'Insignificant' CCP Congress Opens in Beijing

'Insignificant' CCP Congress Opens in Beijing
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

Although the perceived importance of this Congress is a rare instance of consensus between domestic and international China commentators, a counter-interpretation may be more revealing: nothing of actual significance will happen in Beijing this week.

As the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party opens in Beijing today, Chinese state media, international media and the "China watcher" community are engaged in an extended discussion of the meanings and implications of various expected shifts in policy and personnel.

Although the perceived importance of this Congress is a rare instance of consensus between domestic and international China commentators, a counter-interpretation may be more revealing: nothing of actual significance will happen in Beijing this week.

Xi Jinping and others will make "important speeches" — the standard state media description of speeches at these meetings. Moving beyond this label to the content, one will find strong admonitions against corruption, calls for further economic opening and claims that the state is dealing with hot-button issues like climate change and protectionism. All of these efforts will have comfortably remote deadlines for implementation. As a result, the content of this week’s "important speeches" will forever remain in the realm of rhetoric: they are considerably more important as speech acts than as policy.

‘Reform’ will undoubtedly be a keyword in these speeches. Yet as we approach four decades of reform, one unanswered question is what exactly ‘reform’ means today. China has now been in the era of reform a full decade longer than the Maoist era from which it is supposed to be reforming. Adding confusion to complexity, recent trends in economics, politics and culture suggest ever more determined efforts by the Party-state to exercise ever greater control, running counter to the original idea of reform. Is reform now to be reform away from previous reform? Do not expect clarification at this week’s meeting.

There will undoubtedly be a fair amount of fawning over Xi Jinping. In a familiar Congress ritual, ‘ethnic minority’ delegates with elaborate costumes marking their difference will express their love for China, the Party and Xi — the three are increasingly viewed as interchangeable. Are these rituals a sign of power, or of weakness? A leader and a Party confident of their legitimacy would not require the continual input of this much symbolic capital — the fawning praise that we will see this week is less a sign of strength than of a lack of other forms of legitimation.

The leadership cult has a long tradition in the People’s Republic of China. Despite some criticism in the post-Mao era, this tradition has never been fully abandoned, as can be seen in the recently much-discussed section of the Party Constitution that features the "theoretical contributions" that each leader has made. The failure to fully confront and overcome the legacy of the cult of personality after Mao has opened the door to the rise of the "cult of Xi" — a cult that will perhaps receive a boost through the incorporation of Xi’s thinking into the Party Constitution. Regardless of whether this happens or not, however, there will be no doubt about who is in control.

Finally, at the Party Congress at the end of a leader’s first five-year term, a successor is ideally designated to take power five years later. There is speculation that Xi may not name such a successor and may remain in power for longer than his expected two five-year terms.

Xi can certainly do so: an honest assessment of the political system in Beijing reveals that there are no real legal checks on leaders. What is then most surprising is not that a leader might deviate from this ideal image of succession, but rather that there was one time (and one time only) that a power transition matched this ideal narrative. To characterize Xi’s failure to designate a successor as deinstitutionalization then drastically overestimates the degree of leadership succession institutionalization in the Chinese Party-state. We are not witnessing a democratic system shifting toward authoritarianism, but rather a self-described dictatorship returning to a harder vision of dictatorship.

This week, speeches will be made, praise for the leader will be effusive and Xi will consolidate power further. By the end of the Congress, despite all of the discussion of personnel and policy, little will have actually changed. Any changes in politics, culture and society over the next five years will be shifts toward increasing control by the Party state — a trend that has already been undeniable since Xi’s rise to power five years ago.

As China scholars and analysts, we all want to have unique insights on emerging developments in China: this week, the Party Congress is grist for the mill. Yet this overvaluation of the meaning of the Congress and corresponding over-interpretation of personnel and policy runs the risk of playing into Xi’s game, portraying this meeting as a major turning point in China’s course under his "great man" leadership. And it misses the fundamental point that the Party Congress is at the end of the day an overhyped symbolic ritual through which many delegates nap, waking up only to give a rubber stamp to processes that were already well underway.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.