The 6th plenary session of China’s Communist Party’s 18th Central Committee from 24 to 27 October in Beijing will be an important milestone before next year’s 19th Party Congress. The four-day long meeting will be the start for a year of preparations for the event. The coming year will also yield clues as to what extent Chinas President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping will be able to position his allies before the upcoming leadership reshuffle in the autumn of 2017.
MERICS President Sebastian Heilmann explains what is at stake.
How will Xi go about positioning his allies?
Sebastian Heilmann: A large number of key positions in the central party leadership will have to be filled at next year’s Party Congress. This includes at least five positions in the Politburo’s Standing Committee. Chinese party leaders typically promote confidants into key positions at the provincial level to groom them for positions in the Central Committee. These preparations seem to be well underway: within the past six months, more than one third of provincial party secretaries have been replaced.
What about Xi himself? Will the meeting provide clues on his successor?
A successor for Xi Jinping will not be installed until the 20th Party Congress in 2022. In line with recent tradition, the Party could name an “heir presumptive” at the 19th Party Congress. It could however be in Xi’s interest to leave the question open as long as possible while pushing potential successors into competition and therefore into submission.
Could Xi try to stay in power beyond 2022?
Breaking the ‘two-periods-only’ rule for top party and state leaders would be an extremely risky proposal, as it would create severe frictions among China’s political elite. The most likely scenario is that Xi will nominate one or two heir-presumptives next year. There could be one possible exception: I can imagine a scenario in which Xi could use a national economic or security crisis to stay in power for a third term.
In recent history, Communist Party elders had considerable influence on the leadership transition. How much influence do today’s elder statesmen yield over Xi?
Xi will make sure to consult them on the future leadership line-up – this has been an important Party norm since the 1980s. But the level of involvement of elders at present is unclear. We have evidence that former Premier Zhu Rongji has offered scathing criticism of recent economic policies in non-public meetings. Former president and party leader Jiang Zemin has long seemed to remain politically passive, either due to ill health or due to corruption allegations against family and protégés. But if they worked in tandem, as they did when they were in office, Jiang and Zhu would be in the position to question Xi’s rigid top-down approach to policy-making and his costly foreign policy ambitions.
How strong are Xi’s own networks? Does he have inner-party rivals?
Currently, I do not see evidence of clearly delineated rival ‘factions’ which dominated Chinese politics from the 1950s to the 1980s. Today, we rather find political patronage and loyalty networks based on shared backgrounds. These networks can be found in any political system. What is unusual currently is the emerging predominant position of Xi Jinping and his closest advisors in policy-making. At the same time, we have seen a weakening of Youth League networks, which provided some powerbase for Premier Li Keqiang.
What are the issues in China in the run-up to next year’s Congress?
This Central Committee meeting will give us clues about China’s political future. The 6th Plenum will authorise establishing a Preparatory Committee for the 19th Party Congress. It will be in charge of an assessment of current policies and recommendations going into the future. China’s leaders face many urgent issues. They have to find ways to reduce industrial overcapacities, especially in the steel and coal sector. They also have to deal with inflated real estate prices as well as with surging levels of public and private sector debt. National security will be another focus. This includes debates on the effectiveness of measures to strengthen societal control.
What is the future of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign?
We will have to see if the anti-corruption campaign will enter a new phase. After thousands of senior cadres were prosecuted and arrested during the past four years, party discipline and accountability appear to have been generally strengthened. Xi saw this clean-up campaign as a matter of life and death for the CCP, but he may decide that the time has come to loosen the pressure on cadres and to give more leeway to ground-up initiative again. This might make it easier to rebuild inner-party compromise and to facilitate more effective policy implementation before next year’s Congress.
How would you describe Xi’s style of governance?
Xi Jinping’s style of governance can be characterized as ‘Upgrading Leninism for the 21st century’. Xi in part wants to restore the hierarchical system and ideological discipline of the early decades of the Communist Party. His smart and innovative approach lies in combining these traditional methods with the advanced technological and communicative instruments of the 21st century, from big data-enabled mass surveillance to government-regimented social media or public image campaigns.
Can this centralized leadership style be successful?
From a narrow focus on centralized political control and discipline, Xi has made a lot of progress in the past years. But his approach is much less flexible than the explorative governance under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, in which many reforms originated in bottom-up initiatives. The centralization of political decision-making under Xi appears to cause outright paralysis in local administrative action and policy implementation. And this local paralysis entails the risk of ultimately producing serial policy failures.