China has just completed its 19th National Communist Party Congress. When China becomes the most powerful nation in the world ten to fifteen years hence, this Congress may well be seen as marking the turning point in China’s rise.
This conference is unlike any previous Congress in the last fifty years in three respects. First, until now China considered itself to be an outsider, or just a developing nation among the world’s countries. Prior Congresses were concerned mainly with advancing China’s economic objectives for domestic growth. In regard to foreign policy, China sought to join international organizations as a supplicant, asking to be given special treatment as a poor, developing economy needing to catch up to the world’s leaders. China did not presume to project power abroad, nor to lead the world in any way.
After three decades of double-digit economic growth, all this has changed. China now sees itself as deserving a return to its historical role as the core of the world economy. In the seventeenth century, the #1 destination of the silver mined by Spanish conquistadors in the New World was China. Chinese manufacturers of ceramics (known as “fine China”), and of cotton cloth and silk dominated global export markets. China plans to restore its former position as the world leader in trade and quality exported goods. This Party Congress set forth goals for China to become a leader in the global economy.
Second, this party Congress has elevated the role of the Communist Party in China, and of Xi Jinping as leader of the Party, to new heights. Since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms set China’s new direction in the 1980s, the Party has retreated from numerous domains of Chinese life. In regard to private farming, private industry, religion, the media, and academia, Deng allowed the Chinese new freedoms that were unknown under Mao. But the newly adopted constitution states that “The Party leads on everything, be it party work, government, military, civilian, or academia, be it east, west, south, north, or middle.” And while the Party leads on everything, it is equally clear that on everything, Xi leads the party. Xi has become the first Chinese leader since Mao to have his own philosophy written into the Party constitution while still in power. The entire Congress has become a lengthy exercise in admiration of Xi, his thought, and his critical importance to the future of the Party.
The Party has now become increasingly Stalinist in its operations. This week, as the Party Congress closed, there was a surprise announcement that three senior officials, including a possible successor to Xi, had been arrested for vote rigging. In the prior two Congresses, members of the Central Committee had cast votes to select their favorite 25 cadres for seats on the ruling Politburo. These votes were advisory to the actual selection, but were intended to give some transparency and a bit of democracy within the party itself. Xi declared the three had corrupted this process, and henceforth there would be no elections in the Party; Politburo members would be chosen by consultations with the President and top party leaders. Give Xi credit for a trifecta: with one act he rid himself of three potential rivals, vilified and ended democratic processes in the Party, and created a procedure for choosing Party leaders that he wholly controls.
The system put in place by Deng Xiaoping to balance power in the Party across different factions has been replaced by a system in which Xi and his loyalists hold all the levers of power in the army, the economy, and the bureaucracy. This Congress should put paid to any illusions that as China grew richer it would become more pluralistic and less autocratic, or that as China became more capitalist its intellectual life and civil society would grow more free. What China has become, while rising to the world’s second largest economy, is a country totally subject to the rule of the Party, a Party totally subject to the rule of one man.
Third, the new constitution enshrines China’s economic strategy to dominate the world. It commits China to pursue the “Belt and Road” strategy launched by President Xi Jinping. By financing a vast network of ports, railways, and roads to carry freight from China to Europe, China aims to create fast, direct, and inexpensive transport for China’s goods to markets across all of Asia and out to Western Europe. China has already put in place rail links that stretch from Beijing to London. For sea transport, China is developing new seaports in the Indian Ocean and has purchased the port of Piraeus in Greece. China is expanding the latter to serve as the hub of a transport network of China-built rail lines reaching from Greece into Hungary and then throughout Europe. This maritime trade route is being protected by China’s fast-expanding blue-water navy, new air and naval bases built on reefs in the South China Sea, and China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti, which guards the Red Sea and Suez routes to the Piraeus. The Belt and Road projects will make it possible for China to become the economic center of all of Eurasia.
Moreover, this vast continent-wide construction venture is being financed mainly by loans from China to other countries. These loans will bind these countries to China for a generation. The Belt and Road projects also come with Chinese suggestions that state-led economic growth and autocratic government are superior ways to organize an economy, and insistence on support for Beijing in international councils. Xi considers the western government system of checks and balances, free civil society, and constitutionally limited executive authority as a threat to the existence of the Party and to his own power; he has thus banned any teaching or even discussion of these topics in China. The Belt and Road project is expected to be a vital tool in spreading the view of China’s political and economic system as superior; hence its enshrinement in the new constitution as a vital task of the Party. It is backed by new institutions for credit, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, that are designed to put China in a leading role in global finance.
While the United States, under Donald Trump, retreats from globalization and international trade agreements, seeking to void any agreements that do not yield a short term trade surplus to the US, China has embarked on the opposite strategy, aiming to make long-term investments to supplant the US as the world’s dominant power. Like the U.S. in the years after WWII, China is seeking to spin its economic power into a global web of finance, construction, and trade. But unlike the US, it is doing so under a model of party-led autocracy as the ideal from of government, rather than the constitutional democracy promoted by the U.S.
The 19th Party Congress has left no doubts about China’s plans. In the vision spelled out in the new Constitution, Xi Jinping is the core of the Communist Party, the Party is the core of China, and China will be the core of the world economy.
If Xi succeeds, and China overtakes the U.S. as the world’s dominant power, 2017 will be cited as the critical year in which China and the U.S. made key shifts in direction, with the US retreating from global engagement and influence, and China seizing its opportunity with both hands. It will also be seen as the year in which autocratic rule and state domination replaced constitutional democracy as the leading model for societies around the world.