China: Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’

26 October 2017

THE 19TH CONGRESS of the Communist Party of China was intended to mark a turning point for the country. The officially inspired personality cult around President Xi Jinping was the most obvious sign of this. Having congratulated Xi on his “extraordinary elevation”, Donald Trump observed that he was now “like a king, but they call him the President”. This may, of course, have been tinged with a certain envy, but it was accurate enough.

The Congress celebrated the victory of Xi’s faction within the Communist Party by incorporating his “Thought”, that is, his programme, into the Constitution of the Party itself. This is not just yet another honour but a formal recognition of Xi’s primacy; anyone disagreeing with him now is automatically an enemy of the Party.

As expected, Congress also saw a thorough overhaul of the leading bodies of the Party. The Politburo was increased from 22 to 25 and five of the seven members of its Standing Committee, the highest authority, were replaced. Two of its new members, Wang Huning, in charge of ideology and party organisation and Zhao Leji, who takes over the anti-corruption brief, appear to have been appointed to enforce obedience in the Party.


At first sight, this all appears to demonstrate Xi’s invincibility but it must also reflect fears that there are still powerful opponents of his programme both within the Party and more widely in society. 

When he came to power at the 18th Congress, in 2012, one of Xi’s main priorities was the reform of the state owned sector of the economy by opening it up to “market forces”. In particular, this meant ending the provision of “soft” finance which masked inefficiency and undercut production in the private sector. That, however, was a fundamental challenge to the millions of party members who staff the vast bureaucracy and form the linkages between Party, government, industry and banks.

The breadth of opposition to Xi’s policies can be judged from the numbers purged from the Party,  1,340,000 since 2012 but, just as significantly, they included 35 full or alternate members of the Central Committee itself. Twelve of those were only expelled two weeks before Congress opened so opposition is far from over. That is why there is such an emphasis on imposing “Xi’s Thought” on the party and, indeed, the whole of society. Two university departments have been established to lead the study of his Thought so that it can be correctly taught in Party schools and work sessions. In time it will also be included in all school curricula.

Xi Jinping Thought

Nonetheless, Xi’s faction has clearly won its battles and the tone of the “Work Report”, with which he opened Congress, was triumphalist. While he covered virtually every aspect of policy in his three and a half hour speech, he gave particular emphasis to China’s new standing on the world stage. The full title of his contribution to political theory is “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era”. China’s English language newspaper, the Global Times, summed up its key feature: “China in the new era will be more powerful to drive forward the global economy and contribute more to addressing problems in Asia and throughout the world. China in the new era will contribute more to the world, safeguarding global peace and prosperity.” 

It was Xi’s faction that recognised, in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, that China’s economic strength, which had been shown by its ability to weather that crisis, could only be maintained by developing the ability to project power internationally. China needed not only to guarantee sources of energy and raw materials and access to markets but to invest its wealth wherever it could earn the best returns. In short, Xi’s “New Era” is a recognition that China is now an imperialist power and global expansion is an imperative.

In his first five years, Xi has succeeded in overcoming his opponents in the Party and, very importantly, in modernising and re-equipping the armed forces. In the next five, it is clear that he means to build on those successes and China’s increasingly belligerent profile in recent years is a sign of this. The militarisation of the South China Sea, the One Belt, One Road programme for building infrastructure linking much of South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe to China, the recent display of advanced military hardware, all point in this direction. 

A new era?

A precondition for global strength, however, is stability on the home front. The economy is still marked by a huge overhang of debt, both commercial and private. China’s growing numbers of capitalists know they are dependent on the Party for the social controls that secure their profits, but they are sceptical of its ability to carry through the promised reforms. As Jack Ma, the head of the internet trading conglomerate Alibaba and one of China’s richest men, said when commenting on  Xi’s “elevation”: “Will he and his new cohort of officials do a much better job of pushing for market-oriented reforms and opening up than in his first term? After all, that is what really matters to investors and businessmen.”

For China’s workers and farmers, the “new era” will mean not only more patriotic propaganda and anti-foreign sabre rattling but also increased surveillance and repression. If state owned industry is “reformed” that will inevitably mean an attack on jobs, wages and conditions in that sector while any financial crisis would force bankruptcies and closures across the economy. China’s bosses may be able to rely on the Communist Party to take their side, but the workers need a party of their own

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