The Communist Party of China recently held its 19th National Congress, a major event where everyone with a semblance of power in the party meets to discuss policy, ideology, and leadership. From October 18th to 24th, the party amended guiding documents, elected new members to the congress, and, most notably, amended the party’s constitution by including the political thought of President Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the party and current leader of China.
“Xi Jinping Thought,” as it is formally referred to, consists of ten clauses, with half of them focusing on solely the military. Four are dedicated to thoughts on Chinese society, with the final one referencing foreign policy, specifically the One Belt One Road initiative. Specific goals include “uphold[ing] justice while pursuing shared interests” and “strengthen[ing] the development of the People’s Liberation Army by enhancing its political loyalty, strengthening it through reform and technology, and running it in accordance with the law.”
Only two Chinese leaders have had their names enshrined in the party’s constitution: Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The inclusion of Jinping into the constitution raises him to the prior leaders’ respected level while also suggesting that China may be heading towards a rough and unpredictable future. Zedong and Xiaoping, while credited as monumental in Chinese society, are also known for presiding over periods of intense turmoil in China. For example, Zedong and the communists were integral in repelling Japanese invaders from mainland China during WWII but also instituted the controversial Cultural Revolution which claimed an estimated two million lives. Xiaoping introduced China to the global stage and ushered in a new era of economic prosperity, but is also responsible for the Tiananmen Square massacres which killed thousands of students.
While Jinping could possibly break tradition with his predecessors and have a serene and untroubled rule, it already seems unlikely that it will be viewed as such. One could draft a list similar to the one above of Jinping’s ‘accomplishments’ during his first term in office (at the congress, Jinping was unsurprisingly reaffirmed for a second term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party). He has successfully instituted an anti-corruption campaign that has witnessed the ousting of many officials inside the communist party—one might note that many of Jinping’s former rivals made their way onto this list as well. He has also rattled the international cage by building islands in the South China Sea, increasing tensions with America and South Korea in the process.
The inclusion of Xi Jinping Thought into the party’s constitution might signal even bigger events to come. China’s One Belt One Road policy has yet to be completed and will signal a new era of Chinese foreign investment, making China a global trading behemoth. It is also expected to promote Chinese soft power among participating developing countries, similar to the post-WWII American Marshall Plan.
Jinping has also promised to usher China into a “new era” by making it a “prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful” country. This phrase should raise eyebrows. While ‘prosperous’ and ‘beautiful’ seems straightforward, one would ask what Jinping means by ‘culturally advanced’ and ‘harmonious.’ Advanced in regard to whom? Harmonious on an internal or external measure? ‘Democratic’ seems empty, given the party’s authoritarian hold over the country and Jinping’s recent power grab in the party. However, ‘strong’ is the most curious choice here. If Jinping is referring to the country’s military, then that could infer a slew of actions to come. China’s military may lack the technological prowess of the United States military, but it has the largest land army in the world. It has routinely threatened U.S. ships in the South China Sea, and has started building a new submarine factory which will be the largest in the world. If China’s military technology could become even comparable to that of the U.S., then the size of its military could make up for lost power.
The mention of maintaining the rule of law and “upholding justice while pursuing shared interests” might also signal a subtler, more positive shift in the China. The government has a poor track record in enforcing a consistent and fair judicial agenda; however, the Jinping administration has curtailed the use of the death penalty and introduced more rights in favor of defendants and suspects in court. If Jinping means to streamline and strengthen China’s judicial system, then that would be an enormous shift in domestic policy. Taking on a more evidence-based and fairer approach to courts and punishments would certainly improve China’s image in the eyes of the world, given the amount of human rights violations that have been levied against the country.
China has a few options on where to go from here. If Jinping is looking to history for influence, he would do well to follow some of the examples of Xiaoping. Opening China to globalization brought many out of poverty and drastically raised the standard of living in the country, cementing his legacy as the one who liberalized China’s markets. Furthermore, learning from the Tiananmen Square massacre would also ensure that Jinping understands that his ability to suppress dissenters is limited; the outrage that followed dealt a blow to Xiaoping’s image and placating dissenting masses instead of shooting at them could serve Jinping’s reputation well.
In an ideal world, Jinping, now the most powerful man in China, would move to masterfully dismantle the communist party, open up free and fair elections to opposition parties, and place China on track to become a bastion of democracy and an enforcer of the global liberal order along with the U.S. Sadly, this will not happen. Jinping’s autocratic persona and frightful strengthening of the military during a period of global unrest signifies greater power moves than the liberal order should be comfortable with. However, it is possible that Jinping will still create a rule-based society that more strictly refers to the Chinese constitution than the whims of the communist party. While this will have little immediate effect on the rest of the world, it can be chalked up as a win for constitutionalism, especially in the most populous country in the world. Furthermore, the One Belt One Road initiative has the potential of bringing many regions of intense poverty up to semi-modern standards of living. While Chinese soft power and influence, especially that of Jinping himself, may need to be subtly combatted, liberal democracies would do well to look to either directly cooperate with China in its endeavors.