What to Watch at China’s Party Congress

A ChinaFile Conversation

The Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress, a hugely important political meeting usually held once every five years, will begin on October 18 in Beijing. Like many events involving China’s ruling party, the most important decisions and conversations will happen behind closed doors. Most attention will focus on the political horse race for top positions in the leadership. But apart from that, what else is worth watching? What signs could emerge that would demonstrate China is moving in a positive direction? And how should the connection between leadership choices and policy direction best be understood? —The Editors


Two years ago, amidst abundant speculation about a plausible crackup of China’s authoritarian rule amidst economic slowdown and anti-corruption overreach, I wrote that the regime might actually get more consolidated, and that it was plausible for the Chinese polity to experience a certain degree of North Koreanization.

Two years on, the hardening of China’s authoritarian rule exceeds my expectations. All recent developments, from the sweeping crackdown on legal activists, to the sudden downfall of Sun Zhengcai—the leading candidate for heir to Xi Jinping—to the extreme measures taken to stem capital outflow, all signs point to more extensive control by the Party and by Xi.

As such, the upcoming 19th Party Congress is going to be a ceremony celebrating the completion of Xi’s consolidation of power over the Party, the State, and all aspects of life in China. Some may hope that when Xi feels his power is absolute and more secure, he might reverse some of the draconian controls and pursue economic reform more aggressively (such as the “supply-side structural reform” that aims to curb excess capacity and indebtedness). He might even become more flexible in dealing with other countries, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. But the bad news is, Xi might never feel secure, even after the Party Congress.

There are still challenges that could keep Xi awake at night after the Congress. Over the last five years, the purge in the name of anti-corruption has put many Party cadres in jail and sent some to mysterious deaths. Resentment of the campaign should be wide, if tacit. No one will be surprised if Xi fears that some of his rivals are waiting patiently for revenge once he steps down in five years. The rumor about Xi’s intention to find ways to stay in power beyond his next term is perfectly plausible. But without Mao’s achievement of leading the Party to power and Deng’s credential of ending the Cultural Revolution and bringing tens of thousands of persecuted cadres back into society, how can Xi stay on after his second term is up?

The other challenge is the question of Wang Qishan, Xi’s right-hand man in executing the anti-corruption campaign. One of the most important foundations of Chinese Communist Party. rule today is its control of the financial sector and the flow of credit. Wang Qishan’s command over the financial world, which he inherited from his mentor Zhu Rongji, is what enables him to undertake the anti-corruption purges with such success. If Wang retires in the Party Congress as many speculate he could, how could Xi continue the anti-corruption purge all by himself? Who else can he count on? If Wang stays on, will it mean that Xi still does not have direct command of finance and has to reluctantly depend on Wang?

Given all these questions, it will be unlikely that Xi will ever feel secure even after the spectacle of his supreme power in the upcoming Party Congress. Driven by such insecurity, the regime will continue to transform into a sort of North Korea-lite.

The obvious answer to this question is, of course, economic policy. Economic growth remains the Party’s single largest source of legitimacy, and, for the most part, mediocre progress has been made on the economic reforms promised in the previous Party Congress. Language signaling a deeper commitment to pro-market reforms, especially in the financial sector, would be highly welcome—although recent developments have largely moved in the opposite direction.

Beyond that, I will be looking at two major issues: legal reform and ideological positioning. Despite the general perception in the Western media that China is moving further away from the “rule of law,” the judicial branch has actually experienced a significant expansion of capacity, prestige, and independence under Xi Jinping. It is now less beholden to local governments than at any time in People’s Republic of China history, and has gained considerable enforcement powers under the new “citizen credit rating” apparatus, which imposes financial and public service sanctions against private parties that fail to obey court orders. The central Party leadership under Xi seems to envision a centralized and professionalized court system as an effective antidote to local corruption and bureaucratic abuse. Whether it takes further steps down this path—or whether it expresses satisfaction with the current balance of power between the judiciary and other government organs—is one of the most important issues hanging in the balance.

As for ideological positioning, the Party has played up “cultural self-confidence” in recent years as a major sociopolitical objective, but has yet to produce any truly coherent vision of what constitutes “self-confidence.” Presumably, it means rejecting “wholesale westernization,” but at some point—if it is serious about ideological control—the Party will need to put forth a more positive worldview. Confucianism has made a moderate comeback over the past decade, but official statements are still mostly of the ambiguous “learning from traditional culture” variety. Socialism with Chinese characteristics, on the other hand, remains as shapeless as ever, semi-plausibly attached to everything from supporting state-owned companies to boosting private exports, to virtually any shade of censorship and education policy. Xi is often talked of as an ideologue, but he has not developed anything that could really be called an ideology. If no cohesive vision emerges from this Party Congress, then perhaps the proper expectation going forward should be that, despite his substantially greater personal power, Xi is not so different on this front than Hu Jintao, his ideologically protean predecessor. At the very least, that should put an end to all the tenuous “Xi-Mao Zedong” comparisons.

