The dawn of the “Xi Jinping era”


Picture of Mario Esteban
Mario Esteban

Senior Analyst at the Real Instituto Elcano

Mario Esteban is Senior Analyst of Elcano Royal Institute and Professor of the Autonomous University of Madrid

Get used to this name: Xi Jinping. He will be the most powerful person in one of the most powerful countries in the world for a long time.

The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will be remembered as the moment in which the figure of Xi Jinping was put at the level of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Collective leadership and the alternation between “elitists” and “populists” at the head of the Party are over. Xi Jinping will be able to govern in a more personal and autocratic manner than his two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and remain the most powerful man in China once his current term as head of the CPC ends in 2022.

First, the constitution of the CPC was reformed to include the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” among the fundamental theoretical principles of the party. Hence, Xi´s name was enshrined in the party constitution ‒ an honour previously reserved for Mao and Deng.

Xi Jinping is sure to be the paramount leader of the country beyond the next five years as there is no clear candidate for his succession

Second, the composition of the new Standing Committee of the Politburo, the highest decision-making body of the party, illustrates the tremendous amount of power in the hands of Xi. Of the five new members of the Politburo Standing Committee four are from the “elitist faction” (Li Zhanshu, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning and Han Zheng) and have close personal connections with him, to the point that Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji are his protégées. On the contrary, only Wang Yang is from the “populist camp” and ally of Prime Minister Li Keqiang. Moreover, none of them meet the age requirements to stay in the Standing Committee of the Politburo beyond 2022. Therefore, Xi Jinping is sure to be the paramount leader of the country beyond the next five years as there is no clear candidate for his succession. Even if Xi left the General Secretary of the party in 2022, he would remain the most powerful man in China.

The last party congress has also brought up remarkable changes both in the socio-economic sphere and in foreign policy. In the first area, the CPC has changed what they consider to be the main contradiction that guides their socioeconomic policy. Since 1981 the emphasis was placed on accelerating the pace of economic growth and now has shifted to the quality of economic growth. Therefore, more will be invested in research and development, to encourage high-value added activities, and in social welfare, such as education, health and pensions. The big state own enterprises will have a fundamental role in this technological and managerial development, although monopolies will be avoided and restrictions on foreign investments will be relaxed. It remains to be seen in which sectors and regions these promises of greater market access for foreign investors will be materialised.

European officials have invested a lot of effort in the last year trying to get Donald Trump right. Now, they have another task ‒ getting Xi Jinping right

In the international arena, Xi Jinping will implement an assertive foreign policy aimed at increasing China’s influence in global governance and in the region. Since China began to suffer the pressure of the colonial powers in the mid-nineteenth century, no Chinese leader has been as confident as Xi in the role that China can play within the international community. Chinese authorities are aware of the opportunities offered by the Trump administration in this endeavour and will take advantage of them. In fact, at the inauguration of the 19th Party Congress, Xi criticised the United States isolationism and presented China as a model for other countries, even in the political sphere, and as a reliable ally to guarantee global public goods.

Gone is the low profile foreign policy developed by Deng Xiaoping a quarter of a century ago. Xi offers a road map that will lead China to become a moderately well-off society by 2020, a developed country by 2035, and a country with a leading national power and a world-class army in 2050.

This assertiveness is combined with a clear cooperative dimension, as evidenced by the founding of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing is ready and willing to cooperate with other countries, but that cooperation will be increasingly conducted under the terms marked from Beijing. This seemingly contradictory strategy provides significant benefits to China. For example, the substantial increase in its presence and operational capacity in the South China Sea through the construction of artificial islands has not been an obstacle to closer relations with most Southeast Asian countries, thanks to substantial commercial and financial links.

European officials have invested a lot of effort in the last year trying to get Donald Trump right. Now, they have another task ‒ getting Xi Jinping right. He is claiming with clarity and without precedence that “the time has come for China to take centre stage in the world”.

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