Quo vadis, China?

Following the French and German elections earlier this year, another major political event with global implications is about to take place: the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Delegates are set to vote for a new leadership, charting the country’s future course. What are the challenges China will be facing in the years ahead? What are the visions and policies pursued by President Xi Jinping? And what outcomes can be expected of the Congress? These were the top items on the agenda at the most recent event in the "Engaging with China" discussion series in Berlin.

David Weyand | October 2017
Photo: Thorsten Futh

"China has reached a critical point in its development, facing a multitude of political, economic, and social challenges," stated Thomas Henneberg, project manager in the Department International Relations America and Asia at the Robert Bosch Stiftung, in his welcome speech to the approximately 150 guests at the Foundation’s offices in Berlin. The discussion evening, organized in cooperation with the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), was moderated by China expert Dr. Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Director of MERICS’ Research Area on Public Policy and Society.

Other members of the panel included Professor Willy Wo-Lap Lam from Hong Kong and Professor David Shambaugh from the USA. Lam is Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies and the Department of History at Chinese University of Hong Kong, and author of Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping. Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression?. Professor Shambaugh, an authority on contemporary China and Asia, is Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science and International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and author of more than 30 books, including most recently China’s Future. What are these two observers’ expectations of the CPC Party Congress?


"The big Xi Jinping show"

When some 2,300 delegates get together in Beijing for a week starting October 18, 2017, the spotlight will largely be on one person: Xi Jinping. Having been China’s paramount leader for five years, the Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary is expected to cement his political agenda and his claim to power. Professor Lam is convinced that the President will succeed: "It’s no secret that Xi is a very charismatic leader as well as a Machiavellian politician who is well versed in forming effective alliances and marginalizing his enemies." This is why Lam expects Xi to get what he wants when it comes to people on the key party bodies, namely the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the Standing Committee of the Politburo. He could then incorporate his own approach to rule as ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the party constitution, a feat previously accomplished only by Mao Zedong. "This has been his goal since he took over five years ago," Professor Lam commented.

Professor Shambaugh does not expect any major surprises at the National Congress: "All party congresses are highly scripted events, nothing happens by chance.” According to Professor Shambaugh, there won’t be any major surprises. The only major uncertainty is who will become Premier—currently contested by Li Keqiang, Wang yang, and Wang Qishan. The expert explained that, to assert his claim to power, Xi had noticeably decimated any potential power bases or high-level political and military opponents over the last five years, primarily through the ongoing anticorruption campaign, which had caused the military, party and civil sphere "considerable stress." On top of that, Xi had undermined the standards of institutional decision-making – the collective leadership, a technocratic political approach, the separation of party and state – which had been adopted over four decades since Deng Xiaoping, Professor Lam argued. "Xi has broken a lot of iron rice bowls" - a euphemism for entrenched bureaucratic interests - Prof. Shambaugh commented.

Photo: Thorsten Futh

Public debt vs. ‘global innovation leader’

"Xi’s vision for China is one of a state and society that stands tall in the world", Professor Shambaugh observed. Xi wants to establish his country as a global innovation leader, a goal that has seen the government channel billions into different technology sectors. This corresponds with the observations of Professor Lam, who expects the coming decades to continue to be dominated by state-owned companies (SOEs), with only tentative experiments in privatization. He stated that though there were certain accomplishments in high-tech industries, such as artificial intelligence and robotics, the economic success would not be sustainable as it was based on a massive increase in public debt. In the event of a major economic crisis, Xi’s political power might be jeopardized, Professor Lam added. "This is why, besides economic growth, nationalism is a central element for Xi in his ambition to stay in power."

Is there any room for domestic criticism in China? "Not much," Professor Shambaugh replied. "Criticism is suppressed to make sure that alternative concepts to the Party’s are not even considered or gain a foothold," adding that the entire system seemed frozen as a result of the recent repression and anti-corruption campaign. "There is no life in the party. It’s like an organism without blood circulation," Professor Shambaugh observed.

There are aspects in which Professor Shambaugh judges Xi Jinping positively. One area is foreign and military policy. Contrary to his predecessors, Xi had made constructive contributions in various areas of global governance and has cut a good figure in the international arena. "Donald Trump’s election was a stroke of luck for Xi," Professor Lam added. He immediately stepped into the gap Trump has left in the international system. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ project – Xi Jinping’s signature initiative along with the ‘Chinese Dream,’ is attracting much attention worldwide. China also currently enjoys essentially sound bilateral relations with all nations in the world, except North and South Korea. In Europe, China is dramatically increasing its commercial presence.

To conclude the event, the host asked the two experts for their personal advice to young Chinese. Professor Shambaugh pointed to the importance of innovation to China’s future, which ultimately will rely on more than government investment, but will also require political openness and freedom of inquiry. Professor Lam’s reply: "Don’t give up on liberal principles and values, despite the political repression. Don’t let Xi Jinping and the propaganda of the party apparatus intimidate you. Keep going along the path that seems the more difficult; it will definitely be the more rewarding." Both experts shared similar views concerning the importance of political openness for China to have a successful future.