His identity card bore the number “0001,” and following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s keynote speech Wednesday morning to open the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), there is no doubt that his unrivaled primacy will continue for the next five years — and possibly beyond.
Taking the stage at Beijing’s vast Great Hall of the People to the cadenced applause of 2,280 delegates, as the People’s Liberation Army band belted out its traditional “Welcome March,” Xi warned that to “achieve great dreams there must be a great struggle,” as he laid out his vision for a second term as the Asian superpower’s strongest leader for generations.
“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is no walk in the park or mere drum-beating and gong-clanging,” Xi said while delivering the CCP’s work report, which details the nation’s progress in economic, cultural, defense, political and foreign affairs over the last five years and its priorities looking forward. “The entire party must be prepared to make ever more difficult and harder efforts.”
Exactly who will lead those efforts will be now be decided behind closed doors, after the journalists and cameras are ushered away and the real business of the conclaves gets underway in secret. Delegates must choose the Party’s 200-strong Central Committee, which in turn endorses the makeup of its key executive bodies: the 25-strong Politburo and apex five-to-nine-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). Those announcements will come at the end of the week-long Congress, with their composition hinting to what extent Xi’s influence has swelled.
In the meantime, Xi’s opening speech will be parsed for hints at what is to come. He stuck a nationalist tone throughout, urging cadres to shun “erroneous” ideology for that of “Chinese origin.” Acknowledging serious economic challenges, in a rare display of candor, Xi also vowed to let markets play a “decisive role” and to “deepen supply-side reforms,” in remarks that belied the socialist hammer and sickle and red star iconography that adorn the Mao-era chamber.
In a positive sign for foreign investors, Xi said that his government must “greatly relax market entry restrictions” and “give equal and fair treatment to all companies registered in China.” However, he hedged his remarks by saying China also “must develop the public sector.”
Expressing the need for discipline, Xi also vowed to lock-in his sweeping anti-corruption drive, urging those gathered to resist “pleasure seeking, inaction, sloth and problem avoidance.” He reinforced his desire to reform the nation’s military and “build world-class armed forces that obey the party’s command, and can fight and win wars.” But Xi also moved to counter accusations of expansionism, which especially dog Beijing’s activity in the South China Sea, where his navy has been reclaiming and militarizing disputed rocks and reefs.
“China will always remain the builder of world peace, a contributor to global development and upholder of international order,” Xi said.
Xi finished his three-and-a-half hour speech to rapturous applause from the audience — a sea of navy blue suits fringed by military uniforms, though also peppered with delegates attired in the elaborate costumes of China’s myriad ethnic minority peoples. But beyond the painstakingly constructed aura of representation, many of the key decisions have already been taken by elites in the shadows, devoid of even delegates’ input, let alone that of the CCP’s 89 million members or China’s 1.4 billion citizens. Still, the outside world will only know the result of those decisions on the final day of the Congress when, according to convention, the new committees are unveiled on stage.
Analysts will then try to divine Xi’s policy priorities of the next five years from the personnel promoted to key leadership positions. Doing so is an imperfect science — the 18th Congress in 2012 didn’t presage that the defining features of Xi’s first term would be the anti-corruption campaign and expanding China’s regional influence, for example.
“I would caution against being too determinative in concluding the policy orientation for the second term just based on the personnel line-up,” says Nicholas Consonery, head of Asia geopolitical intelligence at the FTI Consulting business advisory firm.
Prior to the Congress, there was much conjecture that “Xi Jinping thought” would be added to the national constitution, in a move that would put Xi on a par with Communist China’s founder Mao Zedong. However, Xi’s speech defined his governing philosophy over the next five years as “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” — language more on par with the philosophies of former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
That hasn’t stifled speculation that Xi may try to stay on beyond his mandated ten-year term. According to convention, two or three younger leaders who are the anointed candidates for future president and premier should be promoted to the PSC . But the absence of younger appointees on the PSC at the Congress’s close may suggest that Xi intends to retain power for himself. Another sign could be Xi assuming the position of party chairman, which would put him on a level with Mao.
Although controversial, there would be significant support for such a move. Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London, says the prevailing mood within the CCP is that strong leadership is required to push through necessary economic reforms. “Not a Maoist kind of all-conquering, all-powerful leadership, that can detract from the party,” he says, “but strategic use of leadership to help the party become a sustainable entity.”
For Xi, it is simply imperative to get the Congress out the way before the visit of gaffe-prone U.S. President Donald Trump slated for early November.
“The simple reason is that Trump is unreliable,” says Prof. Steve Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “The Trump visit could significantly boost Xi Jinping, but it could also deeply embarrass him. It would be a gamble.”