The five-yearly Communist Party congress in Beijing confirmed Xi Jinping’s unprecedented degree of power, writes Stephen Vines

One of the few guilty pleasures of observing the Chinese Communist Party Congress from the proximity of Hong Kong is the effect it has on the serried ranks of self-serving investment bankers, politically ambitious academics and other opportunists who make a living ‘explaining’ China’s greatness.

They spend most of their time assuring the rest of the world not to be alarmed by the word ‘Communist’ when applied to China’s rulers, and tell anyone prepared to listen that the key to understanding the People’s Republic lies in the party leadership’s pragmatism and lack of ideological hang-ups. They maintain the fiction of a regime working towards greater liberalism.

The problem is that fictions of this kind are shattered every five years, when the Communist Party holds its showpiece congress. The latest, in October, exposed the narrative of steady progress towards a more open society as being threadbare. On the contrary, this year’s gathering signalled the greater centralisation of power and a determination to maintain control, even where it means sacrificing the much heralded prospects of economic progress.

The China cheerleaders also have problems with the atmospherics of this event. They squirm with embarrassment as red flags flutter, the hammer and sickle logo takes centre stage and the delegates consistently address each other as comrades. Then there’s the language, not quite reminiscent of the old days of Soviet communism but approximate enough to revive memories as the conference chamber reverberated with words such as ‘the people’ and ‘the masses’, alongside copious references to the party line and the need for ‘struggle’.

The portraits of Marx and Engels were again on display even though Marxism is hardly the nation’s indicative ideology. Yet lip service is paid and new interpretations of the Marxist gospel are given contorted names. In the latest amendment to the party’s constitution, approved with enthusiasm by the congress, it was stated that updates ‘fully represent the latest sinicization of Marxism’.

Xi is the first leader since Mao and then Deng Xiaoping to have his name attached to his ideological pronouncements

And here lies the key to the new ideology, an uncomfortable mixture of extreme Chinese nationalism, rigid authoritarian rule and a hotchpotch of ‘thoughts’ by whoever is the leader of the day. Jiang Zemin got the comrades to write the ‘Three Represents’ into the constitution (good luck with working out what that means) while his successor, Hu Jintao, had the vague idea of ‘scientific development’. However, the current leader, Xi Jinping, is far more powerful than his recent predecessors, arguably the most powerful since Mao Zedong. He is now described as ‘the core leader’ and Xi-thought is busily being introduced into the party’s constitution.

Xi is the first leader since Mao and then Deng Xiaoping to have his name attached to his ideological pronouncements. This symbolically important move confirms the consolidation of his enormous power and influence. That and that alone is the main message of the conference proceedings.

As David Shambaugh, a veteran academic who has not swallowed the cheerleaders’ pill, has written: ‘China’s political system has reverted to a patriarchal-patrimonial system where power rests with the imperial-type leader, and not with institutions.’

The new imperial leader has demonstrated a level of ruthlessness that has even taken the staid old men in Beijing by surprise. A purge of the party, distressingly reminiscent of that which presaged the 1960s Cultural Revolution, has been seen in the arrest and demotion of an estimated 1.2 million cadres, including some 200 very senior officials, among them the once powerful Politburo member Sun Zhengcai, who had seemed to be untouchable. The purge was carried out in the name of an anti-corruption campaign, a useful device in a system where corruption is endemic, but punishment is largely confined to those suspected of undermining either the leader himself or his many acolytes throughout the country.

Even more brutal, and without the pretence of any anti-corruption motivation, has been the crackdown on dissident elements in civil society, taking out not just those hauled before the courts but also lawyers daring to defend them. An iron grip has descended on the internet and all other means of unregulated communication with the potential to question the party line. Perhaps most significant is the way that Xi has ensured that the powerful military machine is on his side as its leadership is shaken up and his supporters installed in key posts. Xi, like Mao, has recognised the need to impose his will on the military command structure.

An iron grip has descended on the internet

And then there has been the purge of some of China’s business leaders, who owe their wealth to the freewheeling policies instituted by Deng Xiaoping. Among those who have fallen out of favour is Wang Jianlin, one of China’s richest men; others have got the message. In conjunction with this reining in of business leaders, but little noticed, has been the increasing role and greater resources given to the state-controlled business sector, whose demise has long and inaccurately been predicted.

The opening ceremony
The opening ceremony

While sticks beat those who have fallen out of favour, the build-up to the congress saw carrots given to those deemed to be loyal. Xi is the only son of a prominent party leader to have made it the top, and his progress through the provinces to Beijing has made him understand that while the centre must be made bulletproof, the areas beyond the capital need to be cultivated. In this spirit he has assiduously toured the country and rewarded 102 county chiefs for being role models.

Meanwhile the capital itself has literally been transformed under Xi’s direct orders. The noise of old buildings being bulldozed rarely ceases; in their place are the many new structures that glorify the leader. His biggest pet project is the Xiongan New District, designated as an economic powerhouse. It is being turned into a zone reserved for the elite, where Xi’s various projects are nurtured.

Back on the conference floor, a key message conveyed to the delegates was that ‘hidden rules’, such as those confining the leadership of the party to just two terms, meaning 10 years, could be discarded in the interests of the nation’s greater progress. Although rules of this kind have ensured both stability and continuity for the Communist Party, no one is strong enough to challenge Xi, or point out that the rules were devised precisely to prevent a repetition of the Mao personality cult, which ended up devastating the nation.

‘CORE LEADER’: Xi Jinping is far more powerful than his recent predecessors
‘CORE LEADER’: Xi Jinping is far more powerful than his recent predecessors

Xi, however, is not only self-confident at home, but increasingly assertive abroad. China is pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy, not just in the South China Sea, but also in other areas attached to China’s northern landmass, where the Belt and Road initiative envisages physical ties as well as a strengthening of political ties. Unlike the Russians, who are believed to have had a hand in Donald Trump’s election as US president, China stood aside, but it has been quick to take advantage of the diplomatic vacuum created by the mayhem in Washington.

Xi’s acolytes have been equally quick to attribute the nation’s enhanced global standing to their leader, not least because China’s rising prestige in the world plays very well with the home audience. Indeed, it should be emphasised that Xi is genuinely popular on a number of levels – but then again the murderous Mao was hardly short of admirers.

The role of the party congress has never been to discuss and formulate new policies. Its function is to provide a way of reporting back on the five years since the previous congress. Nevertheless, if past congresses have been occasions for signalling change, this one is all about continuity, and the enhancement of the role of the party’s unchallenged leader.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster. A former editor at The Observer, London, he has worked in Asia for other international publications including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and The Independent. He is the author of several books, including Hong Kong: China’s New Colony

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