Issue: 2012: Vol. 11, No. 2, Articles

The 18th Party Congress: A Turning Point in Chinese Politics?

Article Author(s)

Yawei Liu

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Yawei Liu is Director of The Carter Center’s China Program. Yawei Liu has been a member of numerous Carter Center missions to monitor Chinese village, township and county people’s congress deputy elections from 1997 to 2011. He has also observed elections in Nicaragua, Peru and Taiwan. He has written extensively on China’s political developments, grassroots democracy and US-China relations. Yawei edited three Chinese book series: Rural Election and Governance in Contemporary China ... 
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On November 14, 2012, after a week of listening, discussing and “electing,” the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally came to an end. The next day, the new Central Committee had its first plenary session to finalize the Politburo and its all-powerful Standing Committee. The media were told a press appearance would happen at 11 a.m. A crowd of domestic and foreign reporters waited patiently in a cavernous room of the Great Hall of the People for Xi Jinping and the other six members of the Standing Committee to emerge. The new leadership was more than an hour late in showing up. But when the “magnificent seven” filed into the room with Xi in the lead, the world got its first look at the men who will run the world’s most populous nation for the next several years. No other CCP National Congress in recent history had been so difficult to convene. And at no time since CCP was established in 1921 had the world paid such intense attention to its gathering of more than 2,300 delegates, meetings that were largely ignored or misunderstood in the past outside China. Xi told the reporters that for the CCP to be good and effective in leading China to an even brighter future, Party members had to be responsive, accountable and responsible. With that pledge, the power transition finally began, surviving multiple threats in the months leading up the November 8 meeting.

Read a Short History of the Party Congresses

The Congress clarified at least some things. First, in a year of the shockingly public airing of the Communist Party’s dirty laundry in the form of the Bo Xilai and other scandals, the top positions were handed to the men who were long touted to receive them: Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. Beyond that, the conservative Jiang Zemin faction dominated, and Hu Jintao’s power was circumscribed. It is clear that the Xi-Li administration will not waver from the economic reform opened by Deng Xiaoping three decades ago. But there is no roadmap to political reform, despite a great deal of talk about the need to deal with corruption and bureaucracy.

Prelude to the Congress

To understand the political changes unveiled at the Congress, some background is necessary. In the years leading up to the event, China’s economy surpassed that of Japan to become the second largest in the world. Beijing awed the world with its successful 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic in 2009 also was a smash. The relationship with Taiwan, due to the KMT’s success at the polls and Hu Jintao’s open-mindedness, was calm and productive. At the same time, social disturbances continued to grow, escalating according to some scholars to about 180,000 in 2010. The expanding gap between the rich and the poor became a rallying cry for the new left, which openly praised Mao Zedong and tried to turn nostalgia into policies.

Hu Jintao signaled that the CCP would promote political reform, but there was no follow through. On July 23, Hu declared in a speech at the Central Party School that the CCP would introduce political reform. Hu said reform must be conducted within the framework of three pillars: the supremacy of the CCP leadership, people being masters of their own destinies, and rule of law. At the time, many observers indicated this speech would establish the tone of political reform in the upcoming political report to be delivered by Hu at the Congress. Judging from the speech, nothing new would be produced at the Congress. Indeed, there was no breakthrough announcement about how the CCP would introduce political reform or what shape it might take. Neither an action plan nor timetable was offered. Hu’s political swan song, like all his policy speeches, was boring, listless, and utterly devoid of an implementable plan.

Bo Xilai makes his move

Bo Xilai, a Politburo member who was sent to Chongqing as Party Secretary, executed populist programs in a masterful fashion, at least for a time. Playing on leftist sentiments, he unleashed a populist campaign that inspired many in China who were concerned about the growing gap between the rich and the poor. The campaign also planted fear among many who despised his overbearing leadership style, manipulation of the media, and neglect of the rule of law.