The 19th Party Congress Report will codify Xi Jinping’s ideological legacy and set a future proto-policy likely to focus on China’s globalization. Building on institutional norms, there will be 13 sections to the report, maintaining the environment section added at the 18th Congress five years ago, and adding the General Secretary’s ideological signature to the cumulative leadership matrix.

Policy transmission in the Party-state command economy means it is in no one’s interest to obfuscate policy direction. Yet I am not sure how many people outside China realized that we have just had a five-year policy cycle centered on Ecological Civilization. This has been the core policy heartbeat of 2012-2017, and we are about to be handed down the guiding principle of 2018-2022.

This guiding ideology is proto-policy; the policy plasma from which all government function will divide and replicate. It exists in a space above what is normally called “top-level policy” such as Supply-side Reform, International Capacity Cooperation, Belt and Road Initiative, and Made in China 2025. But Party proto-policy is deeply embedded in these top-level policies and also in every macro- to micro-policy transmission down the entire Party and state structure, ultimately coming to consumers of government as regulation and law.

The proto-policy of the 18th Party Congress which guided Xi’s first term was Five in One, comprising economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological construction. This is China’s modernization agenda, not “development.” To hand over to Xi, Hu Jintao expanded Four in One to Five in One and added Ecological Civilization to round out the Spiritual and Material Civilization of the Deng era and Jiang’s Political Civilization.

So on institutional lines, Xi should firstly be enshrined as having implemented the Five in One handed down to him; secondly recognized for constructing his Four Comprehensives (prosperous society; deepened reform; rule of law; Party governance) to add to Jiang’s Three Represents and Hu’s Scientific Outlook on Development; and thirdly, to in turn hand down a policy prescription to his successor.

However, analysts are expecting a codification of Xi Thought in the Party Constitution above Jiang and Hu’s Concepts, and above Deng Theory. The distinction on this phrase will be the biggest news to come out of the Congress, not the name of Chen Min’er or whichever acolyte is anointed.

Xi Thought fulfills his legacy and integration with Party history. But the Congress Report must also set proto-policy for the 20th Congress, to give the policy tools for the 2022-2032 Sixth Generation of leadership to govern. I think there will be a strong ideological guidance to China’s ability to govern international affairs with a Chinese globalization. The Party is still struggling to bring together Hu’s Great Maritime Power and Xi’s Great-Power Diplomacy yet both Community of Shared Destiny and China Solution have so far fallen flat as ideological guidance. The Congress Report should deliver the proto-policy from which this globalization ideology is to emerge, possibly under the Civilization form.

However the Party Congress proto-policy plays out over the course of the seven-Plenum five-year term, much more important than who will be invited into the Central Committee is what they will be told to think for the next five years, and what the world will be told to think of Xi in perpetuity.

One thing to watch for at this week’s 19th Party Congress is whether Xi Jinping doubles down on his anti-corruption campaign. Given how effective it has been in ridding the Party of his perceived rivals, odds are that Xi will make it a centerpiece. But, contrary to Professor Zhang’s opinion above, that would not bode well for rule of law.

Currently, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is largely conducted through the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), a non-transparent body ostensibly responsible for investigating Party members’ violation of Party rules. On paper, the CCDI is distinct from the State and concerns only Party affairs; any criminal corruption is handled by state prosecutors. But this separation also means that the CCDI follows Party, not legal, norms, so suspects do not receive legal protections. The CCDI can secretly detain Party members for long periods of time without access to counsel. According to Human Rights Watch, torture and ill-treatment are prevalent during this secret Party detention, known as shuanggui. Even though confessions in shuanggui are obtained through torture and extra-judicial means, police routinely use them in show trials that are largely an afterthought to this whole process. In the Bo Xilai case, Bo attempted to recant such a confession at his trial on the grounds that it was made under duress, but the court rejected this argument and imposed a life sentence.

