Following the 19th Party Congress in Beijing in October, western media expressed awe at Chinese President Xi Jinping’s acquisition of “unassailable power,” and Communist Party mouthpieces celebrated his “magnificent and inspiring” leadership. A closer look at the work report Xi delivered at the Congress, and policy implementation since then, indicates that the “road to national rejuvenation” will be bumpy. Xi may possess more power than any other Chinese leader in recent memory, but China’s ascent into a “new era” will hinge on the sequencing of competing policy priorities amid the Party’s “great struggle.”
This struggle was clear in the opening moments of Xi’s work report. Xi noted that China is in the “midst of profound and complex changes” with “severe challenges ahead.” And then, in what sounded like an exercise in justification, Xi proceeded to outline the scale of “historic change” in China under his watch: “We have made major achievements in economic development, contributing to more than 30 percent of global economic growth.” And, “thanks to the launch of over 1,500 reform measures, we’ve made breakthroughs in key areas.”
But “achieving national rejuvenation will be no walk in the park.” From cleaning China’s skies and managing financial risk to making China a “world-class science and technology country,” Xi’s “new vision of development” is sweeping in scope. As the headline outcome from the Congress makes clear, Xi is now in an empowered position to realize this vision. In an unprecedented development just five years into his term, Xi enshrined his “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in the Party Constitution. With this move, Xi has consolidated power unparalleled since Mao, and sealed his legacy into party canon.
If Xi wants the best for that legacy, he has his work cut out for him. By the time the Party celebrates its 100-year anniversary in 2021, China must “finish building a moderately prosperous society.” This deadline coincides with Xi’s second term. Xi may be powerful, but he now also has a mandate and the pressure to succeed. The question now becomes: how well do Xi and his colleagues work under pressure?
The existence of this pressure may be best revealed by the administrative flexibility with which Xi has equipped himself and his Party. His work report made no mention of prescriptive GDP targets, proposed a long-term timeframe for China’s development through 2049, and underscored that China “is still and will long remain in the primary stage of socialism.” In addition, by proclaiming a “new era,” Xi has freed himself from the Party’s past limitations and mistakes.
On the one hand, this flexibility could bring welcome changes to Chinese politics. Having consolidated power, Xi can now more easily push through his agenda which could give rise to more streamlined and clear-cut policy implementation versus the relatively opaque formulation and enforcement that characterized Chinese public policy in the past. Xi will want to make recognizable progress toward his stated goal of creating a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021 at whatever cost.
But how high will that cost be? The top-down policy structure cemented by Xi at the 19th Party Congress may conflict with on-the-ground reality. Natural gas shortages in northern China in recent months found provincial authorities there changing gears on a central-level policy calling for exclusive use of natural gas to improve air quality when other fuel sources were required to keep people warm. The episode reveals the limited bandwidth of the Party to realize all the visions of Xi’s new era. Xi may want to create a “beautiful China,” but the Party must also “serve the people.” The result of these competing priorities is volatile policy implementation.
This volatility will not be limited just to Chinese public policy. Per Xi’s work report, Chinese socialism in the new era “aims to foster a new type of international relations” in which China does not “swallow anything that undermines its interests.” This should warrant U.S. policymakers’ attention. Chinese interests and related policies in a range of areas, from information and communications technology to maritime security, increasingly do not square with those of the U.S. If Chinese policy under a pressured Xi is more volatile and assertive, then the U.S. must be prepared to thoughtfully engage.
About the author:
Kaj Malden graduated from Johns Hopkins University, SAIS with a concentration in China Studies and a minor in American Foreign Policy. Prior to enrolling at SAIS, Kaj worked in Beijing’s think tank community and taught at the School of Foreign Studies at the University of Science and Technology. Kaj is now a Project Consultant in the Government Relations practice at the Shanghai office of APCO Worldwide, a public affairs consultancy.