Chinese President Xi Jinping is clearly a clever tactician, but the Group of Seven nations and world markets are left hoping that he is a visionary as well. Photo: Reuters / Arnd Wiegmann

The Communist Party of China (CPC) has set the tone for its 19th National Congress, scheduled to open on October 18, as an epoch-making event on par with the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by Mao Zedong in 1949 and the launch of economic reform and opening up by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, which logically leads to endorsement of President Xi Jinping as the third paramount leader after Mao and Deng.

Briefing the Chinese media recently on the upcoming party meeting, Jiang Jianguo, deputy chief of the CPC’s Central Department of Publicity, said recently that the 19th Party Congress “will take care of not only the next five years, but the next two or three decades as well”. In other words, the Congress will set an agenda for the party and the nation to follow for quite a long time. But why 20 to 30 years, specifically?

In 2012 when Xi took the reins after the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress, he put forward his concept of a “Chinese dream” for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. To fulfill this great dream, he later set two centenary goals: to build China into a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2021, when the CPC marks its centennial; and to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation by 2049, when the PRC marks its centennial. There are now 32 years left to realise Xi’s “Chinese dream” fully.

The Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: iStock

Xi’s “Chinese dream” seems to consist of three phases: for the Chinese nation to stand up, to become wealthy, and then to become strong. As he elaborated in a speech in late July, “The Chinese nation, which has experienced tribulations and hardships since modern times, has made a historic leap from standing up to becoming rich and then to getting stronger. Having stood up and become better off, getting stronger now becomes a new challenge to China. We must get prepared mentally, theoretically and systematically.”

So roughly speaking, the first centenary goal “to build China into a moderately prosperous society in all respects” is meant for Chinese people to become rich or at least better off, and the second one, “to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, is to turn China into a strong power.

Third milestone in history

It is a common saying in China that Mao led the Chinese nation to stand up and Deng paved the way for the nation to become rich. Therefore, it is Xi who is tasked with blazing the way for the nation to become a strong power by the middle of this century. If he succeeds, he will surely become the third epoch-making leader after Mao and Deng. Since it is believed that the 19th Party Congress will focus on how to make this last phase of the “Chinese dream” come true, it will also be hailed as the third milestone in the histories of the CPC and the PRC.

Read: China to amend constitution at 19th Party Congress

Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping Photo: People.com.cn

Hence it is no surprise that the 19th Congress will revise the party constitution to endorse Xi’s ideas as part of the CPC’s guiding ideology. The current party constitution stipulates that the CPC upholds Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the “important idea of Three Represents” and the Scientific Outlook on Development as its guidelines to action.

It is noted that “Three Represents” was the brainchild of former party chief Jiang Zemin and the Scientific Outlook on Development was proposed by Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor. Nevertheless, neither of those men is named in the constitution. If, as widely expected, Xi’s ideas are to be written into the party constitution as part of its guiding ideology with his name attached, then it means he will be endorsed as a paramount leader on par with Mao and Deng.

And in fact, only Xi can be said to be as strong a leader as Mao and Deng, given that he is firmly in command of the armed forces. By comparison, Jiang and Hu, especially the latter, had no military experience and had to rely on the top generals, who being unchecked acted recklessly and cared for nobody and eventually became corrupt.

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger (center). Photo: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

On the economic front, since the CPC’s goal for the next couple of decades is to make China strong, one can be certain that the party will task itself to continue boosting economic growth through reform and opening up. This is evident in remarks made this week by Vice-Premier Liu Yandong during her visit to the United States. On Wednesday she told former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger in New York that China would further open up its economy after the 19th Party Congress.

Hence it can be expected that the Chinese economy will grow at the current pace if not faster in years to come, although it is unlikely that specific growth goals will be set at the Party Congress, which focuses more on matters of principle.

Read: Five things to watch for at China’s Communist Party congress

And under Xi, China’s rise will follow its own path. The statement  following the Politburo meeting on August 31, which set the date for the 19th Party Congress, made it clear that “the whole party and nation must hold and boost firm self-confidence in the socialist road with Chinese characteristics, theoretical self-confidence, self-confidence in [China’s own] system, and cultural self-confidence.”