But shuanggui has not been enough for Xi. Last November, the Party announced new pilot programs in Beijing, Shanxi, and Zhejiang provinces. The pilots create a new government body: the Supervision Commission. The Commission is solely responsible for investigating and prosecuting corruption and bribery by public officials; a responsibility formerly with the Procuratorate and Anti-Corruption Bureau. The Commission has the power to interrogate and detain individuals as well as freeze their assets. It is unclear what role the courts will play, if any, in overseeing these broad powers. Much is still unknown about these Supervision Commissions, but Professor Zhiqiong June Wang reports that the Commission will share personnel with the Party’s CCDI. The pilots are expected to go national in March 2018.

Corruption is a serious problem in China, but will codifying Xi’s campaign bring it out of the shadows of the CCDI or just bring more shadows to the law? It seems like the latter is more likely. Even in the “legal” process, criminal suspects are sometimes held incommunicado under “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) for six months without access to a lawyer in certain cases. Since July 2015, Xi has used these RSDL provisions of the Criminal Procedure Law to successfully launch a widespread crackdown on China’s human rights activists and other dissenting voices. In this way, the CCDI’s opaque methods have already been codified and successfully tested by Xi. Since these RSDL provisions apply to cases with “especially serious bribery,” Xi can essential implement CCDI’s measures under color of law.

With Xi only consolidating his power further at the 19th Party Congress, don’t expect there to be any divergent voices on the Supervision Commission. When push comes to shove, the Party-state being subject to the law is not really Xi’s thing. And as if to demonstrate this fact, this past weekend, the current head of the Ministry of Justice, Wu Aiying, was expelled from the Party. She was replaced with Zhang Jun, a former deputy chief of the CCDI. How’s that for a sign?

An earlier version of this post was published on China Law & Policy.

Xi’s emergence as a new kind of Chinese leader has coincided with a key period of transition regarding China’s role in the world more generally. It is impossible to say exactly how much of Xi’s domestic authority derives from a shared sense that China currently needs a central figure to articulate its positions and expand its influence internationally, but there are various indications that this may indeed be a particularly significant factor in his ongoing rise.

Recently, for example, the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) program has received heavier emphasis in central propaganda sources even than Xi’s original core concepts of the China Dream and the Four Comprehensives. In the year from October 1, 2016 to October 1, 2017, online archives of the People’s Daily list 631 instances of “One Belt, One Road” in article titles, and 3,206 articles with mentions of the term in their body text. By contrast, “China Dream” had only 109 title mentions, and 1,459 mentioning articles. “Four Comprehensives” was startlingly under-discussed: Only five title mentions and 643 mentioning articles. Its component policies, though, received relatively more focus. “Comprehensively governing the country according to law” had 29 and 281, while “comprehensively strictly governing the Party” had 140 and 1050, respectively. Clearly, all of these terms are important, but it is the outward-facing OBOR that is currently receiving the most attention.

This disparity can partially be explained by the fact that OBOR has enormous concrete (and newsworthy) economic and diplomatic implications both for China and for many other states. So, of course, do ongoing developments in rule of law reforms and Party governance, but those initiatives do not feature such specific, vast allocations of financial and diplomatic capital. Beyond that aspect, however, even a cursory examination of the way that OBOR is discussed reveals that it is being portrayed less as a technocratic project to promote economic development than as a major new shift in China’s geopolitical posture. Similarly, China’s position on the South China Sea is inevitably portrayed not as a mere area of diplomatic tensions, but as touching on the state’s most fundamental interests (not its sovereignty over specific territories, but its sovereignty tout court). Taken together, these major Xi-era foreign policy ventures seem to be treated as more “comprehensive” (i.e. determinative of all potentially related policy developments) than the Four Comprehensives themselves.

Though Xi-Mao comparisons are generally quite overwrought, it is probably fair to characterize Xi as China’s most “outward-facing” leader since Mao. He is, of course, interested in exporting excess industrial capacity rather than exporting revolution. But he similarly constructs himself as China’s representative on the world stage and the defender of its sovereignty. In line with these emphases, I think it reasonable to suppose that soon after the 19th Party Congress, Xi’s second term will see still further major developments in externally-oriented policy, possibly including a more “comprehensive” articulation of China’s positions on international law. This would be a natural follow-up to the 2016 “Russia-China Joint Declaration on Promotion and Principles of International Law,” as well as a smart rhetorical move in line with Xi’s apparent efforts to assume the mantle of chief promoter of globalization in the Trump era.

Some China-watchers will no doubt focus this week on the 19th Communist Party Congress, slated to open in Beijing on Wednesday. But other eyes—and hearts and minds—will be trained on a very different China celebration the very next day in Washington.