Bo deeply resented his assignment to the southwestern metropolis of more than 30 million people, and his populist initiatives were part of his strategy to get back to Beijing with the goal of being named to the Standing Committee of the Politburo at the 18th Congress. He believed he was qualified to be vice premier, and many top leaders, including Xi Jinping, went to Chongqing to praise his achievements. During a meeting with a few foreign NGO representatives, a top advisor for Bo Xilai boasted that his boss would move into the Standing Committee. The only uncertainties were when and which portfolio Bo would take. The possibilities were the premiership, the propaganda portfolio, or the job overseeing the Party’s law enforcement arm.

Bo was playing on neo-Maoism as a solution to corruption, which had become a cancer spreading wide and deep at a time when the leadership seemed stalled. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao continued to govern without vision, imagination, and bold measures despite popular sentiment in favor of political reform. At the top, a split seemed apparent. While Wen Jiabao kept talking about China needing political reform and embracing universal values, other top leaders ignored him. When Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were engulfed by the Arab Spring, the top leadership strengthened media controls and the gigantic stability maintenance apparatus was revved into high gear against any sign of a Color Revolution in China. In March 2011, Wu Bangguo, the number two man of the nine-member Standing Committee, declared in his opening speech to the annual session of the National People’s Congress that China would adhere to “Five Nos,” namely, 1) no multiple party system, 2) no diversity in ideology, 3) no checks and balances and bicameral parliament, 5) no federal system, and 6) no privatization. In July, at the celebration of the 90th anniversary of CCP’s founding, Jiang Zemin did not appear, leading to speculation that he had already died. When he did attend the October 10 meeting to commemorate the centennial of the Republican Revolution, Jiang appeared to be frail and weak, creating more uncertainty about behind-the-curtain power arrangements. Meanwhile, the economy was slowing down, the relationship with the United States was on a downward slide because of Washington’s pivot to Asia, and decision-making at all levels of the party-state began to slow down in anticipation of the power transition that would take place in the fall of 2012.

At this time of gathering challenges, the CCP needed a smooth 18th Congress to maintain its leadership, political stability, and unity. The usual controls on the official media were in place, and, as usual, the Chinese people themselves had no say in who would be named to leadership posts. But two other things had changed. The international press focus on the upcoming leadership changes would be more intense than ever, and social media inside China had become a new, more potent vehicle for politically helpless citizens to make comments and spread “secrets” about China’s byzantine politics. Still, at the beginning of 2012, there was no sign that the power transfer could suffer a meltdown that was unprecedented in the history of CCP.

A series of events changed all that:

  • On February 6, Wang Lijun, the deputy mayor of Chongqing who had just lost his position as police chief of the city, walked into the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu and requested political asylum. This shocking incident eventually led to Bo Xilai’s dismissal from all leadership positions, his expulsion from the CCP, and his wife’s conviction of murdering a British businessman.
  • On March 18, a Ferrari crashed near the North Fourth Ring Road in Beijing with the driver killed on the spot and two half-naked women severely injured. The driver turned out to be the son of Ling Jihua, who was Hu Jintao’s chief of staff and widely expected to be elevated to the Politburo at the 18th Congress. Despite his efforts at cover-up, the facts were “leaked” and shocked Party officials. A few retired Party leaders led by Jiang Zemin intervened, and Ling was transferred to the United Front Work Department.
  • On June 29, New York-based Bloomberg news service stepped into unchartered political waters in China by reporting on the family wealth of Xi Jinping. According to public documents compiled by Bloomberg, as Xi climbed the Communist Party ranks, his extended family expanded their business interests to include minerals, real estate and mobile phone equipment. Those interests involved investments in companies with total assets of $376 million. They included an 18% indirect stake in a rare earths company with $1.73 billion in assets and a $20.2 million holding in a publicly traded technology company. The report said, “The figures don’t account for liabilities, and thus don’t reflect the family’s net worth.”

