The 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress runs Oct. 18-24. The convention marks the start of a transition as delegates name new members to lead China's most powerful political institutions. But the change in personnel is only part of a larger transformation underway in the Party and in the country — a process that began long before the party congress kicked off and will continue long after it ends. This is the final installment in a four-part series examining how far China has come in its transition, and how far it has yet to go.
Perhaps the most defining feature of China's political history has been the cyclical expansion and collapse of its dynasties. The country's first unified dynasty, which emerged more than 2,000 years ago, set what would come to be a familiar pattern: A central power rises and expands its rule until a challenge — be it a corruption scandal or a natural disaster — erodes its authority. The imperial court steps in to remove or reinforce the dynasty, and the process repeats. Each subsequent dynasty followed the same trajectory, struggling against China's geopolitical diversity, as well as the competing forces it produces, to justify their continued rule and fight internal weakness. The Communist Party is no exception.
Though modern China has changed considerably from its imperial origins, it retains an authoritarian system of governance reminiscent of an earlier era. The Communist Party's imperative to defend and sustain its monopoly on power — what was known in imperial China as the "mandate of heaven" — scarcely differs from that of the dynasties that ruled the country for millenniums prior. Throughout its 68 years in power, the Communist Party of China has demonstrated resilience and adaptability, qualities that enabled it to outlive numerous other communist movements around the world. The Party transformed itself from a revolutionary organization that fought Japanese occupation and helped reunify China into the architect of the country's economic miracle. Along the way, it endured several disturbances, including the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square protests, the rise of globalization and the development of the private economy. Now that the Chinese economy has started to slow after 30 years of unprecedented growth, the Party must once again adjust course to weather the profound changes ahead. But the rampant corruption, socio-economic inequality and ideological divisions troubling the country have cast doubt on whether the Party can rise to the challenge again.
The Quest for Legitimacy
As general secretary, President Xi Jinping shoulders most of the responsibility for seeing the Chinese Communist Party through. His first priority to that end is to restore the Party's legitimacy as the guardian of the Chinese state. Over the past five years, Xi has spearheaded the most ambitious initiative to reorganize and reorient the Party since the days of Mao Zedong, launching an anti-corruption drive that spans China's sprawling political apparatus. The campaign, which transcends a mere political purge, has brought down more than a million officials across the Party, the government and the military ranks. It has even deposed top brass from the once-sacrosanct Politburo Standing Committee.
Over the past five years, Xi has spearheaded the most ambitious initiative to reorganize and reorient the Party since the days of Mao Zedong.
Alongside the anti-corruption campaign, Xi has taken steps to firm up the Party's beliefs and institutional rules and to unite the bureaucracy and public behind a uniform ideology. He has also tried to bring the Party's core beliefs, which for years had taken a back seat to economic development, again to the fore. All the while, Xi has worked to engender a sense of nationalism among the public in hopes of reinforcing the Party's role as the defender of China's unity and the key to its continued ascent.
The president's efforts to create a more disciplined and capable Communist Party are starting to bear fruit. Party morale is up, or at least it appears to be improving. Furthermore, China's maritime expansion in the South and East China seas and its revival of overland trade corridors along the ancient Silk Road route have been received well at home. The popularity of these initiatives — bids to boost the country's international influence — has been a boon for the Xi administration and the Communist leadership as they grapple with the weakening economy.
Testing the Strategy
Still, Xi's moves to preserve the Party's authority will face numerous tests in the long run. The problems in China's political system are too large for a reorganization or a more assertive foreign policy to solve. After decades of single-party rule, China's Communist Party is locked in a persistent battle against its own weakness. Widespread corruption and entrenched patronage networks continue to tarnish the Party's reputation and undermine the attempts to restore its legitimacy. With that in mind, Xi and the Party will try to make their anti-corruption campaign a more institutional effort.
The president's appeal to nationalism, moreover, is a risky endeavor. History has repeatedly shown that the sentiment is easy to stoke but hard to contain; the nationalism that China's leaders have inspired in their public may well backfire if it grows beyond their control. On top of that, China has yet to fulfill one of its fundamental geopolitical goals, that of bringing Taiwan back under its control. Combined with the disputed territories, unsettled maritime boundaries and volatility in the surrounding region, this unrealized goal could contribute to a sense of vulnerability in China that could damage the Party's image.
Breaking the Dynastic Cycle
Today, of course, China is far less susceptible than ever to internal and external shocks. Expansive infrastructure connectivity, along with deep political and fiscal ties to local governments — even those in autonomous territories such as Xinjiang and Tibet — have enabled Beijing to achieve its basic imperative to unify the country. Even so, the Communist leadership seems acutely aware of its own vulnerability. As part of his effort to enshrine the Party's role in governing China, Xi has worked to stifle political discourse and silence dissent. The Party has co-opted or quashed factions that espouse a different political or moral ideology, and it has grown increasingly sensitive to, and intolerant of, perceived slights. At the same time, Beijing has tuned up its propaganda machine to ensure ideological conformity throughout China. The crackdown extends to civil society as well as the legal system, both of which the central government has in a stranglehold. More than any of his predecessors, Xi has focused on giving the Communist Party the tools to maintain control over the country.
Nearly 70 years after founding the People's Republic of China, the Communist Party is approaching another crossroads. Xi and his cohorts, like their dynastic counterparts before them, have many imperatives to fulfill to secure their country's status as a world power, including forging trade routes to protect its crucial exports. But achieving these objectives abroad will require stability at home. To keep its position in power, the Communist Party will have to keep fighting its internal deficiencies while suppressing its rivals or else overhaul China's political institutions to better support its aims. Either way, the clock is ticking