After the 19th: What Happened, What Didn’t, and What Now?

Since the curtain fell on the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October 2017, Chinese politics have been dominated by the supposed devotion of all 86 million Party members to the thoughts of General Secretary Xi Jinping. In large part, that is because the Party’s propaganda apparatus has swung into high gear, saturating state media with paeans to a seemingly omnipotent Xi and looped visuals of CCP members earnestly studying Xi’s concepts, as distilled from the Party Congress. Xi also staged a piece of smart political theater shortly after the Congress when he visited Shanghai, with the entire new Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) in tow, to pay homage to the place where the CCP was founded.

Unsurprisingly, the 24/7 “Xi cycle” in the immediate aftermath of the Congress merely reinforced a mainstream consensus that already stood ready to crown Xi as China’s “most powerful leader since Mao.” But now that the tidal wave of commentary has subsided, a little distance allows for a little more complexity.

Xi’s remarks at the Congress heralded a “new era,” placed on the same footing as the epochs of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the CCP’s two most powerful prior supremos. And the Congress enshrined Xi’s ideological canon as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” placing it, and by extension the General Secretary himself, into the CCP constitution.

It is certainly true that these headline outcomes of the 19th have bolstered and solidified Xi’s stature. But behind the headlines, the outcomes of the Congress say much about institutional developments and the evolving role of norms in the CCP.

The Chinese Communist Party has incubated both “hard” and “soft” norms, and then institutionalized these in personnel selection, especially at the apex of the system with the seven members of the PBSC. Viewed from this perspective, the new PBSC reflects an evolution of these norms but by no means abandoned them. Thus Xi is neither as omnipotent as some have presumed nor a wholesale “wrecker” of longstanding Party norms as some have tried to argue. Rather, Xi bent certain Party norms, especially its soft norms, while opting for continuity and stability with its harder norms.

This means that any post mortem reflection on the 19th needs to look not just at whether this or that personnel call proved to be right or wrong—and at what we got right and wrongbut also whether existing norms held or were abandoned.

And so this short post mortem begins with a look back at the various scenarios we laid out prior to the 19th, then examines indications of who is likely to play pivotal roles in the new administration. Finally, we tease out some signals of what to expect as Xi’s new administration shifts from playing politics to the challenges of actually governing China for another five years.

We aim to reckon not just with Xi’s personal accumulation of power but with the constraints and challenges that his administration still confronts. As a “first draft,” written just a few months after the Congress, it will require revisiting and refining over Xi’s second term through 2022. We will continue to do that in the analysis and commentary we plan to regularly post here on The Committee.

Who Made It?

In retrospect, the “Xi Men,” which is what we had titled our base case scenario, essentially won the day (see original base case). In The Committee’s pre-Congress analysis of Chinese elite politics, that base case was built upon the presumption that Xi would weaken soft norms, such as seniority and the need for significant executive experience for promotion to the PBSC. But we also made the case that Xi would nonetheless adhere to the hard norm of age limits, not least to avoid a major disruption to the transition.

Based on this analysis and prediction, the “Xi Men” base case came very close indeed to correctly predicting the composition of the new PBSC:

Our Base Case

  1. Xi Jinping (Age 64)
  2. Li Keqiang (Age 62)
  3. Li Zhanshu (Age 67)
  4. Wang Yang (Age 62)
  5. Wang Huning (Age 62)/Zhao Leji (Age 60)
  6. Chen Min’er (Age 57)
  7. Hu Chunhua (Age 54)

Actual PBSC Outcome

  1. Xi Jinping (Age 64)
  2. Li Keqiang (Age 62)
  3. Li Zhanshu (Age 67)
  4. Wang Yang (Age 62)
  5. Wang Huning (Age 62)
  6. Zhao Leji (Age 60)
  7. Han Zheng (Age 63)

In light of this outcome, it seems clear that Xi disregarded some soft norms but held fast to the hard norm of the age limit. This is most clearly evident in the fact that Wang Qishan, Xi’s confidante and anticorruption enforcer, was compelled to formally step down from the PBSC at the age of 69, just as our base case had forecast.

But while Wang Qishan may be out of the PBSC, he is not necessarily finished in Chinese politics; indeed, we expect him to continue exerting both formal influence in the Chinese government and informal influence as a longtime Party grandee. Party positions have strict age limits, but government roles in China do not. So we believe there is a high likelihood that Wang Qishan will now secure the non-Party position of Vice President of China and maintain a broad portfolio, including foreign policy and potentially as an envoy for US-China relations, while also kibitzing on economic, financial and institutional matters through private channels of influence as well.

