In the month following the 19th Congress, President Xi Jinping has been described as the strongest Chinese statesmen since Mao after Xi’s thought was entrenched into China’s constitution. It is important to assess, however, Xi’s status as a post-strongman leader and how his position affects policy. This article will be a close-reading of the first 30 minutes of Xi Jinping’s report to the 19th National Congress. The report is broken down into two sections: the ideological component and a run-down of China’s development in the 5 years since the beginning of Xi’s mandate. The latter is described as the First of Five points, which extend beyond the first 30 minutes and the scope of this article.
The report opens with Xi establishing why this particular address is important. Unlike Mao and the rhetoric endemic to that era, Xi’s tone stresses moderation rather than grandeur, modesty not ambition. The report opens with Xi describing a China that finds itself in a “decisive stage in building a moderately prosperous society in all aspects.” This strongly leans on the idea that most citizens will live within the middle-class demographic, which Xi later recognizes is growing. By stressing moderation, Xi is attempting to undercut the middle income trap that has afflicted many other developing nations whose economies stagnated after a period of substantial growth. In order to ensure that record growth does not become stagnation, small adjustments have been made to China’s political infrastructure.
Reform is the heart of Xi’s agenda. As he describes a world where China has been confronted by a “sluggish” economic recovery, while the country has entered a new “normal” phase of domestic economic development, Xi stresses that major decisions have been made, ranging from “changing institutions and transforming the functions of government to deepening reform in all areas [and] advancing law-based government.” Using the first five years of his presidency as the benchmark of reform success, Xi demonstrates that China has experienced significant economic developments such as a rise in GDP from 54 to 80 trillion RMB, which accounts for 30% of global economic growth. The reforms have helped develop the “supply-side” structure that has allowed the digital industry to flourish and the agricultural industry to modernize. Urbanization has proceeded on a nearly unprecedented scale as 80 million rural citizens have achieved full residency in urban cities. Xi attributes these successes not only to reform but the ways in which reform is implemented.
Reform is “deepened” as Xi’s government attempts to further reform in a “systematic, holistic, and coordinated way.” The method by which reform is deepened is the 5 sphere integrated plan and four pronged integrative policy. This is why Xi may gloat about the 1,500 individual reforms that have been ratified since 2012. What he neglects to mention, however, is that he personally heads numerous reform agencies ranging from civilian to military and whose primary function is supervision. The point is that Xi is the point of reference for how top officials ought to implement oversight. The chief mechanism that implements reform is the rule of law. This idea is generally old, going as far back as Confucius, which seems like the reason why Xi stresses that “traditional Chinese culture is alive in People’s hearts.” By aligning the people with the party under the pretence that both admire tradition, Xi is able to implement rule of law and subsequent, “deepening” reform with relative ease. The reforms to systems of government administration and judicial bodies, whose new overall function is oversight, ensures that legislation is “sound” and its effect significant.
The point of these reforms is to improve governance. Xi recognizes that the institutions in place are not sufficient enough to provide China with the capacity for growth on economic or ideological grounds. It is only after Xi describes the reform to exercises of bureaucratic power that he demonstrates the decreased levels of poverty, increased employment, increased improvement to the people’s fulfillment, and increased access to education. Ultimately, President Xi is trying to remove the institutional “barriers” that have encumbered policy-making organs in the past. Xi is ripping down the infamous Chinese red tape in a manner that reveals his personal affinity for its demise.
As a result of the change in governance, Xi reports that social democracy developed. Regarding the Party, he suggests that intra-party democracy has “expanded.” One implication is that, because of the Three Represents notion developed under Jiang Zemin –which uses words like democracy and rule of law—private business owners are able to become Party members. The expansion of intra-party democracy was ratified during the sixth plenary session where it was also deemed a goal for the 19th congress. Regarding the citizenry, Xi argues that socialist “consolidative” democracy is flourishing. “Consolidative” is used in two senses: first, it unites the people’s aspirations with the government’s, forming dialogue; and, second, the unified strength makes the Chinese body politic stronger. Consolidative democracy has become more relevant in the past five years because terms like development have been redefined. Xi maintains that the CCP has remained committed to the “new” development philosophy whose aim is to be “people-centred.” This emphasizes Xi Jinping’s earlier point that “in our Party, each and every of us must always breathe the same breath as the People share the same future and stay truly connected to them.”
The first 30 minutes of the report demonstrate how effective reforms have been since 2012. It remains to be seen, however, just how subsequent reform policy will be developed.