All eyes were on Xi Jinping and there was speculation that this “foreign intervention” might derail his ascension to the top. But Xi continued to appear in public and behaved like a man ready to take the reins in October. Then in early September, Xi suddenly disappeared. His scheduled meeting with United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on September 3 was canceled, and a Chinese Foreign Ministry official told upset American officials that Xi had sustained shoulder injuries. Xi also missed the scheduled meeting with the Danish prime minister on September 10, and no official explanation was given. This set off furious speculation on the Internet that either the physical or political health of the 59-year-old Xi was failing. A Chinese language website hosted in North America even put out an unverified report that there was an assassination attempt on Xi, and that He Guoqiang, a fellow member of the Politburo Standing Committee, also was wounded in a separate incident. The Chinese government kept silent until Xi resurfaced without prior announcement on September 20 when he visited China Agricultural University.

Another bombshell dropped on October 30, 10 days before the 18th Congress was to open in Beijing. The New York Times reported that many relatives of Wen Jiabao, including his mother, son, daughter, younger brother, and brother-in-law, had become extraordinarily wealthy during his tenure in office. A review of corporate and regulatory records indicated that the prime minister’s relatives — some of whom, including his wife, had a knack for aggressive deal-making — controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion. Both the English and Chinese versions of the Times website were shut down in China hours after the report came out. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson declared that the report was false. Two U.S.-trained lawyers threatened to sue the paper. Overseas Chinese websites began to publish accounts that Wen’s family was clean. However, there was no official rebuttal from Wen himself.

The CCP nevertheless muddled through, and the 18th Congress opened and closed without any glitches. On November 15, the new members of the 18th Central Committee met and “elected” the Politburo and Standing Committee. To the surprise of many, neither Li Yuanchao, former Minister of Organization, nor Wang Yang, Party Secretary of Guangdong Province, was placed in the Standing Committee. Both are known to be reform-oriented, and their failure to move into the top tier is indicative of the conservative nature of the new leadership. With the exception of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, the other five members of the Standing Committee — Zhang Dejiang (NPC), Yu Zhensheng (Chinese Political Consultative Conference), Liu Yunshan (Secretariat), Wang Qishan (Central Discipline Commission) and Zhang Gaoli (State Council) — all appeared to be handpicked by Jiang Zemin or his allies. A bigger surprise of the first plenary session of the 18th Congress was that Hu Jintao relinquished his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, and then Xi was “elected” to succeed him. Both Hu Chunhua (who will replace Wang Yang in Guangdong) and Sun Zhengcai (who already became the Party secretary of Chongqing) moved to the Politburo. Barring any unforeseen developments, in a decade, Hu and Sun will become China’s top two leaders.

Political writings on the wall

Looking back at the rocky road to the 18th Party Congress, we offer some tentative observations on CCP politics in action. It is worth noting that this is just the second time in CCP history that a power transfer was peaceful and predictable. Despite fierce power struggle and factional rivalry, no attempt was made to challenge the pre-agreed setup that involved Xi becoming CCP general secretary and Li Keqiang being named premier. The next generation of the top leaders is also in the pipeline. It is unclear whether this so-called method of top leader chosen by the retiring leaders once removed (i.e. Hu Jintao chosen by Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jingping by Jiang Zemin, and Hu Chunhua by Hu Jintao) can be sustained. The best that can be said is that without real intra-Party competition for the top leadership, the current arrangement is a step-forward.

It also is worth nothing that the unseemly convention of geriatric politics continues inside the CCP. Jiang Zemin demonstrated great influence in determining who was elevated to the Standing Committee. Li Peng was probably instrumental in eliminating reformer Li Yuanchao from the race to the top. Other retired leaders might have played roles in removing Ling Jihua, whose son was killed in the Ferrari crash, from contention for the Politburo. Li Changchun could have been the crucial factor in getting Liu Yunshan into the Standing Committee.

