China, in all probability, will be even more belligerent after its historic 19th Communist Party Congress, which starts today, Wednesday, in Beijing.
At the Congress, General Secretary Xi Jinping, China’s strongman, is expected to consolidate power atop the world’s largest ruling party. Nonetheless, rumors persist that brutal infighting continues in the run up to the event. In truth, only a small number of insiders now know what will happen at the week-long gathering, and perhaps they too will be surprised.
Most every analyst believes Xi will continue to break the Party norms developed after the Maoist era to contain internal power struggles. He will, according to the majority view, retain a favored lieutenant, Wang Qishan, on the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China, even though Wang has exceeded an age limit. Many also think no successor to Xi will be named, a violation of another guideline, and perhaps the most important of them all.
If these predictions are correct, Xi, formally recognized as the “core” of the so-called Fifth Generation leadership, will be confirmed as the dominant figure in Chinese politics, holding more power than any other leader since the Second Generation’s Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s wily successor. Some even believe Xi will emerge from the Congress with power approaching Mao’s.
So, if Xi ends up with near-absolute power this month, what will Chinese foreign policy look like? The one thing we know is that external policies will, for the most part, be domestically driven.
“The direction of China’s foreign policy after the 19th Party Congress will largely be a function of Xi Jinping’s personal political needs and policy priorities,” RAND’s Scott Harold told The Cipher Brief.
“In most cases, Chinese foreign policy comes secondary to the political needs and policy preferences of the top leader, whose attention is usually focused first and foremost on the difficult task of managing intra-party factional maneuvering and the implications of China’s domestic politics for the continuation in power of the Chinese Communist Party.”
If Xi is strong internally after the Congress, it is possible he will pursue relatively benign foreign policies because there will be little or no domestic pressure to bolster his own standing. Yet there are two principal problems with the “Xi-will-be-gentle-and-kind” prediction.
First, Xi’s political base in the Communist Party is composed of its most hostile elements, especially a young officer corps un-tempered by the horrors of war and apparently itching to fight.
Comrade Jinping came to power a half decade ago without being identified with any of the Party’s leading factions; in other words, he was the consensus—least unacceptable—choice for the organization’s once-mighty power brokers. But since being named general secretary in November 2012, Xi has, after an unprecedented cycle of purges and promotions in the officer ranks, stitched together a political base, roiling the military in the process.
Notably, he removed two “tigers,” Generals Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. Recently, he has, as the New York Times put it “disappeared” two more senior generals, Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang.
The turnover is also evident from the fact that 90% of the military delegates at the 19th Congress will be first-timers.
A military-dominated base means that, whatever Xi personally believes, China’s external policies are bound to reflect those of his supporters in the officer ranks. Xi, no matter how dominant politically, is unlikely to move too far from the militant views pushed by his generals and admirals.
Why? As these officers, due to their unexpected promotion, are beholden to Xi, Xi has become beholden to them. Tai Ming Cheung of the University of California at San Diego may be correct when he told the New York Times that Xi now has more control over the People’s Liberation Army than Mao and Deng possessed, but there is reason to believe that the current ruler’s grip over the military is far less stable than theirs.
Xi carried out a massive reorganization of the officer corps in 2015 and undertook relentless purges. He has created not only losers but also enemies in the ranks. Xi, in short, is critically dependent on those he has favored to corral their fellow officers.
The continuing turnover in the ranks, in reality, is a sign that Xi’s control is not yet assured. If it were, there would be no need for further promotions, demotions, and jailings.
The relationship between Xi and the top brass is perhaps best illustrated by Beijing’s declaration of the East China Sea Air-Defense Identification Zone in November 2013. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was able to prevent the declaration although he was the weakest of all leaders of the People’s Republic.
The flag officers did not have to wait long after Hu retired to get their zone – it was declared within a year of Xi’s promotion to the Party’s top spot. Even if the military pushed on an open door, senior officers showed strength, illustrating a dangerous, new dynamic in Chinese military-civilian relations.
Also illustrative is Xi’s evident fondness for appearing in public in fatigues and military-like Mao garb. His wardrobe preferences are indications, if not of his mindset, then of his awareness of the importance of his base.
Second, Xi appears to believe China should at this moment, assert itself, as evident from his signature phrase, the “Chinese Dream.” This concept, sometimes expressed in the longer form “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” contemplates a strong and dominant state.
And, as Xi perceives China becoming stronger and more dominant, he is also becoming even less inclined to accept the international system as it is. Chinese leaders, Charles Burton of Brock University pointed out to me, have “no sympathy for the norms of liberal internationalism in global affairs.” And as Shiu Sin Por, a former Hong Kong government official and now a leading pro-Beijing figure puts it, “Xi Jinping isn’t just reforming China, he’s creating an alternative to the West.”
That assessment, which seems accurate, is ominous. Willy Lam, a noted China watcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, points out that “the China Model basically means ‘might makes right.’”
A politically strong Xi, therefore, may feel free to accomplish what he clearly believes are China’s centuries-delayed external goals.
“After October 25, what mix of adherence to rules, grievance, and leadership can we expect?” asked Nick Bisley of La Trobe University, referring to the end of the 19th Congress. “Do not expect simple continuity with the past five years. The balance of probabilities is that China will take a more nationalistic path, with a strong party aiming to remake the international environment, where necessary, in ways that will help it achieve Xi’s stated desire to rejuvenate the Chinese nation.”
No one can argue against rejuvenation, but in his first term Xi tried to redraw China’s borders by force, especially attempting to grab territory from India and the Philippines. In external matters, therefore, Xi has promoted a frightening form of nationalism.
“The Chinese right now are on a roll, propelled by a misunderstanding of their real accomplishments and strength,” Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania told The Cipher Brief. “They are not aware that by alienating effectively all their neighbors, they are creating what the great General Winfield Scott would have called ‘an anaconda’ that is gradually embracing her and will squeeze her.”
By creating a coalition against his own nation, presently forming around the cores of India and Japan, Xi is increasing the chances of defeat. As Waldron hints, that defeat will become an inflection point for the region.
“A single real setback such as a losing military engagement,” he says, “will create a terrible crisis for Xi as China is weaker than she thinks—so this is quite conceivable—and has no mechanism for telling the population that they have lost, or for holding power after a defeat.”
A powerful Xi, ascendant after the 19th Congress, looks like a danger not only to China’s neighbors but to China itself.