On October 19, Liu Xiaobo, the pro-democracy activist, outspoken dissident, and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner who died in custody on July 13, will be remembered at the Washington National Cathedral—a place known for hosting progressive voices like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and for holding memorial services or funerals for more than a dozen United States presidents. The gathering will both honor Liu Xiaobo’s legacy and renew a call for Liu’s widow, Liu Xia, to be freed. (Human Rights Watch is one of the Cathedral event’s organizers.)

Chinese authorities forcibly disappeared Liu Xia shortly after funeral proceedings in northeastern China for Liu Xiaobo. She was not seen again until August 19, when she appeared in a brief and seemingly coerced video released on social media, and has not been publicly heard from since.

But around the world, people who can exercise their rights to peaceful expression are campaigning to remember and seek justice for Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia. Artists, including Australia-based Badiucao and Berlin-based Ai Weiwei, have produced works featuring Liu Xiaobo’s and Liu Xia’s images. Members of the United States Congress have nominated Liu Xiaobo to posthumously receive the Congressional Gold Medal. Journalistsactivists, and writers continue to campaign for the pair, and Norwegian Nobel Committee chair Berit Reiss-Andersen will read from Liu’s essay, “I Have No Enemies,” at the Cathedral. More can be expected to join this global chorus.

Meanwhile in Beijing, President Xi Jinping is expected to award himself another five-year term at the Party congress. There are no signs that his ferocious crackdown on human rights will abate in the foreseeable future. Xi had not yet assumed power when Liu was detained in December 2008 on baseless charges of inciting subversion that resulted in his conviction a year later. But Xi’s administration has racked up an appalling record of imprisoning peaceful critics. Some are known to have been denied access to adequate medical treatment, and several have died in detention or shortly after being released.

In Liu Xiaobo’s case, the Xi government took its brutality to breathtaking extremes. Liu, who died from complications of liver cancer two years short of completing an 11-year sentence, was denied access to most family and friends, and to the treatment of his choice. Chinese authorities, eager to paint themselves as having given him the best possible care, invited one American and one German oncologist to examine Liu. The doctors declared him well enough to travel abroad for treatment, but then Chinese state media broadcast an unauthorized video clip in which the foreign doctors appear to be endorsing their Chinese counterparts’ treatment of Liu, suggesting that the doctors’ visit was for the authorities little more than a propaganda exercise.

After Liu’s death on July 13, authorities orchestrated funeral rites over which Liu Xia appeared to have no control. Only a few of Liu Xiaobo’s relatives, and some unidentified individuals,possibly state security officials, were allowed to attend. Authorities also moved swiftly to detain anyone seen to be mourning Liu’s death, and forcibly disappeared Liu Xia. It’s safe to predict that no one will press Xi about these developments at the Party Congress.

Back in Beijing, China’s leaders will work hard to project an impression of authority, competence, and control. But their appalling treatment of Liu Xiaobo and ongoing torment of Liu Xia reveal their deep insecurity about criticism of their rule and their political legitimacy—problems that can only be resolved by real respect for human rights.

An earlier version of this post was published by Human Rights Watch.

To forge iron, one first needs to get strong”—Chinese President Xi Jinping’s homespun maxim, casually uttered during his first public appearance when he ascended to power in 2012, looks in retrospect to have been at the very core of his program.

In the five years since, Xi has never deviated from this objective, embarking on an unprecedented drive to consolidate his personal power, skillfully using a popular anti-corruption campaign to methodically take down every rival faction and interest group within the vast Chinese bureaucracy. From the princelings to the army, from the “oil gang” to the state-owned enterprises, from the Communist Party Youth League to wayward provincial leaders, every potential source of internal resistance was dealt heavy blows through arrests, demotions, and secret detentions for “violating Party discipline.”

Xi also struck preemptively at China’s nascent civil society, unleashing the powerful national security apparatus on every dissident, critic, lawyer, writer, NGO, or critical voice whose loyalty to the Party could not be counted on. It was a crackdown that harked back to the darkest days of post-Tiananmen China and culminated with the grotesque staging of the death of the Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo in a heavily guarded hospital in Northeastern China.

While eliminating any source of opposition, Xi has also been attentive to building popular support domestically, through a radical change in propaganda methods and what the Party stills refers to as “thought work”: a combination of heightened ideological controls over the media (“whose middle names should be ‘Communist Party’” he famously quipped), over universities (instructed to “combat pernicious ideas such as so-called judicial independence and universal values”), and unmatched censorship of the Internet (which Chinese netizens now deride as having become a “Chinese intranet”).

