Xi Seeks to Solidify Grip on China

The National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which opened in Beijing on October 18, will solidify Chinese President Xi Jinping’s grip on Chinese politics and society, part of a plan to guide the Asian nation toward dominance on the world stage, potentially at the expense of the United States, according to Atlantic Council analysts.

During a three-and-a-half-hour speech which opened the Congress, Xi lauded the economic, social, and political gains made during his first five-year term. He also laid out his vision for further progress.

Hardline reforms and a political crackdown from Beijing have brought China to the cusp of what Xi deems “new era.”

“With decades of hard work, socialism with Chinese characteristics has crossed the threshold into a new era,” he said in his speech. Xi’s efforts to gain control of the Communist Party and establish a solid grip on various aspects of political and social life in China have allowed him to steer the country toward economic improvements, technological advancements, and an overall stronger stance on the world stage. The outcome of the party congress will indicate how he plans to drive those plans further. However, it remains uncertain whether Xi will try to carve out a more authoritarian role for himself as the leader of China’s future.

Throughout the week, Xi will appoint the members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s highest level of power. At the conclusion of the congress on October 24, the party will reveal the political leadership that will guide China through the next five years. The congress will also decide whether Xi will lead China for another five-year term—an outcome that is more than likely—consolidating his power.

Previewing the outcome of the congress, Atlantic Council experts weighed in with their analysis. Here is what they had to say:

Yujia He is a visiting fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

“The National Congress of the Communist Party of China is held every five years and holds great political significance for China. The formal function of the party congress is to discuss key issues for the party, amend the party constitution, elect a new Central Committee and a Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and review and approve the work report given by the party’s General Secretary [China’s president]. In practice, the party congress is not the time for policy discussions or leadership campaigns that one might see in party conventions in democratic societies. Instead, it celebrates the party’s governing success in the last five years, presents the results of the party elite reshuffle, and outlines the consensus among elites on future policy, all in a harmonious, festive manner. While foreign policy tends to take a back seat compared to domestic policies during the party congress, the decisions endorsed by the party will provide a glimpse of policy trends in the next five years. 

“The nineteenth party congress marks the beginning of the second term of the Chinese President Xi Jinping as the party’s general secretary. In his report [on October 18], Xi emphasizes that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ the party’s guiding ideology, has entered ‘a new era.’ This is hardly a surprise to China watchers well acquainted with Xi’s concept of the ‘Chinese dream,’ that a stronger and richer China will be ready to restore its historical glory. In the foreign policy section, Xi returns to the party’s long-time doctrine of ‘peaceful development,’ meanwhile asserting that ‘no one will expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests.’ Xi highlights China’s role in tackling global problems such as terrorism and climate change, and its contribution to the global economy through trade and development assistance (his signature policy, the Belt and Road Initiative, is featured prominently not only in the foreign policy section, but also in the domestic economy section). This shows China becoming more confident in promoting and exporting its development model.

“In the second five-year reign under Xi, China will likely continue to expand its influence globally in an attempt to fill the space left by a retreating United States that is guided by ‘America First,’ and to convince the developing world that the Chinese model is a viable model of governance.”

Robert Manning is a senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

“The nineteenth party congress is fundamentally about Xi consolidating power, but also about setting directions and goals for China. But this one is a bit different, as Xi may seek not only a second five-year term, but an extension beyond that. Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese ruler since Mao [Zedong], personalizing his dominance at the expense of Chinese institutions. The Party Congress will articulate and define the [Communist Party of China] CPC assessment of the regional and global situation facing China; articulating and perhaps giving some definition to the ‘China Dream,’ and likely reinforce key national goals—China becoming a major global tech leader by 2030, reconnecting Eurasia with the Belt and Road Initiative, and achieving promised levels of prosperity, by 2049 (one hundred years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.)”

Jamie Metzl is a nonresident senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

“It is a done deal that Xi Jinping will consolidate power at this week’s National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The big question for China and the world is how he and China behave after this consolidation takes place. China will likely double down on select economic reforms after the Congress, which the country badly needs. But there is a real and distinct possibility that Beijing will also become even more aggressive in its national security and foreign policy going forward—not least because the complete disarray and dysfunction of the Trump administration has afforded China an unprecedented opportunity to advance its own strategic interests at the expense of America’s.”

Taisuke Mibae is a visiting Japan fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security and a minister in the political section of the embassy of Japan in the People’s Republic of China.

“News reports say on the first day of the nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, President Xi made a long address to praise the achievements in his last five years and reiterate the targets to achieve ‘modernization of socialism’ by 2035 and ‘strong modern sociaralist nation’ by 2049, the one-hundred-year anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

“China believes it needs to, is able to, and is within its rights to expand its influence over the rest of the world by making full use of its power. Mr. Xi firmly believes that China can never stop its effort to enhance power, militarily or economically, and control of and loyalty to the party is essential for this objective. The outcome of the Congress, including new membership of the Politburo Standing Committee, will lay a groundwork to pursue his conviction.

“Since China is a power-believer, the United States should be one of a few states they seriously listen to. President Trump’s visit to Asia, including Beijing, in early November is extremely important to shape China’s future course.”

Leland Miller is a nonresident senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and chief executive officer of China Beige Book International.

“China’s party congress has the world’s attention, but it is what comes after it that should be the concern of policymakers and markets. For years, we’ve heard that once President Xi consolidates power, China will rebalance, restructure, and reform.  This week is a celebration of that consolidation.  Will we see any signal that next year will see the rest? My expectation is a strong no.”

Junsheng Wang is a visiting China fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

“The National Congress of the Communist Party of China held today [does] not belong to the [Communist Party of China], it also belongs to the whole people of China and the direction of China’s future. The first-most important focus for me is the composition of the new leadership of CPC standing committee members and central committee members. The second-most important focus for me is the new expression of China’s foreign policy.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Leland R. Miller, Robert A. Manning, and Yujia He

Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China October 18, 2017. (REUTERS/Jason Lee)