What to expect from the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China?
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

At the forthcoming Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing on 18th October, 2017, President Xi is set to enter the hall of fame of Chinese leaders alongside Mao and Deng. This was indicated in a party communique issued on October 14, 2017 at the close of the 7th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The plenum passed an amendment to the Chinese constitution stressing the importance of “implementing General Secretary Xi’s series of important speeches, and new ideas and new strategies for governance”. Xi has managed to get a status higher than that of Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, his predecessors, who are not mentioned by name in the constitution. The 19th Party Congress is likely to endorse this amendment.

Thus Xi goes to the Party Congress as the most important leader since Deng. He had been elevated as a “core” leader last year. During Mao’s and Deng’s time China was poor and struggling. Xi, in contrast, presides over a county that is aiming to become the world’s most powerful country. In his first term he has shown that he can be determined and ruthless behind his soft exterior in pursuing China’s national interests.

Xi’s first term will be most remembered for the relentless anti-corruption campaign which has touched millions of people including the high and mighty in the party, the Central Military Commission (CMC) as well as the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). This way not only did he seek to cleanse the system but also, in the process, removed potential rivals. The stage is now set for him to fill the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the Politburo and other organs of the party with his loyalists. The new composition of these bodies will give a clue whether Xi faces any challenge from any quarter in the Party. Another matter of intense speculation has been whether Xi will continue into his third term after he finishes his permissible second term tenure in 2022, or will a successor be identified. The outcome of the Congress will throw some light on this issue.

Xi’s first term has been eventful. Since 2013 when XI came to power, the economy has slowed down, China has asserted strongly in the South China Sea. Its relations with key countries like Japan have deteriorated. The North Korean missiles and nuclear programme has advanced several steps ahead and threatens regional and global stability. Xi launched his pet, highly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with global reach. The PLA was restructured and military reforms deepened. China also benefitted from the diplomatic and security space the US continued to cede to China during these years. Overall, first five years of Xi have been successful from his point of view.

The Party Congress will also give strategic guidance in a number of areas of domestic, economic, foreign and security policies: will economic reforms be deepened?; will market forces be allowed greater freedom to operate?; will the issue of bad debts be tackled?;how will the regional economic inequalities be addressed?; PLA’s restructuring has begun and will continue in the years to come? On the foreign policy front, China can be expected to consolidate the BRI and enhance its influence in the neighborhood and in Central Asia, Middle East, Europe and Africa. The existing trends point in this direction and this will be further cemented. China’s relations with US will be an important area for consideration in Xi’s foreign policy. President Trump is expected to visit China shortly. That visit will provide a clue to the direction in which bilateral relations will develop.

The Party Congress is unlikely to make any significant difference to the course of India-China relations irrespective of its outcome. Xi will remain in power and pursue his usual policies with respect to India. It has been a roller coaster ride for China-India relations during Xi’s first term. Xi and PM Modi met several times and have developed a good chemistry. But the bonhomie has been marred on occasions with China building the China Pakistan Economic Corridor projects through the Indian territory of Gilgit-Baltistan and frequent recurrence of border crises as in Chumar in 2014 when Xi was visiting India and that in Doklam in 2017 ahead of the BRICS summit. China has consistently blocked Indian entry into Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) on the behest of its all-weather friend Pakistan. China has adamantly ignored Indian pleas to lift its technical hold on the matter of listing of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar living in Pakistan as a terrorist on the UN list of global terrorists. China-Pakistan relations will continue to strengthen often at the expense of Sino-Indian relations.

A People’s Daily article of 13th October disparaged the western analysts’ constant fascination with power struggles in China. Discounting this line of analysis, the article said, “…It goes without saying that some will rise and some will fall in the leadership reshuffle, but the National Congress is not about who will win the ‘Iron Throne’. Looking at everything as a power struggle is misleading, because all the Party’s efforts are aimed at national rejuvenation.” The editorial said the Party Congress will focus on making China a moderately prosperous society by 2049, the Party’s hundredth anniversary.

It looks there are likely to be few surprises during the Congress. The one who is sitting on the throne seems secure and confident. Most issues have already been tied up ahead of the Congress. Given Xi’s larger than life profile, rival factions in the Party, even if they exist, would keep their heads below the parapet. But it will be prudent to wait and see until the Congress is finally over. The outcome of the Congress will provide enough food for thought for all concerned even after it is over.

(The author is the Director of the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi. Earlier he served as Deputy National Security Advisor.)

Image Source: http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/xi-looks-to-cement-authority

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