ideas.

Wang Huning, 62, the top party theorist and director of the Central Policy Research Office, appears set to assume charge of ideology, propaganda and party organisation. He is expected to play a major role: Xi in his inaugural address stressed that CPC members must be adequately armed with “theory” to guide their professional conduct.

Zhao Leji, currently the head of the organisation department of the party and personnel, is likely to replace Wang Qishan, China’s anti-corruption czar who has retired. Han Zheng, 63, the Shanghai party chief, appears all set to become the executive vice premier, assisting Prime Minister Li.

Xi’s career

Xi’s team is emblematic of China’s abiding faith in meritocracy, rooted in its history. The emphasis on rule by gifted elite can be traced more to Confucius and perhaps less to Mao or Marx. Xi fits naturally into China’s new-age meritocracy. But so does the rest of the standing committee. He graduated from China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, majoring in Marxist theory and ideological and political education, according to CGTN. After his graduation, Xi rose steadily in the ranks of the CPC, which he had joined in 1974.

He gained substantial administrative experience by assuming leadership positions in four Chinese provinces, starting with Hebei, a province on the doorstep of Beijing. Later he also served as vice mayor in Xiamen, the coastal city and also the capital of Fujian province, well recognised for recently hosting a summit of the BRICS grouping comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Xi later served as Governor in two coastal provinces, Fujian and Zhejiang. A pension-fund scandal brought him to Shanghai, where he played the role of a troubleshooter, serving as the party secretary of the municipality. His successful handling of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 further enhanced his reputation, laying the foundation for a leadership role within the ranks of the standing committee of the Politburo. In 2012 he became the general secretary of the CPC.

Li Keqiang also has top academic qualifications. He graduated in economics from Peking University and followed it up with a doctorate in the same subject.

Li Zhanshu, Xi’s right-hand man during his first term, has an executive master’s degree in business administration.

Wang Yang also has a master’s degree from the University of Science and Technology of China. China’s chief ideologist, Wang Huning is a post-graduate in law from Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Zhao Leji has majored in philosophy from Peking University, followed by a master’s degree from the CPC central committee school. Han Zheng, the departing party secretary of Shanghai has a master’s from East China Normal University.

Core values

“We are witnessing the return of a more historical and humanistic perspective on the world, an emphasis on education, a concern for family across several generations, and a new assessment of the value of China’s tradition of political meritocracy,” says Daniel Bell, author of the bestseller The China Model: Political Meritocracy and Limits of Democracy. In an interview to The Diplomat magazine, he highlights that for long the Chinese have believed that “the selection and promotion of leaders with superior abilities, ethical qualities and social and cultural skills” are best equipped to exercise leadership.

He adds: “The perspective has Confucian roots, but it has been modernised and has been the core of the strategy for economic development in China and other East Asian countries such as Korea and Japan.”

Apparently, in China, “core Confucian values” are regaining salience, not only in government, but also in other sectors such as business and education. The return of Confucianism and meritocracy signals growing sophistication in Chinese ideology, re-energising Marxism.

It was therefore not accidental that before the 19th CPC congress folded up, it was announced that the Second World Congress on Marxism would be held in Peking University next May. It will coincide with the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth and the 40th anniversary of China’s reform programme.

Wang Huning’s presence in the team best exemplifies the strong return of ideology in Xi’s China. In fact, Xi’s speech may have echoed some of Wang’s ideas. Even before entering the elite leadership panel, Wang had established himself as a blue-chip ideologist. In tune with Xi’s emergence as China’s leader in 2012, Wang’s influence as a leading theoretician had also been rising. He has been credited with arming former President Jiang Zemin with ideas for his “Three Represents” code. He had also advised President Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, the architect of the Scientific Outlook on Development. In a show of unity and cohesion within the CPC, both Jiang and Hu were part of Xi’s entourage at the inaugural of the 19th party congress.

Though known as an intellectual who spent his formative years in Shanghai’s Fudan University, Wang is not unacquainted with Beijing’s political universe. He was inducted in the central secretariat that manages the day-to-day running of the Politburo and its Standing Committee by former President Hu. Ahead of his formal induction in the standing committee, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that Wang’s “possible ascension reflected the pressing need for Xi to have someone at the top to provide ideological backing for his ambitious reform programmes”. Despite spending time in the U.S., Wang shows no signs of being enamoured by Western-style liberalism. On the contrary, he seems inclined to back an independently developed homegrown ideology, rooted in China’s unique national experience.

