For Xi Jinping, the stakes were high at the recent plenary meeting of the Chinese Communist party, with all the stops being pulled out to make sure that things would go smoothly. The outcome seems never to have been in doubt and must have disappointed any foes who did not want Xi to be anointed leader into the distant future. Ostensibly the meeting was held to review the achievements of the past 100 years. In reality, it was about the future.
One outcome of the meeting was the publication of a resolution on past achievements, which was designed to show that Xi Jinping’s leadership today and in the future is the inevitable outcome of history. The resolution will consolidate his pre-eminence within the party, empowering him to set the course for its second 100 years. Huge resources are dedicated to crafting an official history to be accepted by all. Woe betide anyone who challenges the official narrative.
It was the party’s third historical summation, placing Xi alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw the first two. The first two resolutions criticised the past to legitimise setting out on a brave new path forward. For Mao in 1945, it was the last nail in the coffin of his rivals for party leadership by exposing their “leftist” mistakes, which had almost brought the party to ruin. For Deng, the challenge was to break with the immediate disasters of the Great Leap Forward famine and the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, without discrediting Mao entirely. It enabled China to move into the reform era.
Xi’s purpose is distinct. He is not defining the way forward by criticising the recent past but rather by highlighting how the past plays into his hands. The spotlight was on Xi, his achievements, the wrongs he has righted, and the future direction for China. The resolution described Xi as the “principal founder” of the party’s ruling ideology and the “core” of its leadership; it is intended to be the key document for all party members to unite around, eradicating challenges to his policy preferences.
What can we discern from the meeting? First, barring an accident of nature, Xi will be reappointed for a third term as party general secretary at the 20th party congress (to take place in November 2022). This will allow for policy continuity, rather than policy change as occurred after the previous two historical resolutions. For instance, the harsher atmosphere that has enveloped the intellectual and cultural sphere in recent years will continue.
What does Xi dream about? In seeking the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, he envisages a China that will be more assertive and respected in the global sphere. China is to become a strong, global power by 2049, a rule-maker rather than a rule-taker, capable of playing a more forceful role in determining global norms and practices. For Xi, the west is in decline while the east is rising, and this provides China with the opportunity to more effectively promote its national interests. Trade and investment policies will be used to promote this agenda. Despite the milder language at the meeting, China will continue to tighten control over Hong Kong and push its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas and over Taiwan.
But, to bring about happiness for the Chinese people, Xi’s leadership will have to keep the economy moving forward while dealing with rising social problems. His leadership has identified three that are products of the party’s policies and development model: combating corruption, reducing income inequality, and confronting environmental degradation. On taking power, Xi launched a major campaign against corruption, netting political foes, officials high and low, at home and overseas. One unexpected outcome was that the impact on lavish banqueting caused a number of producers of the fiery drink Maotai to go out of business, and the sales of Remy Cointreau to drop significantly. The question remains whether corruption can be addressed fully without institutional reforms and greater transparency. How long can campaigning maintain momentum?
China’s last few decades of economic liberalisation have transformed it from one of the most equal nations in Asia to one of the most unequal, a problematic outcome for a party that still insists on calling itself socialist. Xi refers to creating “common prosperity” in China, but little concrete has been put forward to make this happen. The party could abolish once and for all the household registration system that means migrants in the major cities are treated as second-class citizens in terms of access to education, health, and benefits. However, such moves are resisted by local governments, which feel they will be left to foot the bill. Experiments to date with property taxes have met resistance from real estate companies, homeowners, and local officials who would rather that their multiple property portfolios not be revealed. A redistributive financial system would help but, to date, richer folk and richer areas have benefited from the current set-up.
Thus, the leadership has turned to calling on the rich who, showing their patriotic credentials, have been donating billions in philanthropy. However, without a political coalition and will to shift the inegalitarian fiscal structure, progress will be difficult. As the United States has found, turning back inequality once it is entrenched is a tough political road to follow.
Then there’s the rising pollution, which affects everybody, rich or poor, rural or urban, and has become a “quality of life” issue for the new middle class. Despite recent commitments, the question is whether the party can balance sustained economic growth with environmental protections. China’s addiction to coal remains a problem. Its delegation, together with India’s, at Cop26 pushed the final documents to call for phasing “down” coal instead of phasing coal out. Since July, China has expanded operations at 153 coalmines and production in October was the highest since March 2015.
While there are murmurs of opposition, the historic plenary session would suggest that the future is in Xi’s hands. However, when politics is so deeply personalised and centralised, there is only one person to blame if things go wrong. Unless, of course, we get a new resolution on history that tells us who led the party astray, despite Xi’s earnest attempts to keep policy on the straight and narrow.