By Lukas Fiala
‘China will not close its door to the world; we will only become more and more open.’ With the benefits of hindsight, Xi Jinping’s remarks at the 19th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP) on October 18th, 2017 seem like a faint memory. A possible future that could have occurred but didn’t. Five years on, as cadres come together again in Beijing from 16th to the 23rd of October for the 20th Party Congress, we are seeing lots of speculation over possible personnel changes, key promotions and retirements, ideological adaptations, and wider party politics.
With so many voices vying for our attention in the lead-up to the secretive meeting, it’s difficult to avoid contributing further speculation to the mix. What might be useful, however, is a heads-up concerning some developments next week that might affect China’s overall relationship with the Global South, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), diplomacy, and security.
As its name suggests, the Party Congress is of course a party-centric affair. Formally, the Party Congress has three main functions: (1) to choose full and alternate members of the Central Committee and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI); (2) to discuss and sign off on two reports – one from the General Secretary and one by the CCDI; and (3) to amend the Party constitution. More symbolically, the Congress represents the pinnacle of political power in China and as such seeks to enhance Party members’ and officials’ morale and discipline. While the Central Committee, in theory, has the power to ‘elect’ the Politburo, in practice Xi will have chosen China’s top rulers himself based on personal trust, careful vetting, and deliberation with senior party elites.
As a key document that will emerge from the Congress, Xi Jinping’s report will provide important insights into where China’s leader plans to take the country in the next five years and perhaps beyond. While Xi will report on behalf of the 19th Central Committee and review the Party’s achievements over the past five years, large parts of the report will be forward-looking and likely include sections on the economy, party building, national defense, foreign policy, and others. While the report is not necessarily a policy-focused document, aiming more at projecting ideology and an overarching strategic vision and guidance, understanding Xi’s tone, emphases, and choice of words will nonetheless be important in deducting China’s larger policy direction over the next years.
Though a substantial part of the report will focus on domestic policy issues – and likely cite Xi’s favorite policy slogans such as Common Prosperity and the Chinese Dream – other sections will give insight into foreign policy and economic statecraft. As our colleague Yu Jie writes for Chatham House, ‘Given China’s growing power and its fraught relationship with the West, this year’s congress is expected to feature a serious discussion on weighty foreign affairs issues affecting Beijing, and which will have long-lasting implications for the rest of the world.’
It will be interesting to see, for instance, if and how Xi mentions the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Security Initiative (GSI). A strong emphasis on these slogans – which are widely taken to represent visions for a post-US global economic and security order – might signal an even stronger commitment by the Party to foster and use alternative arrangements for global governance.
For instance, a greater emphasis on the GSI in Xi’s report may signal more willingness to confront security principles of the current US-led global order and will likely be interpreted as by foreign observers as further evidence of a ‘new Cold War’ between the US and China. It may in turn put additional pressure on non-aligned countries across regions of the Global South to navigate the complex policy mix of US-China decoupling to protect their own countries’ interests and welfare. On the other hand, Chinese leaders may attempt to insulate China from second-hand risks associated with Russia’s war in Ukraine, presenting the GSI as a sort of one-size-fits-all policy solution to global security policy. Announced by Xi earlier this year, the GSI is currently thin on details, rendering it important to trace how Xi’s usage of the phrase evolves.
On the other hand, mentions of the GDI may hint at where Xi intends to take the BRI, China’s key outbound economic and development strategy. The GDI was unveiled just six months before the GSI and reportedly described by Xi as ‘an alternative model to achieve balanced, coordinated, and inclusive growth while achieving the UN’s 2030 sustainable development agenda.’ Just how much the GDI will be tied to language of China’s domestic economic reforms in the context of slowing growth and ongoing COVID-19 disruptions may inform a potential recalibrating of the BRI towards an environmentally and financially more sustainable initiative, a process that has been a subject of much speculation recently.
Finally, we shouldn’t forget that political change is always a product of the interplay of powerful agents and constraining structures. Xi may have centralized power over the last decade and dictated a clear vision as to where China is meant to go. However, the success of this agenda will not only depend on senior leaders but also on China’s partners and competitors around the world as well as on China’s ability to overcome significant domestic challenges including economic reform.