In an article published in March 1988 in a Fudan University journal, titled “Analysis on the Ways of Political Leadership During the Modernisation Process”, Wang advocated the adoption of a “centralised” political model over a “democratic” and “decentralised” one. He said centralised leadership would promote “rapid economic growth” and better steer distribution of “social resources”.

Wang also underscored that as China modernises, “the scope of the policymaking by the political leadership will expand without precedent”, requiring the steadying presence of a centralised leadership armed with a broad vision and a high sense of responsibility.

Wang’s rise can be largely attributed to his talent and his Shanghai roots. People’s Digest, a state-run magazine, points out that Zeng Qinghong and Wu Bangguo, former Shanghai officials who later became members of the Politburo’s standing committee, strongly backed Wang during his formative years. When Jiang, a former Party Secretary of Shanghai, became President, Wang found a place in the CPC’s Beijing-based Central Policy Research Office.

No clear succession plan

The new leadership, however, does not suggest a clear succession plan. “There have been no surprises in the lineup, but the issue of the next generation of leadership remains unresolved,” says Einar Tangen, a Beijing-based current affairs commentator, in a conversation with Frontline.

Commenting on the CPC’s decision not to earmark succession, the South China Morning Post pointed out that President Xi has made a decision of “far reaching consequences”. “This opens the way for China to rethink its power transition mechanism and to give several possible candidates time to prove themselves,” the daily observed. The newspaper’s former editor Wang Xiangwei said Xi’s decision not to pick a successor “could prove pragmatic from a historical perspective”.

“China’s feudal history from the Qing dynasty has shown that anointing an heir early can be problematic, as lower ranking officials try to ingratiate themselves with the heir apparent, thus creating two power centres and making the heir himself a potential target of attacks.”

Though the practice of appointing a shadow leadership, instituted by Deng, may have its merits, it does have serious drawbacks. Wang Xiangwei underscored that designating successors “has tended to lead to more intense power struggles, as exemplified by the long-standing rumours of an attempted coup against Xi back in 2012 during his rise to the top”. “The rumours have been partly confirmed by a number of senior officials who have recently praised Xi for saving the party and the country by foiling the activities led by Zhou Yongkang, a former Politburo Standing Committee member, Bo Xilai, a former Politburo member, and Ling Jihua, former chief of staff to Hu Jintao. All three, along with many of their allies, have since been jailed on corruption charges, among other crimes.”

Move to modernise PLA

The day he was appointed general secretary, a new lineup of the apex Central Military Commission (CMC) was announced. A day later, Xi urged military leaders to transform the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into one of the leading fighting forces by 2050. He said the Chinese military must be fully modernised by 2035.

The move is not surprising. President Xi has made the PLA’s modernisation one of the core themes of his Thought. In his speech, he underscored that the “Party’s goal of building a strong military in the new era is to build the people’s forces into world class forces that obey the People’s command, can fight and win, and maintain excellent conduct.”

Xi heads the CMC, but its size has now been shrunk to seven, from the previous 11. He has appointed PLA Air Force General Xu Qiliang as the first Vice Chairman of the CMC. Gen. Xu served as the second vice chairman during President Xi’s first term. General Zhang Youxia will now become the second vice-chairman.

Chinese media reports say that President Xi and General Xu worked together in the coastal city of Fuzhou. Xu was appointed local commander of the Air Force in Fuzhou in late 1989, a year before Xi became the party head of the city.

General Zhang, the second vice chairman, is also well known to President Xi. Both are natives of Shaanxi province, and their fathers worked together in the 1940s during the Chinese revolution.

The other four CMC members are General Wei Fenghe, General Li Zuocheng, Admiral Miao Hua and Lieutenant General Zhang Shengmin.

General Zhang Shengmin is the chief of the CMC’s anti-corruption Discipline Inspection Commission. Analysts say that his appointment in the CMC signals that there will be no slide in Xi’s massive anti-graft drive in the PLA, which has already felled more than 100 generals.

Two former CMC Vice Chairmen Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou were arrested for corruption. Xu later died of cancer while in detention.

President Xi has already brought in major structural changes in the military focussing on joint tri-service combat, undertaken by five newly formed theatre commands. Clearly, even before the dust had settled on the 19th party congress, Xi was walking the talk of instituting relentless reforms in tune with his Thought. Rapid changes in other avenues can be assuredly predicted as China, steered by Xi, begins another Long March to achieve the two centenary goals.

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