On Wednesday, the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party started off with a bang. Well, actually, it started off with a three-and-a-half hour speech delivered by Xi Jinping. Either way, the event, which happens every five years, will determine China’s path in the coming years both domestically and internationally.
We spoke to Leta Hong Fincher, the first American to receive a PhD in sociology from Tsinghua University in Beijing and author of the forthcoming book, Betraying Big Brother: China’s Feminist Resistance, about the significant event.
Foreign Policy Interrupted: For those who don’t know, what will occur at the 19th Party Congress? What kind of process is it?
Leta Hong Fincher: The Chinese Communist Party holds its Party Congress every five years to announce the new members of the Politburo and the elite Politburo Standing Committee, China’s most powerful political body. Since China is not a democracy, the Party selects senior officials internally in a completely opaque and secretive way. This year, the spotlight is entirely on Xi Jinping, the Party’s General Secretary, who has presented himself as a strong leader who will save the Communist Party in the face of “hostile foreign forces” trying to prevent the rise of China. President Xi is formally beginning his second five-year term but may be preparing to stay in power for much longer.
FPI: Why is this such a major event? What is the public’s attitude/sentiment toward it?
LHF: The vast majority of Chinese people would not personally care about the Party Congress, were it not for the heavy propaganda surrounding the event. For example, virtually all state television outlets across the country broadcast Xi’s 3.5 hour speech at the opening of the Congress and even many young schoolchildren were required to sit and watch his speech in class. This year’s event is giving us insight into just how much power President Xi Jinping wields and whether he intends to stay on beyond 2022, when he is supposed to step down, according to established rules limiting Party leaders to ten years in power.
FPI: What do you think are Xi Jinping’s personal goals, outside of policy?
LHF: The Chinese state media are now reporting on what is called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, which strongly suggests that the Party will revise its constitution to incorporate “Xi Jinping Thought” as its “guiding ideology”, further consolidating Xi’s power. Even if Xi does not formally stay on as China’s paramount leader beyond 2022, he seems to be moving the Communist Party away from the consensus-based leadership of the past few decades and setting himself up to be an unrivaled ruler, perhaps even for the rest of his life. No clear successor to Xi has emerged yet, although that may change at the end of the Congress. Some analysts describe Xi as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic in 1949, but I think it’s much too early to tell.
FPI: How will Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign factor into this event?
LHF: Xi will continue waging his signature anti-corruption campaign and some analysts are speculating that he might keep his top anti-corruption enforcer, Wang Qishan, in a senior position, even though he has already passed the official retirement age of 68. Xi has made a big show of cracking down on corrupt Chinese officials, although just how effective the campaign has been in eradicating corruption in the Party is a matter of huge debate.
FPI: What new policies do you expect will be introduced?
LHF: There are so many different areas, but a couple of thoughts: China’s economy has entered a protracted slowdown, just as the country is beginning to face the severe demographic crises of an aging population and a shrinking workforce. By most accounts, China’s decades-long “economic miracle” of double-digit growth rates is now over, so the Communist Party is retreating from bold economic reforms to focus more on cracking down on political dissent and preserving social stability.
Since I am currently finishing a book on China’s feminist resistance, I will be looking out for signs that the male-dominated Communist Party might want to improve its dismal record on women’s political representation. There are now seven men on the Politburo Standing Committee and there is a tiny chance that the new Standing Committee could include a woman, perhaps promoting Sun Chunlan from the Politburo, but there has never been a single woman named to the Standing Committee since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
FPI: How big of an impact will this event have on Chinese foreign affairs? Why?
LHF: Xi’s speech to the Congress emphasized China as a “great power”, suggesting that China will become more assertive in projecting its power internationally and increasingly vie for a global leadership role following the sharp decline in U.S. influence under President Trump. Xi also said that the modernization of China’s armed forces should be complete by 2035. But I believe any changes in China’s foreign policy are likely to be gradual rather than sudden. Most immediately, we are likely to see much harsher anti-Taiwan rhetoric, warning the island democracy against independence, and much tighter controls over Hong Kong. China has already increased its territorial claims to the South China Sea by building more islands. China is unlikely to do much more to challenge North Korea over its nuclear weapons development, despite strong U.S. pressure. Fundamentally, the Communist Party is most concerned with ensuring its own survival and stamping out destabilizing forces within China that might provoke widespread social unrest and lead to the Party’s collapse.