19th Party Congress

Xi Jinping Moves to Solidify Legacy; Changes, But Not Tectonic

A general view shows delegates attending the closing of the 19th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 24, 2017. (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

Months of intense speculation over the lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) of the Communist Party of China concluded last week with the unveiling of seven men who will lead the country over the next five years: President Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, and Han Zheng (listed in hierarchical order). The announcement confirmed assumptions that the president would move to solidify his control and legacy. While the strengthening of Xi’s influence has raised more questions than answers about China’s trajectory—particularly when considered alongside legendary figures in party history—there are some indicators.

Changes, but Not Tectonic

Xi has stamped his personal authority on the congress in more ways than one. Of significance is the enshrinement of “Xi Jinping Thought” into the party congress, placing him on the same pedestal as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping while surpassing Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. This development is even more meaningful when one considers that Xi is the only leader after Mao to have an eponymous ideology written into the constitution while in office (Deng’s was included after his death). Xi also removed three cadre members that have not hit the retirement age of 68. This includes Li Yuanchao, the soon-to-be-former Vice President of China—widely seen as a protégé of Hu Jintao and a reformist. Indeed, according to leaked cables, Li expressed the belief that the government should be held accountable to the legal system and suggested that elections for top party posts could materialize in 20 to 30 years. These comments likely did not endear him to a Xi concerned with entrenching his control of the party.

However, the congress also showed that there were limits to Xi’s power, and that he does not have the free reign Mao had nor does he have the appetite or need to upend party conventions. For instance, Xi did not keep former anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan in the PSC as was widely speculated; in essence respecting the “seven up eight down” norm where a cadre member may be promoted at 67 years of age but must retire at 68. The promotion of Han Zheng, the former party secretary of Shanghai, is also instructive. Han, who is the lowest-ranking PSC member and spent his entire political career in Shanghai, also has the least political ties to Xi. Han is seen by observers as being associated with the “Shanghai clique” and his promotion can be interpreted as acquiescence to the convention that a seat in the PSC is essentially reserved for top-ranked Shanghai party elite.

Perhaps of greatest consequence is the absence of any clear successor to Xi in the PSC. Chen Min’er (57 years old), and Hu Chunhua (54), were touted as possible successors, but did not manage to command a place in the Politburo. (Recall that Xi Jinping was 54 and Li Keqiang 52 when they were promoted during the 17th Party Congress in 2007.) In this iteration, however, the youngest leader in the PSC is Zhao Leji (60 years old) and ranked sixth among the seven members. In the short term, this ensures there is no one to credibly challenge Xi’s authority, and in the long term, it opens up possibilities for him to stay president beyond the customary 10-year term.

Support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Since becoming president, Xi has sought to impose his vision of foreign policy onto the region and the world through increased diplomatic assertiveness. In his three-hour-long speech during the congress, Xi insisted that China will be a global leader “in terms of composite national strength and international influence”—further outlining his ambitious foreign policy agenda. Citing the country’s military assets and the creation of artificial islands as achievements, he vowed to build a world-class military. One might think Xi’s words would send China’s neighbors scrambling, but these sentiments are nothing new. He has previously shown his trust in, and reliance on, the foreign ministry. The promotion of Yang Jiechi to the 25-member PSC, for example, is one of the first instances in over a decade of a Foreign Ministry official being made a member of the Politburo. This serves as implicit approval of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MOFA) activities and a recognition of the growing demands and importance of diplomacy for China. With the promotion of Yang into the PSC, MOFA has gained an important symbolic badge and earned even more credibility.

Balancing the Domestic Agenda

Despite his grand visions for China on the world stage, Xi will have to balance domestic imperatives. While he has achieved plenty with a more proactive and globalist agenda, many pressing domestic issues need addressing. As China’s growth slows, badly needed economic and social reforms must be pushed through for Xi to achieve his goal of eliminating poverty and realizing a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020. His legacy will rest on the pursuit of this goal. The appointment of trusted allies to key roles will certainly help this. Li Zhanshu, for instance, one of Xi’s closest aides, will head the National People’s Congress and will help him with tough legal reforms and inject even greater party discipline into state and party institutions. Replacing Wang Qishan with Zhao Leji—the youngest PSC member—as the anti-corruption head will further institutionalize his anti-graft efforts proving (and hoping) that the slaying of tigers and swatting of flies will continue. Further, Han Zheng, with his technocratic credentials, is likely to be tapped for his deep commercial and economic knowledge to give fresh impetus to Xi’s economic reforms. Not forgetting the academic-turned-politician Wang Huning—the brains behind the “China Dream”—who will provide the ideological canvas for Xi to deepen his control and reform of the state organs.

While the PSC lineup is set, the impact of these personnel changes is still to be seen. China’s neighbors will be particularly keen to see what a world-class military for China entails. Would this mean increasingly militarization? Would Xi look to impose his vision of regional leadership on Asia? Is Xi content with the “progress” China has made in the South China Sea? For now, as Xi rebalances his attention inward, and as MOFA increases its influence, we should expect the status quo to remain: a more robust, confident, and assertive foreign policy.

Dylan Loh is a graduate research fellow at the Centre of Rising Powers and PhD candidate at the Politics and International Studies Department, Cambridge University. He is also affiliated with the Public Policy and Global Affairs Division at Nanyang Technological University. He tweets @dylanloh.