Originally published in the Financial Times, 22 October 2017
The 19th Chinese Communist party congress has generated much commentary, but what does it actually mean? Party congresses are essentially about three things: first, leadership, personnel and power; second, ideology; third, political vision.
On the first, President Xi Jinping has further strengthened his position. He is now China’s paramount leader. Five years ago I said he would be China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping. I was wrong. He is now China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Mr Xi has maintained an iron grip on the party through an anti-corruption campaign that has seen 278,000 officials punished, 440 at ministerial rank and above, including many politburo rivals. The campaign will continue. By midweek we will also see a new line-up for the Politburo Standing Committee, which will primarily reflect Mr Xi’s personal selection.
This congress points to Mr Xi continuing as China’s paramount leader beyond the next five years, and possibly for the next 15. His marathon speech last week emphasised completion of China’s next national mission by 2035, part of progress to becoming a major global power by mid-century. The inference is we will see Mr Xi in office through to the 2030s.
What about his ideology? Mr Xi holds that China will remain permanently governed through a Leninist party controlling a one-party state. To suppose, as many in the west have, that China will gradually transform into something approaching a Singaporean or western-style democracy is the stuff of dreams.
Mr Xi outlines two grand objectives: from 2020 — 2035, China will become a “fully modern” economy and society; this to be followed by a further 15 years to 2050, when China’s quest for national wealth and power will come to fruition as it assumes great power status. This coincides with the centenary of the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. By then, Mr Xi plans for China to have become “a global leader of composite national strength and international influence”.
On China’s role in the world, we should look at Mr Xi’s speech from November 2014. He spoke of a new type of great power relations, for which read a new parity in US-China relations; a new international system whose underlying rules will be increasingly shaped by China; and a more activist and assertive Chinese diplomacy.
Chinese history provides little guidance on how China should act as a global power. Most national historiography has focused on domestic governance and how to stop foreigners from entering the country. While the precise shape of what Mr Xi calls a “global community of common destiny for all humankind” is hard to discern, the message is clear: get ready for a new wave of Chinese international policy activism.
The third dimension is policy. Here, the central question is the economy. Will Mr Xi take up the challenge of implementing the party’s 2013 economic reform blueprint for transforming China from a low-wage, labour intensive manufacturing power based on exports, to a high-wage economic model based on technology-driven productivity growth and exploding service sector? If he does this, the long-term economic dividend for China will be the entrenchment of its position as the world’s largest economy.
The list of what could go wrong in Beijing’s policy project is formidable. But it would be reckless to assume, as many do in Washington, that China’s transition to global pre-eminence will implode under the weight of the political and economic contradictions alleged to be inherent in the Chinese model.
The west needs to reflect on its own condition. Since the fall of the Soviet Union there has been little strategic direction about the idea of the west itself, and the core elements of the liberal democratic and capitalist project. Instead, the west is increasingly self-absorbed, self-satisfied, and globally complacent. China is marching towards its perception of its global destiny. It has a strategy. The west has none.
The writer, a former prime minister of Australia, is president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, New York