Commentary: China’s ambition burns bright - with Xi Jinping firmly in charge

Commentary: China’s ambition burns bright - with Xi Jinping firmly in charge

With the conclusion of the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, La Trobe University's Nick Bisley reflects on its outcomes, President Xi Jinping’s address and the direction China will take in the next five years.

MELBOURNE: The most important political event of 2017, the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress, has concluded. While there was much to digest, one image above all stands out: Xi Jinping’s political dominance and his burning ambition for China.

The party congress is held every five years and has two main functions.

The first is to lay out the policy programme for the next five years. The other is to confirm the people who will occupy the key leadership roles within the CCP. In short, it’s about policy and people.

The tone was set by Xi’s opening address. Formally presenting the work report of the 18th Central Committee, he outlined the huge steps China has taken over the past five years and his vision for China over not just the next five years, but until 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

He affirmed that within a few decades, China would become a prosperous modern socialist society and one of the world’s most important countries, both in terms of national power and international influence.


Gone is the old dictum that China has to bide its time and hide its power. Humility and caution have been replaced by confident and assertive leadership.

Xi also declared that the country would remain economically open and provide leadership on climate change and other environmental concerns.

The centrepiece of China’s international policy will be the Belt and Road Initiative that is now part of the party’s constitution.

But Xi was equally stern about threats and challenges, whether from within or beyond – the country would use all means to defend its interests and sovereignty. This means China’s muscular approach to disputes in the East and South China Sea, with India and elsewhere, is certain to continue.

Xi Jingping, China's most powerful leader in a generation, says he will continue to show
Xi Jinping had set out plans for the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" at the 19th Party Congress. (Photo: AFP/Wang Zhao)

Hard work, ongoing reform and leadership will be needed to bring all this about. The only force capable of doing this, made clear at the congress, is the party.

While nods were made towards market forces playing a more important role in resource allocation, the congress’ message was unmistakable: The key player in the economy, indeed in all aspects of Chinese life, will be the party. 

And the party will be unified around an austere vision laid out by Xi Jinping.

The anti-corruption programme that has been such a significant part of his first five years in office will become a permanent campaign. Xi had launched anti-graft measures to root out the significant problem of corruption, and to eliminate rival centres of power. That will be a core element of party business in the future.

In his first five years, Xi focused on consolidating his power base, unifying the party and presenting a more confident face to the world. The congress made clear that the next five are about paramount leader Xi driving China to its position, likely atop the international totem pole.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at the opening of the BRICS Summit in Xiamen
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening ceremony of the BRICS Business Forum in Xiamen, China, Sep 3, 2017. At the 19th Party Congress, he stressed that China would take on more global leadership responsibilities. (Photo: REUTERS/Mark Schiefelbein)


At the very start of the Congress, the opening address gave a clue as to what is to come – the work programme presented by Xi was “for a new era”. Xi made clear that the history of the PRC can be divided into three eras. The first was the creation of the republic, led by Mao. The reform period led by Deng Xiaoping was its second.

Now the third era, in which the “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation” is to be realised by Xi Jinping, has begun. 

To formalise this on the congress’s final day, delegates unanimously voted to incorporate “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” into the party constitution. This is now a core purpose of the party and marks him out as the most powerful figure within the party for so long as he remains alive.

Prior to the congress there was much speculation about whether or not he would seek to break the party norm of two five-year terms as general secretary.

By this move he has rendered such questions moot. Whether he remains in office for more than five years or whether he formally stands down has become almost immaterial, as he will be the dominant figure in the country.

To reinforce this, when the new seven-man Politburo Standing Committee was announced earlier today, there was no obvious successor as part of the grouping.

Xi and new politiburo
President Xi Jinping with the new Politburo Standing Committee, and the conspicuous absence of an heir apparent. (Photo: AFP)

All five of the new faces – Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Han Zheng – will need to retire at the next congress. So while the leadership is new, it is entirely subordinate to the general secretary.

Xi Jinping now clearly sits atop the party and the party commands China. Over the coming decades, China will seek to realise its ambitions. Notwithstanding Xi’s huge confidence, there is a considerable amount of work to be done to achieve these.

It is far from certain whether China’s economy be reformed in the ways necessary to drive the levels of growth needed to fuel this programme. Domestically, the party will face continual challenges of unity and legitimacy. Internationally, it is difficult to imagine the US acquiescing to any shifts that might supplant its position at the centre of world affairs.

Nick Bisley is executive director of La Trobe Asia and assistant professor of international affairs at La Trobe University. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation. Read the original commentary here.

Read past commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party's 19th Party Congress:

1. Why Xi Jinping is China's new revolutionary hero

2. Xi Jinping's vision of a new era for a strong China.

3. The only certainty from the Party Congress is that Xi Jinping is indispensable.

4. What Xi Jinping is likely to say about Taiwan.

5. The changing meaning of political legitimacy for the CCP. 

6. The slew of changes in the PLA leadership in 2017.

7. The drastic political reforms Xi Jinping may make.

8. The crackdown on Chinese businesses.

9. The role Wang Qishan plays.

10. The new leaders in Beijing.

11. Reforms in the PLA over recent years.

Source: CNA/sl