That said, the era of political domination by elderly, retired leaders may slowly be coming to an end. Hu Jintao’s inability to hang onto the Military Commission chairmanship signaled a repudiation of Jiang Zemin’s ability to exercise power once the Congress had finished its work. Just a day after Xi Jinping replaced Jiang as the chairman of the military commission, he praised Hu Jintao as a person of high integrity and moral standards. This is tantamount to criticizing Jiang in a very serious manner because he insisted on retaining the military commission chairmanship when he stepped aside as president and Party general secretary. Despite Hu’s inactivity on the political reform front, many hailed his last act — stepping down from the military commission — as the most memorable of his entire political career.

The jockeying for power at the top in the months before the Congress highlights the reality that the CCP is rife with factional disputes and conflicts of interests. The fact that five of seven members of the Standing Committee will have to retire in 2017 is evidence that the final lineup was the result of compromise and concession. Just like any other political party, the CCP has to face the reality of political dissent and allow intra-party competition. Power-sharing and consensus-building through negotiation is the first step toward intra-Party democracy. It is safe to say that the day may come when factional fights within the CCP become a zero-sum game and can no longer be contained, resulting in a break into two or more political parties. Democracy could come to China, not through social movements but by by virtue of top-down politics.

The days of non-interference in Chinese politics by foreign countries are gone now. The size of China’s economy and its international influence do not permit non-intervention. Second, the increasing tendency by CCP factions to leak sensitive information to further their quests for power and to undercut their rivals has enabled both mainstream Western media outlets and online Chinese-language entities to publish reports that are not available inside China. As a result, Western media and think tanks have fully engaged the Chinese political process, despite the utter opacity and secrecy of the inner workings of the Party. Western reporting and analyses play a role in the final outcome of Chinese politics. I n addition, the growing popularity of weibo in China has magnified the impact of these information channels. On the one hand, the dynamics of Chinese politics has changed because of rapid and omnipotent distribution of information that has put secret holders on the defense. On the other hand, it has created new ways for Chinese citizens to engage in Party politics in a way that was never available to them before.

Popular indifference inside China to official propaganda about the Congress coupled with intense interest in elections abroad also could be impetuses for political change in China. Organized efforts by the CCP to promote the spirit of the 18th Party Congress through publicity tours nationwide have remained a Party affair outside the life of ordinary Chinese citizens. In contrast, many Chinese people, including media outlets, spent a good deal of time reading, watching and thinking about power transfer through elections in countries such as Mexico, France, and the United States. These elections were fascinating and reminded the Chinese people what was lacking in their homeland.

The future of political reform

The need for movement on political reform is clear. For the CCP not to chart a new course in the wake of the Arab Spring, the Bo Xilai and Ling Jihua scandals, and the revelations of obscene amounts of wealth accumulated by the families of the top leader would be shocking to many reform-oriented scholars and political observers. Hu Wei, dean of the School of International Affairs and Public Administration, Shanghai Jiaotong University said China is facing a “three-D” crisis: social decay, social disorder and social divide. Only one “D”— democracy — could overcome the three-D corrosion. Historian Zhang Lifan wrote, if we do not see reform in five years we will see collapse in ten years. Sun Liping, professor of sociology at the Tsinghua University, recently told a gathering of both Chinese and foreign financial workers, “A silent revolution is taking place in China. The biggest force against reform in China is those who do not want to go back nor desire to move forward but to maintain the status quo. Reform and China will be like Taiwan. Without reform, China will be like the Qing dynasty.” Li Weidong, former publisher of the China Reform Magazine, said in a “Tweet” that the entire nation is daydreaming now and one of the new dreams is the so-called “three self-confidences.” (In his political report, Hu Jintao talked of the CCP’s unswerving endeavor to build socialism with Chinese characteristics and urged the Party to have self-confidence in roads chosen, theories adopted, and institutions established.) Li declared, “Not only is this a pipe dream, it may soon engulf China in a nightmare.” The most popular weibo nowadays is this: “Introducing reform means seeking death and not introducing reform means waiting to die.”

