Few thought that Chinese politics would undergo such a great change in the five years after Xi Jinping, as expected, became the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the 18th National Congress held five years ago. I remember the media outlet which I worked for at the time published an article predicting that Sun Zhengcai, then the Party secretary of Chongqing, and Hu Chunhua, the Party secretary of Guangdong, would be the two men to watch as potential successors to Xi at the 19th National Congress. In retrospect, this judgment looks a little ridiculous, showing just how difficult it is to predict Chinese politics.
Without question, over the past five years, Xi has been successful as the general secretary of the CCP. He took down all the corrupt officials who were strong enough to shake the ruling foundation from within the CCP and the military, which greatly strengthened his power. His success today epitomizes the CCP’s success, which is especially noticeable in three areas.
First, the CCP has been able to govern a country with such a large population and so many complex situations because it has enabled the Chinese economy to keep up long-term rapid development and thus overseen a rapid improvement in people’s living standards.
In accordance with the principle of Marxism, the economy is the foundation of all kinds of development. Therefore, as long as economic development is achieved, society will be relatively stable and the legitimacy of CCP governance will be strengthened. For example, members of the urban middle class like me have basically seen our salaries doubled over the past few years and our parents’ pensions have also been increasing. This is a fact that no opponent of the CCP can deny and also the thing which gives the CCP, including Xi, the most pride. The West should understand that this dynamic is why China sets a GDP growth goal at the beginning of every year (for example, 6.5 percent growth for 2017).
Second, the CCP is successful because it has gradually evolved from a ruling party into a party of the entire nation. This evolution has seen the organizational system of the CCP infiltrate society from top to bottom and thus fundamentally restrained the existence of any counterforce strong enough to overturn CCP rule.
There are now around 90 million CCP members. There are about 400 million Chinese households, which means that about every one of four Chinese families has a CCP member. Anyone who opposes the CCP may also be opposing their own parents, children or relatives who are CCP members. In addition, all of China’s private enterprises, including internationally famous firms such as Tencent and Alibaba, have set up an internal CCP’s branch, to say nothing of colleges, universities, and the military.
The CCP has become a “social aggregation” including not only workers, soldiers, and peasants, but also students, private entrepreneurs and technological elites. The party has a toehold in every social group across the nation, so that no competing force has enough organizational ability to revolt against the CCP. This makes a situation like the political antagonism in Venezuela impossible in China.
Third, CCP propaganda has increasingly become an effective weapon for stable governance. The reason why Xi Jinping can be so popular across China is closely related the fact that the CCP has made him the center of a huge publicity campaign. The propaganda that enables the CCP to be supported by most of the Chinese people cannot go unnoticed.
Most Chinese have no opportunity to have face-to-face conversations with senior officials of the CCP; they only know leaders and the party via the publicity organs. Those tell us that Xi is a firm believer and executor of the CCP’s policies and possesses both great political aspirations and the practical ability to improve China’s international role. For example, he has put forward the strategies of strengthening China’s military and building the “One Belt One Road.” The narrative is consistent with the thoughts of many ordinary Chinese, especially nationalists pursuing greater international influence after the development of China’s economy. Therefore, it is no surprise at all that the CCP maintain a high level of support.
Despite these successes, after the 19th CCP National Congress, the CCP will certainly face some extremely big challenges. Such challenges were described as “extremely intricate situations” in the work report given by Xi Jinping at the Congress.
In my opinion, the biggest challenge faced by the CCP is corruption. Other countries, political parties, and societies suffer from corruption; this is not a problem that only the CCP faces. However, the most important question is how the Party can fight corruption in a faster and more effective manner, to prevent corruption from staying hidden for a long time or being solved too late, thus causing huge risks to the country and society.
The disclosure of many corruption cases in the CCP has been due to luck and unexpected accidents. For example, Bo Xilai, former Chongqing Party secretary, wrangled with one of his subordinates; his corruption problem was exposed when that subordinate went to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu seeking asylum. The corruption of Ling Jihua, former chief of the General Office of the CCP was not exposed until his son raced a Ferrari around Beijing and had a car accident. Without such sensational incidents, would Bo and Ling ever have faced justice?
The reason why many people may doubt the anti-corruption efforts of the CCP is simple. How does a barber cut his own hair? How does a son supervise his father? And how can the Party fight corruption within its members? It is very important for CCP’s future legitimacy to build a mechanism to proactively eradicate corruption instead of only discovering corruption accidentally. There will certainly be more and more doubts if there is no independent supervision mechanism to deal with corruption cases quickly and effectively and prevent anti-corruption from being deemed to be the result of political struggle within the Party.
The second challenge faced by the CCP comes from the gap between the openness of the internet era and CCP propaganda.
More and more Chinese middle-class people, who are highly educated, proficient in foreign languages, and have higher standards for their life, are now used to foreign media. The CCP’s blocks on foreign websites, especially social media, has sparked outrage from the entire nation. Some professors have publicly argued that the “network blockage” will block the path between domestic and overseas academic research. Average people also seek ways around the blocks; “which VPN can climb over the firewall” was one of the most frequently-discussed topics among my friends before the 19th Party Congress.
It’s true that the reform and opening-up policy of the CCP in the past decades has brought enormous material wealth to Chinese people. But in the future Chinese people will need to feed their demand for “spiritual wealth” instead of only consuming the domestic propaganda of the CCP.
The internet is open in nature and the CCP should adapt to the trend of the times. The publicity departments of the CCP probably worry that the content of some overseas media criticizing the CCP may threaten domestic governance. However, if a political party can be so easily overthrown by political views, then the party itself has problems. Finding an equilibrium point between meeting its people’s demand for unlimited use of internet and maintaining the official publicity is very important for both the CCP and the Chinese people.
The third challenge faced by the CCP is how to break through its political model. Many people at home and abroad are used to seeing the CCP as a traditional communist party such as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). This view implies that the essence of the Chinese model under the leadership of the CCP is the same as that of the Soviet Union. Senior officials of the CCP should realize that this is indeed a challenge. The public will have doubts if there is no breakthrough in this model.
The CCP has become more and more confident about this. For example, Xi included a noticeable statement in his report at the 19th CCP National Congress: “The development model of China can bring about experience and references to more developing countries.” However, in fact, China’s model is not easily copied overseas. In the same vein, the Western democratic model has proved equally difficult to export abroad.
It is very difficult for developing countries to use the governance model of the CCP for reference if they have first come into contact with the Western staples such as separation of powers, multi-party competition, and freedom of expression. It’s more feasible for other countries to learn from some specific practices of the CCP, such as strengthening democratic consultations and publicity efforts. Through its self-construction, it will not be very easy for the CCP to establish a “third model” — other than the Western democratic system and the traditional communist modeled by the Soviet Union — that can take root all over the world.
However, I’ve also noticed that when summarizing the future development of the CCP, Xi Jinping placed the creative force first. This shows that the CCP has realized this problem. The highlight of the next five years may be seeing what innovative arrangements and theoretical discussions (such as moving beyond the traditional communist party theory) the CCP will make to its own political system.