Why China May Play Tough in the Lead-Up to Its 19th Party Conference
Facing intense pressure on several fronts in the lead-up to the 19th Party Congress in the fall, Chinese President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping will likely be compelled to bolster his credentials with the more radical elements—and thereby placate his enemies—within his party. Expect, therefore, an eventful second half of 2017.
At the heart of the coming drama are succession and elite politics within the CCP and their interplay with a series of unprecedented structural challenges facing China on both the domestic and global fronts. Not since the 14th Party Congress in 1992 has the quinquennial CCP reshuffle, in which the future Politburo Standing Committee will be selected and, presumably, the identities of the party members who will replace Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in 2022 will be revealed, been of such import.
Besides the uncertainty surrounding Xi’s willingness to step down in 2022, elite politics, the purges unleashed by Xi in recent years have exacerbated fears among some current Politburo members over what possible fate awaits them if and once they step down. The survival instincts that perforce kick in when such situations arise ensure that the internal battles in the current cycle will not only be ruthless, but could force candidates to take drastic, and perhaps “irrational” actions they otherwise would not have considered, all for the sake of self-preservation and to defeat their enemies, real and imagined.
Compounding all this is the context in which the Party Congress will take place. Again, not since the early 1990s has China been confronted with a set of challenges that threaten to affect the country in fundamental ways. Chief among those is the current state of China’s economy, which is rife with contradictions and, according to some analysts, on the brink of a major reckoning. China’s debt-to-GDP ratio, for example, has reached 282 percent, from 150 percent over the past decade. Despite massive borrowing, China’s GDP growth has slowed to 6.5 percent. As Chinese citizens feel jittery, capital outflows have reached a record $725 billion, and China’s foreign currency reserves have dropped by more than $1 trillion in less than three years.
Having staked its credibility on its ability to continue China’s “economic miracle,” the CCP now faces the prospect of having to tell the Chinese people that the boom years might already be behind them, well before the benefits of the indeed impressive accomplishments since 1990 had a chance to markedly improve the lives of ordinary Chinese, wherever they are found.
If indeed the economic situation is as dire as it seems, CCP leaders—and those who hope to supplant them this fall—will need to look elsewhere for accomplishments. As William Hurst observed in a recent piece, “an explosive crisis in any one area of foreign policy, elite politics, or political economy . . . could be rendered more likely or more severe by precisely those measures needed to head off a similar crisis in another area.”
And foreign policy is what they likely will turn to if they need to head off a crisis elsewhere.
Here, foreign affairs could prove beneficial in two ways: as a distraction from the problems at home, or as a means to tap into nationalistic fervor and win allies among the more extremist elements within the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In other words, domestic and intraparty considerations could drive China’s foreign policy to a greater extent until the Party Congress than they normally do. And for better or worse, China has plenty of disputes at hand (over so-called “core issues”) where it can flex its muscles—among them Taiwan, the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Moreover, depending on how this plays out, a U.S. intervention in the Korean Peninsula to arrest Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, which now seems more likely under President Trump, could signify a loss of face for President Xi. Facing such a lose, the need to score foreign policy wins elsewhere for Xi and CCP members who are close to him would be exacerbated.
Notwithstanding the benefits of adventurism abroad, we can expect the various factions within the CCP vying for positions in the Politburo to act—if they indeed do take action abroad for domestic gain—with a modicum of restraint. Thus, while there might be incentives to create a crisis abroad, such ventures will be calibrated so as to maximize the benefits while reducing the risks of a direct confrontation with stronger competitors. In other words, every effort will be made to avoid the kind of backlash that would end up hurting the various CCP protagonists involved.