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What the 19th Party Congress Revealed about China’s Direction Akio Takahara Professor The University of Tokyo [Date of Issue: 31/January/2018 No.0274-0275-1065]

Date of Issue: 31/January/2018

What the 19th Party Congress Revealed about China's Direction

Akio Takahara
The University of Tokyo

Announcement of the country's leaders and policy directions for the next five years make each National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), commonly known as the Party Congress, the object of keen international attention. Here I review and assess key points in the domestic and foreign policies indicated at the 19th Party Congress in October 2017.

Endorsement of a new “principal contradiction”

A major focus of attention at the recent Communist Party Congress was the party's endorsement of a new “principal contradiction” facing China's socialist society. In the past, the contradiction was between “the ever-growing material and cultural needs of the people and backward social production,” positioning greater productivity as the central task for the Communist Party in order to resolve that contradiction.

At the 19th Party Congress, however, the principal contradiction was redefined as between “unbalanced and inadequate development and the people's ever-growing needs for a better life.” According to Chinese President Xi Jinping, those “ever-growing needs for a better life” comprise not only “material and cultural needs” but also the people's “demands for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security, and a better environment.”

The democracy and rule of law to which Xi Jinping refers are of course different concepts from what is understood in Japan and the West—democracy within the bounds of one-party rule, and not rule of law so much as rule by law. Nevertheless, the avowed pursuit of “democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security, and a better environment” represents a bold acknowledgment of the distance between what the people want and the current state of Chinese society.

Emphasis on party leadership

However, nowhere in the course of his long three-hour, 20-minute address did Xi Jinping suggest the redistribution of income, the realization of political rights, or other such solutions to the new principal contradiction. Rather, it was the strengthening of the party's leadership that dominated, along with the extensive use of abstract slogans and an accent on nationalism. While the president did provide some explanation of the basic approach to the new thinking proposed for a new era, his primary emphasis was on upholding party leadership in all activities, quoting a phrase coined by Mao Zedong: “Party and government, military, civilian and learning—east, west, south, north and center—the party is leader of all.”

The need for this heavy emphasis on party leadership arises from the fundamental dilemma of how to balance the modernization wrought by China's reform and opening up policy with stronger party leadership. In other words, modernization comprises both the upgrading of “hardware” implied by the Four Modernizations and “soft” social changes such as the introduction of institutions, democracy, rule of law, market economy, and transparency.

Looking back on the Mao Zedong era and the abuse of power and turmoil of the Cultural Revolution symbolized by the slogan “revolution is not a crime; rebellion is justified,” Deng Xiaoping and his collaborators sought to promote modernization from both sides, but the more progress was made on institutionalization and democratization, etc., the less place there was for party leadership, with party control weakening accordingly. Spurred by the fear of losing power, the party would react by tightening its grip, creating a cycle of letting go and pulling back control. What we are seeing now is China in a strong pull-back phase.

Reflection in actual policy

In terms of actual policy, on the economic front the 19th Party Congress emphasized participation in management by party operatives within companies. The Chinese Communist Party Constitution as revised at the Party Congress clearly states that the party organizations will engage in debate and decision-making on important matters at state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in line with regulations. Foreign companies and private enterprises will be carefully watching what happens with joint ventures with SOEs and how stronger party leadership will be rolled out across the entire economic arena.

Modernization is in some respects Westernization. The CCP has become more sensitive than ever to the influence of foreign countries on Chinese society. A good example is the CCP's policy on religion. The past two Party Congress reports have pledged to “enhance the active role of the religious circle and faithful in boosting social and economic development.” The 19th Party Congress, however, marked a major departure in this regard, noting that the CCP would “uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society.” More rigorous supervision can be expected over Christianity, Islam and Tibetan Buddhism, etc.

Hard and soft foreign policy

On the foreign policy front, the Congress suggested both hard and soft approaches. Xi Jinping called on China to following a path of peaceful development and build a community with a shared future for mankind, stating that China would never pursue development at the expense of others' interests. At the same time, he also indicated that China will never give up its legitimate rights and interests, noting severely that “No one should expect us to swallow anything that undermines our interests,” and that “we must fully implement the Party's thinking on strengthening the military for the new era.”

Greater power and authority should make it easier for Xi Jinping to adopt a modern foreign policy line without fear of being criticized at home for weak diplomacy, but the president's personality and readings of his unspoken wishes within government and military could also conceivably push China toward taking actions that affect foreign countries. Another possibility is that an economic slowdown could lead China to approach Japan in search of economic benefit. However, if Chinese society destabilizes, it could also become increasingly tempting for the government to strengthen its own power base by stirring up nationalism regardless of friction caused with other countries.

The chances and risks of the centralization of power

Xi Jinping has shouldered the task of a great revival of the Chinese people. More power will allow him to move more aggressively on corruption and other difficult challenges, but fear of their leader might also see party executives reluctant to make their own decisions, locking in a tendency to leave everything up to their superior officer and to higher institutions. While Xi Jinping doubtless makes quick decisions on his focus issues, if too many questions are awaiting his attention, it will become increasingly difficult to find fast and appropriate solutions to all of them—which is presumably why Deng Xiaoping introduced a collective leadership system back in his day.

The keys to forecasting Chinese prospects will be whether the people's growing demands can be satisfied—that is, whether Xi Jinping's statecraft can produce results. The situation is reminiscent of the 1978 discussion on the issue of “truth standards,” which concluded that “practice is the only standard to test truth.” Deng Xiaoping's aim at the time was to free the Chinese people from the yoke of Mao Zedong thought and wrest power from the hands of Mao's successor Hua Guofeng, who was promoting his own personality cult. Will history repeat itself here?

About the Author
Akio Takahara
Professor, The University of Tokyo

Professor of Contemporary Chinese Politics at the Graduate School of Law and Politics, the University of Tokyo. Graduated from the Faculty of Law, University of Tokyo in 1981 and completed a Masters at the Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom in 1983, taking his doctorate at the University of Sussex in 1988. Became a Visiting Scholar at the Consulate-General of Japan in Hong Kong in 1989, a full-time lecturer in the International Studies Department of J.F. Oberlin University in 1991, and associate professor at the same in 1993. In 1995, he became associate professor at Rikkyo University and professor at the same in 2000, taking up his current post in 2005. His publications include Japan-China Relations in the Modern Era (co-author, Routledge, 2017) and Tōdaijuku: Shakaijin no tame no gendai chūgoku kōgi [Todaijuku: Public lectures on modern China] (co-editor, 2014, Tōkyōdaigaku Shuppankai).

(For the Japanese version of this article)

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