Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security
Given the consequences for Australia of Chinese economic and strategic decision-making, it is timely to consider China’s forthcoming 19th Party Congress, scheduled to take place in October or November 2017.
How does it work?
Congress of the Communist Party of China takes place every five years, bringing
together approximately 2,200 Party delegates from across the country. Some delegates
are selected in provincial elections while
others are drawn from bodies such as state-owned enterprises, the military and
financial institutions. The role of the Congress is to elect the Central
Committee and approve the General Secretary’s outline of the Party’s agenda for
the next five years. However, given the opaque nature of Chinese politics, it
is difficult to assess how decisions announced at the Congress are reached. It
is commonly assumed that most, if not all, key decisions are made by senior
leaders before the Congress.
Congress, held in 2012, anointed Xi Jinping as China’s leader and it is
expected that he will serve for a second five-year term, scheduled to conclude
in 2022. According to convention, Xi will then be replaced by a new younger
‘sixth generation’ leader who will have been promoted to the Politburo Standing
Committee (PSC) in next year’s Congress. The PSC is China’s supreme
decision-making body and is currently comprised of seven men, among whom Xi Jinping
is supposedly first among equals.
This institutionalised process was established and refined
by Chinese leaders of the post-Mao reform era in order to prevent power from
becoming concentrated in the hands of one individual. Mao’s leadership,
punctuated by disasters such as the Great Leap Forward, the Great Famine and
the Cultural Revolution, provided ample evidence of the dangers inherent in a
dictatorship buttressed by a cult of personality. By promoting limited terms
and collective leadership through the PSC, the Party has sought to avoid the
emergence of another Mao.
since Xi ascended to the presidency (he is also the General Secretary of the
Communist Party of China), some critics have argued that he has begun to
construct a cult of personality reminiscent of that wielded by Mao. He has taken command of several small working
groups—affording him great influence over policy formulation—and
appears to have marginalised
the Premier, Li
Keqiang, who would typically be responsible for economic policy but whose
leading role in this sphere has been eclipsed by Xi.
Xi has also
prosecuted an anti-corruption campaign that has ensnared both ‘tigers and
flies’, powerful officials and lowly functionaries. Among the most notable of
those convicted of graft are Bo Xilai, former party chief of the city of Chongqing, who
sought to parlay his popularity into a position on the PSC; Zhou Yongkang, a former PSC member
responsible for internal security; and in July 2016, Ling Jihua, a close advisor to Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, and
head of the United Front Work Department.
corruption is endemic in China and widely recognised as a threat to the Party’s
legitimacy, many believe that Xi has used corruption as an excuse to purge opponents. A February
however, noted that recent prosecutions have tended to focus on individuals who
are not linked to identifiable factions.
Xi’s concentration of power, growing cult of personality and penchant for
eliminating rivals through corruption trials has not gone unremarked in China.
In March 2016, a letter was published on a government-linked website condemning
Xi. Signed by ‘loyal Communist Party members’, it criticised him for abandoning the
principle of collective leadership, concentrating power in his own hands and
called upon him to step down. Though the letter was quickly removed from the
internet, it did lead to a number of arrests.
What to look out for
This is the environment in which the 2017 Congress will be held.
Observers will parse its announcements for clues about Xi’s intentions. If he
does wish to overturn the conventions that have guided China’s senior leaders,
one indication would be a failure to promote to the PSC any candidates who
could be groomed to succeed him when his second term ends (traditionally such
future leaders are selected by the current General Secretary’s predecessor). If
no such candidate is promoted, it may indicate that Xi has amassed sufficient
power to ignore Party conventions.
Lam has argued that it is no secret that Xi wishes to buck the tradition of having his
predecessor pick his successor, and is grooming his own protégés. That they
lack sufficient stature to be promoted to the PSC may, Lam contends, be a
convenient excuse to delay handing over the baton for at least one additional
the thesis that no heir apparent will be appointed, the analysis and advisory
consultancy, Oxford Analytica, has highlighted that the 2012 Party Congress
promoted two sixth generation figures to the Politburo (one level below the
PSC). The elevation of these up-and-coming leaders, Hu Chunhua and Sun
Zhengcai, was seen as preparing the ground for them to replace Xi and Li
Keqiang at the 2022 Party Congress. However, both are linked with the Communist
Youth League (CYL) faction, a network that Xi has marginalised. He has criticised the CYL, describing it as ‘paralysed from the
cut its funding and
slashed staff. It therefore seems unlikely that he would welcome the promotion
of Hu and Sun to the PSC.
Moreover, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has destroyed the convention
that new leaders do not persecute their predecessors, family members and
associates. It is plausible Xi may fear that stepping down could enable the
incoming leadership to investigate him and those linked to him. The notion that
it may be advantageous to extend the duration of his leadership in order to
cement a faction loyal to his interests will likely have occurred to him.
Why does this matter to Australia?
The political direction of China matters to Australia because of the
strong economic relationship between them. China buys Australia’s resources,
invests large sums in its property market and is a lucrative source of foreign
students for Australian universities. Meanwhile, its foreign policy is becoming
increasingly assertive and promotes norms contrary to those long-espoused by
Australia therefore has a profound interest in the kind of leader Xi
seeks to become. The forthcoming Congress may demonstrate whether Xi will be
bound by convention or chart a bolder, less predictable path.
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