On October 18, the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party begins in Beijing. It is an uneventful and dull meeting and yet, since this gathering will choose a new leadership that will lead the country for next five years, the Congress is considered the political event of the year.
The proceedings of the Congress, however, are not at all transparent. It is for this reason that past Congresses have been compared to the Conclave, that unique gathering of the princes of the Church, the Cardinals, convened in Rome every time there is a need to select a new Pope. Except that the close-mouthed meetings behind the sealed doors of the Sistine Chapel, where the cardinals discuss the matters of the Church before they cast their secret ballots, can be, compared to the election of Chinese Party secretary, considered an authentic democratic process.
Beijing does not use smoke signals, that appear from the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel after every ballot, to announce its choice. The smoke is for the crowds in St.Peter’s Square and believers all over the world, signaling that cardinals have or have not (yet) elected a new Pope. In Beijing, the new pope–the party secretary–is decided after endless secret meetings and bargaining among the nomenclature, who have to reach a consensus on the new leadership months ahead of the Congress. Therefore, there is no doubt that the Congress will confirm Xi Jinping, the 64-year-old silent leader who runs China with his iron fist, as the new secretary of the Party. He will remain the strong man of China for the next five years.
So the question is, why even have Congress if the new leaders are chosen with secret meetings and negotiations months before the event? Why does the country need to stage this huge ceremony, one which paralyzes the political apparatus and the country?
There are several reasons. One of them is to celebrate itself, the party; to reinforce the importance of its icons and its ideological supremacy. But, in reality, the matter is much less sacred, it’s more simple and banaler than ideology or nationalism would like us to believe. It is the prerogative of the Congress to propose a socioeconomic offer to the country’s populous, in exchange for their obedience. That is what allows the Party to hold onto power. With this unusual social contract, the Chinese population renounces its political rights in exchange for economic growth that improves their living standards.
Of course, the regime’s pledge is never on target, but the results and progress are evident. According to the World Bank, the Chinese economy represents 55 percent of the world economy, and in the last decade, China has more than tripled its per capita income. As a consequence, the Communist Party is very much in the game. Or it was up until now, at least. As Beijing can no longer build its growth on exports only, the future is uncertain. If China, the biggest producing plant on this planet, wants to continue to grow, it will need to focus on the growth of the domestic market. But pushing for reforms that would further boost the liberation of the domestic social and economic forces do not seem to be an easy task for Beijing’s authoritarian regime. The forthcoming Congress might, therefore, have some difficulties in finding the right balance between the tight control that Xi Jinping seems to favor and between the challenges that new and liberal generations are pushing forward.
It appears to me that this must have been the pervading tone of the discussion when the major political players met last August in Beidaihe. This summer resort – 180 miles away from hot and dusty Beijing – has become the traditional venue for the high-level meeting the Party convenes each summer. It’s an occasion for the top party leaders to discuss geopolitical and domestic agendas deep in the night. Supposedly. In reality, nobody knows exactly what the leaders at the beach, shrouded in strictest secrecy, are discussing. What is on the agenda at the Beidaihe meetings? The suggestion is that we should think of Beidaihe as China’s Bilderberg meetings, where people of power meet regularly but nobody can say why.
But one thing is certain: when the leaders appear with their expressionless faces on the stage in the Great Hall of the People, they follow the detailed, prescribed liturgy that has been decided in Beidaihe. The Congress is not a place where issues could be raised or debated. The ossified leaders on stage, in front of thousands delegates and cameras, must instead show unity. They must show discipline; they must act as if they would obey the higher principles that bond the party.
Before they appear on the stage, the members of nomenclature spend a lot of time in make-up rooms where the staff wax their faces to achieve the perfect shine, or mask. The texts are all written and edited, there is no improvisation, no speaking off the cuff. Many years ago the Congress stopped to discuss the Communist Manifesto or the dictatorship of working class. The script is now about the growth of the GDP, about geopolitics, about expanding the national territory – be it in the South China Sea or Taiwan– about the consolidation of international prestige that one day will liberate the Chinese people from their trauma marked by decades of colonialism.
But there is more. While there is no doubt that Xi Jinping will be confirmed as the leader of the Party and the country, it is not clear how much power Congress will concede to him. The latter depends on the number of allies Xi will manage to place in the Politburo, the seven members political body that practically runs the country. Or better, the majority in the Politburo will allow Xi Jinping to run the country pretty much as he would like. And since this year five members of the Politburo will be replaced, the stakes are huge.
In this sense, what we’ve been watching in the last few months is nothing more than Xi Jinping’s electoral campaign.
It started a year ago when the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee elevated president Xi Jinping to “core” leader, a title that only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have held. Xi, after being elected Secretary of the CP in 2012, President of the State, and head of the powerful Central Military Commission, which makes him commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a year ago gained the title, lifting him to the level of the other two immortals.