Where does Xi Jinping stand amid hope and frustration, expectation and anger? During his November 15 press appearance, Xi delivered a powerful pledge. He focused his messages on the nation, the people, and the Party. He spoke of the collective but not the individual; he advocated responsibilities but not rights; he called the Party to serve the people and change its work style, but there was little about institutionalizing accountability and transparency. He identified four cardinal problems the Party is facing: corruption, condescending, formalism, and bureaucracy. He said that unless the Party overcomes these challenges, it will not be able to lead the nation in building socialism with Chinese characteristics.

In 2002, shortly after the 16th Party Congress, Hu Jintao took all members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo to Xibaipo in Hebei Province, where Mao and his comrades lived and worked before marching to Beijing and establishing the People’s Republic. Hu vowed that the new leadership would call on all Party members to overcome arrogance, maintain integrity, and serve the people well. On November 29, Xi took “the magnificent seven” to the National Museum to see “The Road to Rejuvenation,” a Party history exhibition. He repeated everything he mentioned or alluded to in his November 15 speech. He talked about the destiny of the nation and the China Dream. He used three lines from the poems of Mao Zedong and ancient poet Li Bai to highlight China’s humiliating past, its glorious opening up and reform, and its bright future. Again, the focus was on a mysterious and historical Chinese collective.

To follow up his two speeches, on December 4, Xi convened a Politburo meeting that adopted a resolution to improve the work style and deepen the ties between the CCP and broad masses. Included were measures to cut Party circulars; reduce domestic inspection trips and foreign visits; prevent the blocking of roads when top leaders travel; eliminate profuse media reports; cut national meetings to only those absolutely necessary; stop publication of speeches; end the practice of traveling the country and writing inscriptions that become memorialized; and stop unnecessary meetings, ceremonies, and groundbreakings. Also in December, Xi made a trip to Guangdong. In Shenzhen, he placed a wreath in front of Deng Xiaoping’s statue and vowed not to deviate from the road of reform and opening up, a policy that was put in place by Deng Xiaoping in late 1978.

Xi’s performance in the wake of the Congress is impressive, and has made it very clear to both the Chinese people and the outside world that he has no intention to deviate from the road chosen by Deng Xiaoping and his cohorts 34 years ago. What is a bit disappointing is that he has not delineated a clear vision on the issue of political reform. In his political report to the Congress, Hu Jintao solemnly declared that China will not take the old road of xenophobia and lack of innovation, nor will it take the deviant road of implementing any reform that weakens the Party’s supremacy. There is no sign at this point that Xi Jinping will break away from this pledge.

However, people still remember what Xi Jinping said in a speech at the Central Party School in 2010: “The Marxist view of power can be summarized in two sentences: ‘power comes from the people’ and ‘power has to be used for the people.’ The first sentence highlights the source and foundation of power, and the second informs us of the essence and destiny of the power. The sole mission of the CCP is to serve the people heart and soul. This is the difference between the Marxist view of power and capitalist view of power.” The interpretation of this statement is that Xi may move forward with political reform, installing procedures through which the governed will offer their consent to the governing party. Even though Xi has great power because he is fully in charge of the Party and the military, he has not made any reference to his earlier statement that has inspired many in China.

Some suggest waiting for the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Party Congress to see whether the Xi-Li Administration is serious about introducing meaningful political reform. It was during the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Party Congress in December 1978 when Deng Xiaoping finally was able to marshal his political capital and move the Party from the narrow road of rigid ideology to the highway of pragmatic economic growth.

China’s growth dividends will expire soon. When they do, the CCP’s legitimacy will face daunting challenges and fierce questioning. The extent of corruption, the loss of trust, the increasing unemployment of the young and educated, and the opacity of decision-making may all become the trigger of a Chinese Spring. Will China muddle through and sustain its economic growth without making significant social and political changes? If it does, the model touted in Beijing of sustained economic development and authoritarianism will get a boost and pose a serious challenge to the conventional wisdom that political accountability is necessary for long-term, economic prosperity and social harmony. If not, the entire world will watch as turmoil engulfs China and very possibly shakes up the global power balance and ushers in a period of instability.