The dichotomous pattern of sticking with hard norms while ditching soft norms can be seen in other high-level personnel appointments too. Take the examples of Zhang Chunxian and Liu Qibao, viable candidates for the PBSC who met the soft norm of seniority and significant prior executive experience, but nonetheless were passed over for younger candidates more closely tied to Xi himself.

An example of a candidate who won promotion in this context is Wang Huning. His elevation surprised nearly all observers yet we had predicted it in our base case. Wang Huning is a behind-the-scenes policy wonk with deep experience in the Central Committee research office but zero prior executive experience managing a province, municipality or government ministry. As a backroom player, he was far from a household name in China or abroad. Still, our pre-19th predictions on The Committee successfully called Wang’s elevation to the PBSC, again in part because we viewed Xi as likely to abandon soft norms in favor of other criteria to promote his close colleagues.

Wang Huning’s elevation should, therefore, be viewed within the context of Xi’s dramatic re-centralization of authority back to the Party, wresting power away from the government structure under China’s State Council and its assorted commissions and ministries. Over the past five years, Xi has empowered central, Party-based coordination bodies or “small leading groups” (lingdao xiaozu) as nodes of decision-making, thus weakening the state bureaucracy and accordingly the State Council led by the Premier. This political restructuring gave the Central Committee’s executive and policy research offices, including the one run by Wang Huning, new weight and authority to both influence decisions and even implement policies. Wang Huning, who ran the Central Committee policy shop, was a fixture at Xi’s side throughout his first term and seems to have stood out because Xi prizes new and grand ideas, perhaps more than his predecessors. Wang Huning had long been known as an in-house Party “ideas man”; he even appears to have been responsible for coining the slogan “Chinese Dream”—closely associated with Xi and one of the first all-encompassing ideas Xi launched as something of a governing platform when he became CCP General Secretary.

One of Xi’s major agendas from the very outset has been to fill what he clearly perceives as a gaping ideological void, attempting to refashion and rebuild the CCP’s legitimacy around bold and enduring ideas that can serve as a rallying cry for the Chinese public. And Wang Huning’s skill set seems to have fit what the General Secretary demanded. For example, the Chinese Dream gained traction because, among other things, it was so different from the turgid and grating slogans the CCP had heretofore offered. Not surprisingly, then, Wang Huning now helms the Party’s propaganda apparatus, where he can continue to develop and trot out ideas aimed at mobilizing the Chinese public and implementing the CCP’s concepts, including to vigorously defend its authoritarian governance model. Already, his fingerprints are visible in state media, with the Chinese Dream resurgent in Xinhua and the People’s Daily in the months since the 19th Congress.

One last example of how norms ultimately shaped the succession involves Zhao Leji, another longtime Party stalwart and bureaucrat who we also predicted would be promoted in our pre-19th Congress base case. In addition to having a Shaanxi province connection to Xi (who grew up in Beijing but is technically a native of Shaanxi), Zhao’s tenure as head of the Party’s Organization Department—its human resources operation—meant that he was involved in the anticorruption campaign. The Organization Department oversees internal units that have been important to executing and supervising the campaign, so the fact that Zhao replaced Wang Qishan as head of the CCP Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CCDI) makes sense. In his new capacity, Zhao’s formal role heading up anticorruption work will differ from that of Wang Qishan. Specifically, Zhao is expected to focus on institutionalizing CCDI authority throughout the entire political system and at all levels of government, building on and solidifying Wang Qishan’s endeavors of the last five years.

October Surprise: No “Successors”

Our base case for the PBSC also included two who didn’t make it, Chen Min’er and Hu Chunhua, next-generation candidates that we viewed as most likely to succeed Xi and Li Keqiang in the future.

While their non-promotion to the status of heirs apparent undermined some of our initial assumptions, we frankly do not ascribe to it as much significance as some observers have suggested. Their non-promotion does not, for example, automatically mean that Xi is bent on serving a third term as General Secretary, much less that Xi has discarded all norms. In fact, there are several other plausible reasons to explain why potential successors-in-waiting were not elevated at the 19th.

For one thing, clearly signaling the names of successors five years out by placing them on the PBSC is a soft norm of recent vintage. It seems to us to be more ad hoc than institutionalized. Consider, for instance, that former Premier Wen Jiabao did not make it onto the PBSC in 1997 at the 15th Party Congress but had to wait until the 16th in 2002 before assuming the premiership and moving up to the PBSC. By contrast, Hu Jintao did get a five-year apprenticeship on the PBSC before becoming General Secretary but was exceptional because the CCP patriarch, Deng Xiaoping, personally picked him as part of two successive generations of leaders.

