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Commentary : Xi Secures his Wish List for the ‘New Era’
The past month has witnessed significant political developments in China which have altered the structure of the Chinese domestic political system and may lead to an acute concentration of power and Mao-style personality cult. The developments have also made it clear that under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will gain extensive leeway in ruling the country as the very thin line between the Party and the State have merged. No surprise that during his speech at the closing session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Xi said, “The CPC and its leadership are the defining features of the socialism with Chinese characteristics. The CPC is the supreme leadership of the country, and it is also the fundamental guarantee of achieving the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”1, thus asserting the supremacy of the CCP. The changes in policies and leadership tenure that Xi sought have now been formally secured and given the stamp or legitimacy by the Chinese Parliament or the NPC.
The First Session of 13th NPC and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), were concluded in March 2018. These meetings are known as ‘two meetings’ in China, though both these are rubber stamp bodies. The NPC looks at the annual reports and budgets while the CPPCC analyses the political, social and economic issues.2
Developments in these meetings can be regarded as landmark events in the current Chinese history. The NPC approved the abolishment of the two term limit on the Chinese Presidency. The Constitution was amended and Xi Jinping became leader for life, if he wishes. It was also the first time that any Chinese President took an oath on the Constitution. Xi took the oath, “[I pledge to] be loyal to the country and the people, be committed and honest in my duty, accept the people's supervision and work for a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful.”.3 Xi Jinping’s ‘Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ was also included Constitution. In addition, the term limit on the tenure of the Premier and the Vice-President was also abolished. According to Chinese lawmakers, these changes will ensure “the prosperity and lasting security of both the Party and the country”.4
The NPC approved the appointment of Wang Yi as State Councilor to the Politburo while he regains his post as Foreign Minister. Wang Qishan was elected as the new Chinese Vice President. Both these leaders have played a very crucial role in assisting Xi in the last five years. Wang Qishan, the former head of the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection has also been the most prominent person in the anti-corruption campaign led by Xi, while Wang Yi has been regarded as a strong supporter of Chinese assertive foreign policy. The appointment of Wang Qishan, who is a close ally of Xi, also raises question about the changes in the role of the Vice-President. Till date, the post of Vice-President was just symbolic. However, it appears that Wang Qishan will be changing this discourse and play more active role in the domestic and foreign policy making. On the other hand, Wang Yi has substantial experience in trade negotiations with the US and has strong ties with Washington. This will help the Chinese side in smoothening the relations with the United States (US) which have been somewhat rocky under the Trump administration. The change in the status of the Anti-Graft Body is also interesting. In order to extend the CCP’s control over anti-graft policies, a new national supervisory commission will be established. This will help the CCP with more power and control in advancing the anti-corruption drive started by Xi Jinping. According to the plan released by the CCP Central Committee, “The Party exercises overall leadership over all areas of endeavor in every part of the country”. 5
Other major appointments have been in the financial sector. Two important appointments were of Liu He as the Vice Premier and Yi Gang as the head of the People’s Bank of China (PBOC). Both Liu and Yi have studied in the US. Liu was trained in Public Administration at Harvard while Yi holds a PhD in Economics from University of Illinois.6 The revamping of the Chinese economy is a major concern for Xi. During the 19th Party Congress, Xi had asserted the shift towards innovation driven economic growth and push for domestic consumption to reduce the dependence on exports. China is also struggling with a large amount of bad loans and domestic housing sector is facing major hurdles; and thus the new appointments have been made to deal effectively with the current problems. The current direction of the US trade policies could seriously harm the Chinese economy. Keeping in view these the current appointments are critical for tackling these problems.
Lt Gen Wei Fenghe, also known as China’s Missile Man, has been appointed as the China’s Defence Minister and Xu Qiliang and Zhang Youxia as Vice Chairmen of the CMC.7 Wei Fenghe has worked closely with Xi in restructuring the Chinese Army. It is believed that it was Wei who played a critical role in nudging Xi towards restructuring and renovating the Chinese Second Artillery Corps even when this move was not conducive to Wei career. At the age of 58 he was the youngest person to hold the rank of three star general and is also very close to Xi. 8
Analyzing the new appointments, a number of scholars have argued that Xi has selected his trusted allies and confidants to look after the major problem areas. Domestic economic development, revamping the financial sector and further modernisation of the military are at the top of the Chinese Government’s agenda.
Li Keqiang’s Speeches
During the opening session, Li Keqiang had presented a work report and targets for the next year. The Chinese GDP growth was set at 6.5 percent and promise made to work towards elevating 10 million people out of poverty. The Chinese Government also promised to open its markets further for foreign investors. The Government decided to increase the defence spending by a high 8.1 percent. The Government also set aside a huge amount for roads, railways and water management.9 Thus the focus has been on economic development, sustaining growth rates, and building a powerful military.
Li Keqiang’s speech at the concluding session of the NPC asserted the fact that economy will be the primary focus of the Chinese leadership for the next five years. In his speech Li argued that “The government will continue to lower its fiscal deficit ratio”, and work towards countering the “illegal fund-raising” 10 by provisional governments and enterprises. Li also promised that the right to property will be protected. He said, “Property rights are the cornerstone of the socialist market economy. Protecting property rights is protecting productive forces”.11 In the PRC, which is not governed by ‘rule of law’ but the policies and the decisions of the Party, individual or corporate property rights have enjoyed little sanctity in the past. That is unlikely to change notwithstanding what Li now asserts.
Li’s speech also asserted that China will not become hegemonic. He said, “China pursues peaceful development, though the nation is most resolute in upholding its own territorial integrity and will not abandon a single inch of its own land …. And in the same way, China will not occupy an inch of the land of others”,12 he affirmed. This however, may not be enough to assuage regional concerns regarding China’s expansionist policies and coercive diplomacy under Xi. This is also an indication to Taiwan and nations affected by its expansion in the South China Sea that Beijing is not ready to compromise on what it regards as its own territory.
The recently concluded CPPCC and NPC have transformed a lot in the Chinese political system. The limitation of two terms for the President, Premier and the Vice President, which was included by Deng Xiaoping in the Constitution in order to avoid the growth of leadership cult, has been reversed. Xi Jinping is set to be the leader of CCP and the Chinese Government till he wants. Deng Xiaoping had pushed for limitation on the number of years in order to also maintain some distinction between the Party and the State; with the current amendment to the Constitution the lines have been again been blurred. The current trend is towards further consolidation and centralisation of power within the hands of the CCP’s top leadership.
The decision of Xi Jinping to gain more than two terms as President may also stem from the fact that the domestic stability in China is shaky. Plans for economic rejuvenation and creation of a moderately prosperous society are important promises made by the CCP to the people. If the Party appears to be failing to meet these, the repercussions may be negative for its rule. Though Xi is one of the most powerful leaders in the last few decades, the problems he faces are also equally large.
The time of leadership change is generally perceived as one of uncertainty and it appears that Xi feels that the CCP will not be able to easily overcome such a phase. The pressure to sustain economic growth rates, correct domestic financial problems and fight corruption, coupled with the existing focus on One Belt One Road (OBOR) are seen as challenges by Xi that requires him to both concentrate power and gain a longer term in office. Xi has successfully managed to get his team in place and will be looking forward to implement long term policies to tackle the existing problems such as environmental pollution, corruption and financial reforms. Xi appears to be arguing that the ‘Chinese Dream’ (of a prosperous, technologically strong and morally and ecologically clean China) and CCP Dream are in sync and only a strong and stable leadership can deliver it.
Gunjang Singh (VIF)
27 March 2018