These “four self-confidences,” coined by Xi himself, clearly indicate that China rejects becoming Westernized, whatever that word means. As a matter of fact, the Chinese people nowadays are becoming increasingly confident that their nation is on the right track of development.

A July 25 Wall Street Journal report, “New challenge to US power: Chinese exceptionalism,” said:

President Xi Jinping is holding up China as a confident global power at a time when US leadership seems uncertain. Increasingly, his government can count on swelling national pride among its own citizens.

A generation after China’s late reformist leader Deng Xiaoping exhorted his fellow citizens to “keep our light hidden and bide our time”, Chinese exceptionalism is on the rise. While some Chinese still believe the country will need to embrace democracy to reach its full potential, many others are convinced the country has reached this point not in spite of the government’s crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1989, but because of it.

Annual surveys by the Pew Research Center since 2010 show more than 80% of Chinese are satisfied with the direction of their country. Three-quarters of the Chinese surveyed by Pew last year see China playing a bigger role in global affairs than 10 years ago, and 60% view China’s involvement in the global economy as positive.

Major leadership reshuffle

With Xi’s somewhat absolute authority established, he surely has the final say on the major leadership reshuffle to be made at the 19th Party Congress.

At the five-yearly Party Congress, the 2,300 deputies representing 88 million CPC members across the country will elect its new Central Committee, which in turn will elect a new Politburo and its Standing Committee.

Apart from Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, all five of the other members of the incumbent Politburo Standing Committee have reached retirement age. And four are sure to step down: the chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Yu Zhengsheng, propaganda tsar Liu Yunshan, and Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli.

Wang Qishan. Photo: Reuters

But there is speculation that Xi may want the no-nonsense Wang Qishan, head of the top anti-graft watchdog, to stay and continue leading the campaign to crack down on corruption. Supporters of this cite as evidence Wang’s recent high-profile activities such as meeting with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. However, there are also unconfirmed reports saying that Wang, 69, is not in good health and wishes to retire.

Given Wang’s age, he will have to step down under the party’s unwritten rule of compulsory retirement. But there is also no doubt that given Xi’s authority today, he can easily change that rule. But the cost would probably be too high, according to some Chinese sources.

The rule was established through arduous efforts and has been strictly followed in past decades. Once it is broken, it may not be easy to re-establish it. And without such a rule in place, retirement of officials would become an arbitrary thing again, opening doors to nepotism and corruption.

More important, through Wang’s efforts over the past five years, effective anti-corruption mechanisms have gradually become institutionalized, so his retirement would not necessarily signal that the crackdown would slow down or become less effective. Therefore, right now it seems there is a greater chance of Wang retiring than otherwise. If he does so, his latest high-profile activities could be seen as his farewell gesture.

Read: The 19th National Congress: all Xi’s men

According to the CPC’s adopted practice, vacancies in the Politburo Standing Committee normally will be filled by incumbent Politburo members, and vacancies in the Politburo will be filled by incumbent Central Committee members. But this year, there may be a couple of “dark horses”.

Chen Min’er. Photo: Guancha.cn

Among the current Politburo members, the most likely to be promoted into the Politburo Standing Committee include Vice-Premier Wang Yang, Guangdong provincial party secretary Hu Chunhua, Shanghai municipal party secretary Han Zheng, and the director of the CPC’s General Office, Li Zhanshu. It is said that Wang Yang is also likely to replace Zhang Dejiang as NPC chairman, and Li Zhanshu to replace Wang Qishan, if he retires, to head the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the top anti-graft watchdog.

Xi protégé Chen Min’er, currently Chongqing municipal party secretary and a Central Committee member, is likely to be a dark horse to climb two rungs to become a Politburo Standing Committee member.

No endorsement of heir to Xi

Another Xi protégé, Cai Qi, currently Beijing municipal party secretary, is likely to be another dark horse in the leadership reshuffle at the 19th Party Congress. Currently, he is not even an alternate member of the Central Committee, but he is sure to be promoted into the Politburo – also moving up two rungs of the CPC’s bureaucratic ladder.

Unlike in the past, the 19th Party Congress will not endorse an heir to Xi, though he will have to step down five years later if the rule of retirement remains in effect. Does this mean Xi would seek a third term in 2022 or want to run a “horse race” to see who will stick out with outstanding performance? On that question, we can only wait and see.