A powerful narrative of “national rejuvenation,” delivered in a slick and modern form to rival the most engaging ad campaign in the West, and a quasi personality cult centered on a benevolent yet firm “Daddy Xi” presiding over the great Chinese family, has yielded effective results and has given Xi something none of his colleagues in the Politburo have: a measure of genuine popularity.

The 19th Party Congress opening on Wednesday will without doubt consecrate Xi as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping—perhaps even more powerful than Deng himself, who had to contend with other revolutionary elders and a hardliner faction that opposed his liberalization program.

But is this enough to start “forging iron” as Xi promised? Will this unprecedented power grab deliver the kind of economic and social reforms that will address, rather than entrench, the myriad problems threatening the sustainability of the “Chinese model”? Or will Xi’s contempt for human rights ultimately unleash the very kind of social instability that the government wants to avoid at all cost? The signs are not good, and they are mostly of Xi’s making.

The first roadblock Xi created for himself is the enormous national security architecture that he has put in place: six new pieces of legislation, ranging from cybersecurity to counter-terrorism, give essentially unfettered power to a secretive security apparatus that largely operates outside of legal constraints and wields virtually limitless powers over individuals and institutions, including foreign companies. Although efficient at crushing dissent, it is turning into an unaccountable state-within-the-state that is on the path to derailing decades of efforts to build a reasonably fair legal system that citizens and economic actors can trust.

An earlier version of this post was published by Amnesty International.

Joining Taisu Zhang and Tristan Kenderdine, I would also single out ideology as a key issue to watch at this 19th Party Congress—and beyond it. However, I would specifically keep an eye on how assertively this ideology will be presented as an alternative to “Western” concepts.

Under Xi Jinping, party-state media have coined the terms “China Dream,” “China Path,” and now, —as in Xi’s work report at the Party Congress, the phrase “Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”—to suggest China’s emergence as a strong nation capable of global leadership under the guidance of the Communist Party. Furthermore, these ideological concepts are increasingly presented as an alternative–and even superior–model of governance that sets China apart from liberal democracy or market-led capitalism.

The C.C.P.’s strategy of denouncing “Western values” has repeatedly backfired. In my own research into Chinese online debates, I found that Chinese netizens pointed out the lack of coherent Chinese alternatives. There does not appear to be broad societal support for a vision of China that is solely defined and guarded by a seemingly benevolent, but all-controlling party-state. When my team and I analyzed debates on prominent Chinese online bulletin boards, we found a remarkable plurality of opinions even amid censorship and repression of dissent.

On the eve of the opening of the 19th Party Congress, the English-language site of Xinhua news published a commentary titled, “Enlightened Chinese democracy puts the West in the shade.” This concept of “Chinese democracy” has also been published in Chinese, lately again by Fang Ning, a well-known political scientist at the Chinese Academy of Social Science.

The level of assertiveness, with which Xi Jinping will present Chinese ideological concepts as more efficient and morally superior, will be something to watch out for.

The following indicators could provide cues for the intensity of Xi’s ideological efforts during the Party Congress:

  • The scope and frequency of terms like “… with Chinese characteristics,” “China wisdom,” “China Dream,” “China governance,” etc., especially in an international (comparing or contrasting) context)
  • Reference to the superiority of Chinese concepts or explicit denunciations of “Western” political systems or
  • The scope and frequency of use of words such as “success,” “accomplishment,” and also “heavy problems,” “severe challenges,” etc. related to key topics concerning the future of China
  • The scope and frequency of long-term goals and visions for China’s future

Thinking beyond the Party Congress, we should watch for indicators of whether the C.C.P. plans to enforce its ideological vision with totalitarian means.

Seven key indicators would be:

  1. Regulations demanding ideological conformity, especially from non-party members
  2. Mass mobilization for public displays of loyalty and denunciations of “enemies”
  3. High-frequency, mandatory ideology study sessions for every citizen, especially in schools and at the workplace
  4. Promotion of a cult centered around the party leader and his enshrined ideological legacy
  5. Curtailment of individual lifestyle choices, restrictions on travel and study abroad
  6. Drastically enhanced activity of party organs in private and foreign businesses
  7. Mergers and take-overs of major privately-owned IT platform providers with party-state-controlled corporations.

The more of these developments we can observe in China, the more we have to prepare ourselves for a turn from authoritarianism to totalitarianism and for a Chinese state that openly challenges the principles and values that are the foundations of liberal democracies.