Hidden Gems in Xi Jinping’s Address to the Party Congress

So it has begun. General Secretary Xi Jinping opened the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on October 18 with a 32,000-character speech that lasted three and half hours. The media will be preoccupied with parsing what Xi said and omitted, and their relative significance, for days to come.

In the meantime, we wanted to highlight three details from the speech that caught our attention, but are likely to be overlooked in the firehose of coverage.

Happiness (幸福)

In his speech, Xi presented a strategic blueprint for the next 32 years. Given that CCP norms dictate that Xi will retain the General Secretary position for another five years only, he is effectively seeking to shape the governing priorities of the three Chinese leaders that will succeed him, much as Deng Xiaoping did (although Deng also hand-picked his successors). What’s driving Xi is not mere ego, but an understanding that the social contract—which, in one form or another has defined the Chinese government’s responsibilities to the governed since Deng—has passed its use-by date, and that the government’s priorities must change accordingly.

That contract was built upon rapid economic growth and rising incomes that allowed households to live more comfortably in exchange for political acquiescence. However, part of the populace–large in absolute numbers, but still small relative to the overall size of the population—has already achieved a level of material wellbeing at which lifestyle issues (that is, things that money can’t buy) have become increasingly important. People with money send their children abroad to university because they don’t feel the local system can deliver quality education; they buy imported groceries to ensure that their food isn’t contaminated; they take overseas holidays when pollution gets too bad. One thing that came through clearly in the speech is that Xi recognizes that with prosperity, the expectations of the public are changing, and so must the role of the party.

“We must regard as our goal the people’s aspirations to live a better life,” Xi said Wednesday. “The needs to be met for the people to live a better life are increasingly broad. Not only have their material and cultural needs grown; their demand for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security, and a better environment are increasing.”

Of course, less affluent Chinese citizens also yearn for all those things. In fact, if anything, they’re more exposed to abuses within the system, whether it be the arbitrary expropriation of their land by local officials, or the pollution of their fields by factories. However, over the years Beijing has built up a highly sophisticated apparatus for keeping a lid on their frustrations and preserving social stability.

What’s changed is China’s rising wealth. And as more people enter the ranks of the well-off (Xi’s vision is that by 2050, “common prosperity for everyone [will be] basically achieved”), demands for the CCP to do more than just deliver growth and stability will grow more acute. Xi made clear in his speech that in the future, the CCP will have to be concerned about not just people’s material wellbeing, but their “feelings of happiness” as well.

Corruption and Party Building

Comparing Xi’s speech to that given by his predecessor Hu Jintao (Xi chaired the committee that drafted Hu’s speech) at the 18th Party Congress five years ago may offer some guidance as to how the General Secretary’s priorities will change during his second term.

Structurally, the 19th Congress report is laid out—section by section—in a fairly similar manner to the 18th report. Therefore, contrasts and similarities between comparable sections in the two reports can offer hints and indications of change or stasis. Both speeches have a section dedicated to describing the key challenges facing the country. In both, the first half—dedicated to economic development—is almost identical. However, in the latter half of the 18th Congress report Hu spoke extensively about corruption and the weakening of Party institutions. In hindsight, that signaled what would become the dominant feature of Xi’s first five years in office, a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that ran parallel to efforts to strengthen Party discipline. It is perhaps not a stretch to assume that Xi probably had a hand in getting some of that language into the 18th report.

But in the latest 19th Congress report, Xi hardly mentioned corruption at all in the same paragraph when speaking of the nation’s challenges, while only highlighting that there’s still more to do in terms of party building. That may signal that politics is set to be deemphasized during Xi’s second term, as has long been argued by our colleagues. According to them, Xi prioritized party building and anti-corruption in his first term in order to create the conditions necessary for economic reforms in his second term.

Unbalanced and Inadequate (不平衡,不充分)

In 2007, Premier Wen Jiabao famously said that the Chinese economy was “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.” At the previous 18th Congress, General Secretary Hu offered a slightly trimmed version, calling it “unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.” During the 19th Congress report, Xi came up with his own formulation: China’s development is “unbalanced and inadequate.” Xi used it five times in the course of his speech.

Whereas Wen’s assessment of what ailed the economy was steeped in fatalism, Xi’s is confident and upbeat about the future. Moreover, Xi’s new catchphrase fits nicely with his diagnosis of what ails the economy—that is, it produces too much of some things, like steel and cement, making it unbalanced, and not enough of others, like semiconductors and high-end consumer goods, making it inadequate—which underpins his supply-side structural reforms, the centerpiece of his economic reform efforts.

Ultimately, unbalanced and inadequate is just a rhetorical flourish and doesn’t signal any looming shifts in policy. But as shorthand for what ails the economy, we’re likely to hear much more of this formulation.