The world stage’s most enigmatic player has just announced its new leadership squad. In the landmark 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), leader of the global superpower Xi Jinping revealed an internal reshuffle which stands to impact both its domestic future and its role globally.
The highlight of China’s political agenda, the National Congress is a week-long, closed-doors gathering of selected party members, designed to reveal some of the CPC’s most important decisions. As a Chatham House representative told Al Jazeera, “the Congress is a celebration of decisions that have already been taken, that we don’t know about from the outside”. So the Congress is a vital indicator of China’s policy plans, and provides a unique glimpse into this opaque regime’s directions for the years ahead.
But this 2017 Congress will undoubtedly be quite the cornerstone for China. In a uniquely significant three-hour speech, ‘Papa Xi’ outlined his vision of the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. Through this landmark change to the constitution, Xi Jinping took a great leap forward in revising the country’s ideology – as previously done solely by China’s grandest revolutionaries, Chairman Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. By enshrining his name in the country’s constitution, Xi consolidated his power and projected an image of himself as “China’s new emperor”.
This move was matched by President Xi’s decision to appoint only senior members to the Politburo, China’s highest-ranking circle of decision-makers. With no young prodigies in sight, Xi Jinping carried out strategic power play that clearly defines his role as the sole leader of a global China for years to come.
Into the spotlight
Equally, such changes have marked a ‘new era’ for Chinese foreign policy. In his time as leader in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping outlined a China that should “bide its time and hide its light” from the world stage as it built up its internal strengths. This principle is one that shaped the CPC’s conduct globally – that is, until now. Clearly stating that China will “take centre stage in the world”, President Xi’s report outlines China’s role in “Constructing a Community of Common Destiny with Mankind”.
This ’12th principle of the Xi Thought’ signals China’s ambitions as a world power that is looking to follow a model of ‘win-win cooperation’. This cooperation model is best embodied by China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, which fuses economic and political interests. On the whole, this approach allegedly stresses equality and fairness with its partners, although this has been disputed. Nevertheless, President Xi is essentially offering the world an alternative view of international relations based on mutual benefits. This model challenges the traditionally Western notion of zero-sum power politics, which is instead rooted in a quest for domination.
In this move, Xi Jinping appears to adhere to the leadership’s commitment to Chinese pragmatism, which is best portrayed by the old Chinese saying of ‘crossing a river by feeling the stones’. After some consideration, it would seem that now the moment is ripe for China to strengthen its global presence. In a time of Western self-doubt across Europe and the US, China’s confidence is gaining momentum as it manoeuvres its way out of an economic downturn and into global assertion.
On the leadership front, China’s newfound ambition for global power is encapsulated by the ascent of China’s leading diplomat – Yang Jiechi – into the country’s 25-member Politburo. The inclusion of Yang in China’s top decision-making ranks makes him the most influential official in Chinese foreign affairs since Qian Qichen, who exited the political scene in 2003. Yang’s promotion is a prominent marker of Xi Jinping’s quest to incorporate a globally-oriented outlook into China’s future strides.
As former Chinese ambassador to Britain Ma Zhengang told the South China Morning Post, “We are seeing an unprecedented transition of China’s role, which will not be confined to domestic interests but demonstrate more interest in having a greater say on global issues”.
External obstacles and internal divisions
How will China’s pronounced global assertion will be perceived by external powers, such as Japan? According to Chatham House’s Deputy Director Adam Ward, “under Shinzo Abe, a new strategy of hard-power realism is gradually gaining traction.” Japan feels increasingly surrounded by hostility, especially as China has vigorously asserted itself in the East China Sea and North Korea continues to taunt the region with further missile tests.
Meanwhile, President Trump has developed a more direct and transparent relationship with President Xi, partly with the aim of applying maximum pressure on North Korea via China. But the US’ shift towards more isolationist international relations has bred insecurities among its allies in the Asia-Pacific, who stand threatened by a flustered Kim Jong Un. Combined, these external dynamics paint an environment of “fear and friction” in the face of China’s ‘new era’ on the world stage.
There are also internal obstacles. China faces considerable social, political, and environmental challenges: from dire inequalities to the capitals’ severe pollution problem, the country has a long way to go in terms of maintaining its internal stability.
On this note, China’s secessionist movements also deserve to be mentioned. As China’s attempts to show itself as a strong and united global leader, even less room will remain for internal fissures. As a result, the CPC is likely to adopt an even fiercer zero-tolerance approach to its secessionist movements. President Xi stated during the Congress that, “We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.” Xi’s words certainly point to crackdowns – like that on Hong Kong’s independence movement in September -becoming increasingly likely in Xinjiang and Tibet throughout this ‘new era’.
Therefore, while “the Dragon’s” ambitions burn bright and challenge the ‘absolutism’ of the Western model of development, both internal and external frictions strain China’s move into the centre of the global scene. As China begins to articulate its desires to export its model around the world, the obstacle of balancing regional dynamics and internal divisions leaves its global leader status up in the air. Nevertheless, it is certain that the 19th National Congress has been a significant cornerstone in China’s global ambitions, revealing a new set of leaders to match.