Here is what I wrote about it back then:
In spite the fact that the term “core” does not denote particular powers, “it demonstrates to potential rivals that Mr. Xi stands above the pack in a way few modern Chinese leaders have. Officials up and down the country will face a welter of propaganda and study sessions demanding that they demonstrate their loyalty to Mr. Xi by acclaiming his new status,” Chris Buckley explains from Beijing.
Now, why does Xi Jinping need to be moved to the “core” of the party and the state that he already commands? The reason is exactly the same as the two previous cases — to get that little extra power that brings him closer to the kind of absolute leadership that only the pope and Kim Jong Un have today. To ascribe him the aura of immortality that will enable him to accomplish his mission. What this mission is, we might be able to see better in the future.
And the future is here. During the last meeting, just a few days ago, the CP Politburo decided to amend the constitution of China’s Communist Party with the political thoughts of President Xi Jinping. As the South Morning Post reported, “Beijing-based political analyst Zhang Lifan said that the main purpose of the plenary session would be to decide whether Xi’s name should be pinned to it. ‘Once Xi’s name is incorporated in the constitution, his status in the party will be comparable to that of Mao [Zedong] and Deng [Xiaoping],’ he said. ‘If it is not, Xi will be regarded in much the same way as his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.’”
Adding his name to the Constitution would be a second lift-off for the ambitious Xi Jinping. Last year’s promotion to the “core leader” of the country has no doubt fulfilled his ego. Being the son of Xi Zhongxun, a war hero and later a high party official, Xi Jinping is considered a “princeling,” a term used to describe descendants of prominent senior Communist Party officials that Hu Jintao was absolutely not. As a very ambitious leader, Xi needed to distance himself from mediocre Jiang Zemin and depressingly dull Hu Jintao, both put on the party throne by the late Deng Xiaoping.
Xi wanted to arrive on top by himself, and since becoming the party’s Secretary in 2012 (and therefore President of the PRC), Xi Jinping has consolidated his power very fast. He broke with tacit reform-era party rules against targeting former top leaders (and their families) after leaving office. Long-standing official aversion to anything resembling a cult of personality is steadily being abandoned, as state media increasingly focuses on Xi Jinping alone, to the exclusion of other leaders. At the heart of this has been the anti-corruption drive. To Xi’s supporters, this represents the Secretary’s earnest desire to eliminate the corruption and get rid of the party’s impure elements on the highest level. By contrast, critics say that this drive is a front to remove opponents and to consolidate his power.
During the last few weeks, Xi has escalated his electoral activity. The state-run media are rolling out the propaganda material about Xi’s strong leadership, worshiping his international prestige and his general influence, as described in this Guardian dispatch from Beijing: “For the first time, China is standing at the centre of the world stage,” viewers of the six-part series Major Country Diplomacy are told. “This is is a new historical course charted by President Xi Jinping.”
But in the end it was the massive military parade on July 30, according to the South China Morning Post, that cemented Xi’s authority over any potential opponent:
Broadcast live on national television, we saw Xi dressed in a green uniform as the commander-in-chief to receive the salute from 12,000 troops and review the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) latest weaponry.
Officially, the ceremony was to mark the PLA’s 90th anniversary, but in reality it was clearly meant to show the PLA’s allegiance to Xi himself at a time when jockeying for power ahead of China’s leadership shake-up, to be approved by the Communist Party’s 19th congress scheduled in autumn, is coming to an end.
The structural domestic reforms and very critical international situation demand strong leadership. There is no doubt that this was the card Xi was playing with other leaders during the consultation and hard questioning in Beidaihe. If not for Kim Jong Un, the international situation would play seamlessly into the hands of the Chinese leader, offering him enough time to resolve the most pressing domestic social and economic issues. On the other side, Donald Trump, the 45th American president, handed over the entire region to China just by canceling the TPP agreement, the only leverage Washington had to contain Beijing. With North Korea and Washington escalating the conflict, Beijing’s steadfast strategic plan is starting to crumble too.
Speculations about what might happen in the Middle Kingdom, with an increasing amount of power consolidated in the hands of the Xi Jinping, are reaching fever pitch. Carl Mintzer from Fordham University hints that the Congress might end in a quite spectacular way:
“Most likely is the dethroning of Jiang and Hu entirely from China’s political pantheon. Removing their banner terms from the party charter would unmistakably signal Xi’s dominance.
Next likely is a situation in which Xi is elevated to terrain currently occupied by Deng and Mao. But what if China’s top leader seeks not merely to rise to the level of Mao and Deng, but actually surpass them? Could language be introduced into the party charter that subsequent generations might look back on and identify as the early precursors for something grander, say the eventual adoption of a new ‘–ism’ (‘Xi-ism’ with Confucian characteristics?) at a future Party Congress?”
As the return of Hitler (Trump) is impossible, so is the come-back of Mao Zedong. We are living in a quickly evolving world. We are destroying the planet and we might come to nuclear blows, but we will never have time enough again to bear with the longtime dictatorship of unbalanced and insane leaders.