Second, and relatedly, Xi’s “new era” in some ways represents a break from the Deng era yet in other ways marks continuity. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, Xi does not owe his political rise directly to Deng. And like Deng, Xi clearly understands that the “new era” will almost certainly outlast him, thus he will need disciples who can capably carry the torch of his era beyond his own tenure.

To put this a bit differently, Chen and Hu may still be Xi’s preferred successors, but he need not have been compelled to give his blessing at this point because he has already defined an era built around his own agenda and ideas, and this era could last as long as two decades.

What is more, now that Xi has written his own “thought” into the Party constitution, he already has a more exalted status than his peers on the PBSC, Politburo, and Central Committee. As such, Xi can anoint successors in the future at any time of his choosing while still preserving what we viewed as hard norms. The key to the CCP system has been, and will always be, how to manage a relatively stable and peaceful succession process; this does not require any given leader to publicly declare precisely when the chosen heirs become apparent.

Third, the current PBSC continues to have seven members, not the nine members that characterized the Jiang period. A smaller PBSC means that any inclusion of two successors would eat up slots on a smaller committee, thereby reducing Xi’s options for promoting other associates. If Xi is indeed now in a position to anoint successors at his own discretion, then there was no strong reason for him to “waste” two of just five slots on leadership apprenticeships when promoting the likes of Wang Huning and Zhao Leji was more important to actually carrying out his policy agenda for the next five years.

In fact, we remain of the view that Xi is unlikely to formally serve a third term as General Secretary. Instead, we expect that he will eventually designate a successor but, even after that, will still remain the most influential elder within the Party no matter his formal title. If this predicted scenario sounds familiar, that is because it is precisely the model that Deng Xiaoping adopted before he passed away in 1997, to ensure that his influence and the broad political consensus behind his ideas would live on. And it did live on for another 20 years until Xi unveiled his new era in 2017. Notably, such a model has been employed elsewhere, including by another Asian leader that the CCP has long admired: Singapore’s Lee Kuan-Yew, who retired as Prime Minister but then continued to lead his nation as “Minister Mentor.”

Sorting Signals from Noise

It is still early days, and so it is hard to divine concrete economic policies on the basis of the 19th Congress outcome alone, especially since China’s new government, including the core economic team, will not be appointed until March 2018. However, a few macro takes on China’s broad trajectory can be teased out:

  • Xi emerged from the 19th Congress at the apex of his power but he is far from omnipotent. Although the new 25-member Politburo is stacked with a considerable number of Xi’s allies, local resistance to various decrees and policies from Zhongnanhai will not be fully stifled. That means pockets of resistance to Xi’s agenda will persist because the fierce anticorruption politics of his first term have surely alienated not just individuals but fomented resentment among interest groups.

 

  • The broad centralization of policymaking and political power from the state to the CCP and then within the CPP itself should, in principle, mean that Xi’s team is well positioned to execute and further advance a sweeping reform agenda that some believe has stalled. Still, successfully implementing that agenda will continue to depend on balancing the interests of China’s central and local authorities. The 19th Congress unveiled a “post-growth” platform, a shift in priority that should not be underestimated. But the new platform, if pursued to its full extent, will inevitably make local governments into losers, since they have been the biggest beneficiaries of the current “growth mandate” model of development.

 

  • The anticorruption campaign will continue in earnest but will likely take a different form from the “shock and awe” ferocity of the last five years. With the transition from Wang Qishan to Zhao Leji, the anticorruption agenda will become more institutionalized, rely more on the legal system and the courts, and use other tools and mechanisms to supervise local cadres. In other words, the approach will pivot from scorched earth to one focused increasingly on prevention, incentives, and selective punishment.

 

  • Financial discipline and managing debt remain top policy priorities for Xi, so this is an area where anticorruption and supervision will likely be stepped up. Local governments that engage in “financial innovation” or misrepresent the scope and scale of their debts could see more intensive crackdowns. At the central level, some of Wang Qishan’s CCDI protégés are now being placed into roles in China’s financial sector regulators, which suggests that the finance sector will continue to be a target-rich zone for anticorruption crackdowns and the imposition of Party discipline.

 

  • Ultimately, Xi’s political strategy seems to have borne at least some fruit in terms of elevating his allies, cementing his contribution to the CCP ideological canon, and realigning incentives to pursue a post-growth agenda. This shift likely means that Xi’s second term will focus more on improving governance and executing lagging reforms; it should be less consumed by the intense political gamesmanship and maneuvering that defined his first term.

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