Written by Konstantinos Tsimonis.
The leadership line-up at the end of the first plenum of the 19th Party Congress demonstrates that informal rules are designed to both strengthen political stability while giving flexibility to the decision-making process of China’s authoritarian political system. The fact that there is no clear successor at the moment does not mean that the Party is not thinking beyond Xi Jinping. It might be exactly the opposite. The CCP just gave its charismatic leader the power he needs to deliver a version of the future that has the Party in control of a prosperous China. Indeed, a five year-long process of power centralization, that placed party discipline and societal control at the top of the Party’s political priorities, would be in vain if China’s ‘core’ leader was to retire in five years.
There seems to be an elite consensus in Beijing that centralization is the best answer to the many challenges China will face in the immediate future. Offering breathing space to its leader, either in the form of a third term or by not making his retirement an imminent certainty, seems a logical and viable option. Xi has a unique chance to launch a new round of reforms and shape the economic and political trajectory of China for the next decade. This does not make him a new Mao, a god-like figure that is increasingly above and beyond the Party’s control. Instead, Xi is now the central figure in the CCP’s efforts to maintain power by promising to deliver on Deng’s promise for prosperity and a return to greatness.
Having said that, there are many internal and external challenges that will determine the success of the Party’s plan for the future. The economy needs a new set of reforms including extensive privatization of key sectors and a restructuring of SOEs in order to become more efficient and competitive. This is a process that needs to unsettle vested interests and powerful networks within the Party.
Chinese society has showed tolerance of political recentralization so far, especially since the CCP has also been trying to rid itself of corruption, but patience with a tighter political environment may be running out. Addressing the problems of modern industrial societies requires pluralism, participation, some degree of media autonomy, a stronger legal system and more space for grassroots organization. If the current tightening up is not followed by a period of relaxed control, tensions in state-society relations may heighten, especially if a further economic slowdown is on the way.
Internally, the reign of fear within the Party ranks can only have a positive effect in the short-run before leading to paralysis. Fear kills innovation in an organization and may also erode the loyalty of its members. After all, opportunities for career advancement, power and material privileges have kept Party cadres loyal. Re-imagining and putting into practice a new set of normative and material cadre incentives that do not promote corrupt practices is a major challenge – and a pressing one. Failure to do so may lead to decay and a steady erosion of cadre loyalty and party cohesion.
Lastly, China’s peaceful global ambitions can best be realized by a confident government that feels secure at home, has a realistic vision for its future and is ready to negotiate, cooperate and make compromises without appearing weak domestically. Addressing the economic, societal and political challenges is a precondition for success in China’s international endeavors. Considering the above challenges and the complexity they entail, giving more power and time to its central leader to shape China’s future trajectory is perhaps the easiest among a long list of difficult decisions that the Party has to make.