Will China's 'new era' lead to reform as Xi consolidates power?

October 23, 2017 12:27
'Socialism with Chinese characteristics' has crossed the threshold into a new era, Xi Jinping said in a major speech last week. Photo: Bloomberg

The speech delivered by Xi Jinping at the opening of the Chinese Communist Party's 19th congress last week makes it clear that China is preparing itself for a much bigger role on the world stage, and also provides clues as to some of the policies likely to be adopted domestically in this new era.

Apart from that, it has become apparent that Xi is being elevated to a new level, with his name being written into the party constitution while he is in office – something that has not happened to any other leader since Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China.

"China’s international standing has risen as never before," the party general secretary said as he gave a report about the achievements of his first five years in office. "The Chinese nation, with an entirely new posture, stands tall and firm in the East."

"China," said Xi in a quinquennial state of the country address, is now "moving closer to center-stage and making greater contributions to mankind."

These words were in stark contrast to those of Deng Xiaoping, who in the 1990s had warned China to adopt a low profile and "never take the lead".

Following decades of hard work, “socialism with Chinese characteristics has crossed the threshold into a new era," Xi said.

Whereas in the past China had been reticent about presenting itself as a model, this is no longer the case.

"The banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics is now flying high and proud for all to see," the Chinese president said, adding that the model has blazed "a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization."

However, while the country has entered a new era, the party leader made it clear that China "is still and will long remain in the primary stage of socialism," citing another theory made public 30 years ago by then leader Zhao Ziyang at the 13th party congress. The slogan is used to justify the existence of capitalist features in Chinese society.

Xi said that in 2021, during his second five-year term, China would mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party and, by that time, "we will have developed our society into a moderately prosperous one in all respects."

Further down the road, the 100th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, which was founded in 1949, will see China become "a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence." By 2049, Xi said, "The Chinese nation will become a proud and active member of the community of nations."

A new theory to fit the new era was unveiled at the congress. The theory, with the rather unwieldy name "Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era", is to be embodied in the party constitution and attributed to Xi himself.

In the new era, it could well be that old rules may not apply, allowing Xi to serve beyond 2022.

According to a comment in the official People's Daily, this new theory follows the success of Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context.

Against this backdrop, what are the policies that will be adopted for this new era?

It may well be that highly publicized earlier reforms, such as those announced during party plenums in 2013 and 2014 but which have not yet been carried out, may now be implemented.

In in three-and-a-half-hour-long speech, Xi made repeated references to "socialist rule of law", which echoes the theme of a 2014 plenum concerning "comprehensively advancing governance according to law."

Also, strikingly, Xi in his address last week used words very similar to what he said in 2013, during another party plenum, to the effect that the market would be allowed to play a decisive role in the allocation of resources.

So it suggests that, for various reasons, policies he supported in his first term could not be implemented due to opposition from entrenched interests.

Now, however, as he is the "core" of the party leadership and has been elevated to a much higher level, he may be in a position to carry out reforms he had been unable to implement in the past.

That is certainly the hope of many, inside and outside China. They hope that Xi will show himself to be a reformer and, now that his power base is secure, he will finally be able to be the reformer they had always hoped he was in secret.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.