PS. Explain This: China After the Party

The Party’s party is over in Beijing. So, what does the morning after look like for China? In his opening speech to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Chinese President Xi Jinping looked back before he looked forward. Leaning heavily on history, he called for a “new era” of Chinese politics and power, one built upon decades of “tireless struggle.” Much attention has been paid to how China will grow over the next fives years and beyond – whether more market reforms are in store, what will become of state-owned enterprises, and how a rising China will interact with a wayward United States. But overlooked by many is what the 19th National Congress means for the CPC itself. With some 89 million members, the Party represents just 7% of China’s total population, making its legitimacy a constant concern. In 2002, President Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” sought to remake Communist ideology for a country consumed by capitalism. Under Xi, the Party has returned to a dual strategy of responsiveness and intolerance. The authorities fight corruption and improve public services, while purging Xi’s rivals and silencing critics. Part of the paranoia stems from China’s “fragmented” model of governance. Top-down directives are not always enforced by local authorities, and public opinion can still drive decision-making, especially on foreign policy. The narrative of this year’s Congress seemed designed to remind China that the Party remains in charge. The challenge for Xi will be to ensure that the Party has the technocrats it needs to deliver and implement the government’s policies. Xi’s focus on rejuvenation appears to have played well domestically. Foreign humiliation has long been portrayed as a root cause of China’s contemporary struggles. During Xi’s three and a half hour speech at the Congress, Chinese social media were abuzz, not over the substance, but over Xi’s stamina. To many, the fact that their president didn’t pause even for a sip of water was a metaphor for the strength of the state itself. With the 19th Congress now over, there is little question that Xi has consolidated vast personal power, and that the Party he commands is poised to reassert its dominance over policymaking. Xi has achieved a status afforded no Party leader since Deng Xiaoping, if not Mao Zedong, and his ideology is now enshrined in the CPC’s constitution. With no clear successor named at the end of the Congress, speculation now abounds that Xi will remain in power long into the future.

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  1. If there was any doubt as to the communist's party's actual legitimacy, the party has long proven its right to govern, by modernizing China, lifting 600 million Chinese out of poverty, and transforming China into economic powerhouse today, with strong military and the ability to stand up to the West.

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