China’s 19th Party Congress and Leadership Renewal
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By Yongnian Zheng

China’s 19th Party Congress and Leadership Renewal

Oct. 16, 2017  |     |  0 comments

The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will convene in Beijing on October 18, 2017. The most hotly discussed topic within and outside of China is the party leadership, particularly of the country’s supreme decision-making body — the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).

There have been many guesses and predictions about who’s in and who’s out of the PSC in the lead up to the 19th Party Congress. All these conjectures are fueled by observers’ fascination about Chinese politics, especially about political struggles, cliques, successor regime, etc.

Leadership renewal is always an important issue for any country. In the West, during an election year, a country’s affairs may be totally consumed by the question of who will be the new president or head of state. In China, things are much simpler.

China’s leaders are not chosen via the West’s electoral system. Instead, a batch of promising cadres is first selected through a highly complicated system and then they are voted into the leadership by members of the central committee. It is this selection system that most baffles the West.

The West may not understand this system, but it is a manifestation of a strong and stable CPC as a ruling party. Some like to criticize China’s politics using Western ideologies and value systems. Others like to make use of Western concepts and theories to interpret China’s government. What the former gets is a subjective bias, and the latter a superficial or even erroneous understanding of China’s politics.

In actual fact, since China’s reform and open-door policy — and particularly from the 1990s — there has been an observable pattern in the selection of the top leadership. To put it simply, the CPC is not just a ruling party, it is a party with a mission. In other words, the CPC gains its political legitimacy to rule through the fulfilment of its missions.

The CPC has always regarded survival and development as its missions. It is with these goals in mind that the leadership is formed. We can only understand China’s leadership selection system under this framework. It is thus obvious that the CPC has evolved its selection system based on whether its leaders can carry out its objectives.

This stands in sharp contrast to how political parties work in the West. Political parties in the West seem to have lost their dynamism and place more importance on the personas than on the tasks at hand. Whenever there is a new government, there will be upheavals not just in personnel but also in policies. The newcomer may even tear down his predecessor’s work totally.

Ever since popular democracy started to become widespread in the West, the ruling class has not been able to see eye to eye regarding their countries’ development. The main political parties seem to be perpetually vetoing each other’s policy recommendations. As a result, politics and the economy have become the greatest casualties.

America is a case in point. In the eight years that Barack Obama was in power, the high popular support he enjoyed could not be translated into effective policy making. His healthcare reform, with a small coverage of only 30 million people, met with huge obstacles. When Donald Trump came into office, he totally upended Obama’s policies, including Obamacare, the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, the Paris climate accord, etc. The American public has never faced uncertainty on this scale ever before.

On the other hand, China makes use of its people to realize the goals of the ruling party. The CPC, having persevered from the revolutionary struggles of pre-1949 to the reform and opening up of the post-1970s, not only achieved the transformation of China’s economy, it also successfully transitioned from a party with a mission to a full-fledged ruling party. In terms of theory and practical experience, the CPC is a mature ruling party when compared to other political parties in the world. No one will question its status as the main political body in China.

The Different Missions of the CPC

How do we assess the maturity of the CPC? First, in terms of historical periods. Although Mao Zedong’s era was fraught with mistakes, it would be wrong to deny that that period was full of revolutionary ideals. Deng Xiaoping’s mission was to reform and open up China to the outside world and it met with huge success. In the new era after the 18th Party Congress, the CPC has given itself new missions, such as realizing the “China Dream,” “Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation,” “Four Comprehensives,” etc.

Second, in terms of personnel. From Mao to Deng to the present, the CPC has always placed politics over personnel. It is after determining politics that the personnel are arranged. However, the politics of each era is also closely related to that period’s missions. In the 1980s, reformists such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were chosen because they were deemed capable of leading the CPC in accomplishing its missions. After the 1990s, a new leadership was installed because the CPC changed its missions according to the times.

We can see an obvious pattern in the leadership selection of the 19th Party Congress. It is to select and promote the cadres who are most capable of realizing the CPC’s missions.

Analysts from the West are particularly interested in “cliques” in the CPC, which is a topic most commonly related to the discussion of the top leadership in the CPC. Cliques, or factions, are actually ingrained in Western political culture. In fact, political parties in the West are born from factions. Hence the West should be familiar with the concept.

In the West, factions arise out of the different interests of different groups. In order to understand why China does not have Western-type factions, we first need to understand how the CPC embraces and absorbs the interests of different cliques. There is no doubt that the reform and opening up of China has resulted in different groups who have their own interests to look after. This phenomenon can be found in the CPC as well. Yet, at the same time, the CPC has become increasingly better at embracing different interests.

In a world where countries are finding it hard to reach a consensus about their internal affairs and where political parties are at opposite ends of policy recommendations, China is one of the rare nations which have political unity and a healthy economy. Other countries are puzzled by — yet envious of — this feat.

How does the CPC, as a unifying force, achieve this? First, the CPC recognizes that it has its missions. Once the party agrees on the missions, all other interests in the party must abide by them. If any group or viewpoint does not conform to the missions, they will be marginalized. If they go against the missions, they will be eliminated.

Second, there is a reasonable amount of “struggle” in the CPC. These “struggles” are actually debates and negotiations about policies and the problems from which consensus has been arrived. The purpose of these “struggles” is to unite the party.

Another “struggle” that is of equal importance is the anti-corruption campaign. The CPC has always linked the fight against corruption to the survival of the party and the country. Since the 18th Party Congress, there have been many large-scale campaigns to weed out corruption from the CPC. One of the aims of these campaigns is to inflict damage on the cliques.

Leadership Transition at the 19th Party Congress

In this sense, the anti-corruption campaign has important significance for the top leadership and the successor regime of the CPC. After the 18th Party Congress, most of the people who were nabbed were retired senior officials, including members of the PSC. Recently, however, many who are being investigated are current officials, including PSC members and members of the Central Military Commission. This has led observers to believe that there is something brewing with regard to the selection of the successor regime.

From these trends, we can see an obvious pattern in the leadership selection of the 19th Party Congress. It is to select and promote the cadres who are most capable of realizing the CPC’s missions.

In the West, there are some people who are beginning to take notice of these political changes. However, they remain apprehensive about Chinese politics because they do not understand the system.

American scholar Francis Fukuyama said that although China has a good political system, it cannot avoid having a “bad emperor.” This is consistent with the Western understanding of China. But we have to note that democracy in the West did not prevent the emergence of “bad emperors” too. The Western electoral system cannot guarantee that the best person will be elected into office, and was not able to stop the election of dictators like Hitler and Mussolini.

However, we need to admit that China, throughout its long history, has had its fair share of bad emperors. These malevolent rulers destroyed everything their predecessors had accomplished. The West has been using this traditional lens to scrutinize the current Chinese leaders. Although the power of the CPC may resemble in some parts the power wielded by the emperors, there is a fundamental difference between the two. The CPC has collective power, while the emperors had personal and familial powers.

In sum, China has a mature and established system for selecting its cadres. One important criterion that applies to all, from the top leadership to normal officials, is that they need to have extensive experience in running the government and the country. Unlike some democratic countries which have elected “low quality” leaders, China has not fallen into this trap. Simply put, China will never produce someone like Trump, a leader who has zero experience in government.

(Translated by Chean Chian Cheong)

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