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400 million times – that is how often users played an online game that was published on the occasion of the 19th Party Congress. Using a new app developed by Tencent, Chinese netizens could "clap" along to Xi Jinping's opening speech from their living rooms. And Xi gave them plenty of time to practice: His speech lasted a full 3.5 hours! 


China's socialist revival

Back to Marx, Lenin and Mao: CCP presents vision for the future

Socialist ideology has made a strong comeback at the 19th National Congress of China’s Communist Party (CCP). In a speech brimming with confidence, China’s party and state leader Xi Jinping announced that China had entered a “new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics” when he opened the event on October 18. He rooted China firmly in its Marxist, Leninist and Maoist heritage, and he presented its state capitalist one-party system as an alternative to liberal democracy and market-driven capitalism.

This year’s Party Congress paved the way for Xi’s second five-year term as General Secretary. It enshrined his ideological contribution in the party statute, elevating his status to a level comparable to his most powerful predecessors Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Xi stated his will to lead China down a new path – away from the liberalization of the past decades and back to a monolithic socialist state.

The CCP as Xi views it has the role to guide the country towards a more balanced development of the economy and the financial system and to guarantee political stability. The precondition is that the CCP controls all aspects of the economy and society.

At a time when liberal democracies struggle with major political and societal challenges, China steps out of the defensive. Xi's speech triggered debates over the return of the systemic competition that many in the West had thought to be over after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Xi Jinping‘s "Thoughts“ build on fundamental principles of Marxism, Leninism and Maoism:

1. New stage of socialist development. Displaying a Marxist teleological view of history, Xi wants to lead China through the next two phases of its socialist development. According to him, the Party will lead China to “basically realize socialist modernization” by 2030. By 2050, the Chinese people will enjoy “common prosperity,” which hints at the persisting appeal of the classical Communist vision to the present Chinese leadership. In a far-reaching ideological adjustment, the Party Congress defined a new “principal contradiction” that will serve as the guideline for future policy priorities of the CCP. According to Mao Zedong, the goal of all policy is to resolve contradictions in society. Since the beginning of the reform era, the principal contradiction was defined as that between the basic needs of the people and China’s insufficient production means. Establishing that the basic needs have since been met, Xi defined the new contradiction as that between ”unbalanced and inadequate development and the people's ever-growing needs for a better life.” (See Economy, Finance and Technology.)

2. Leninist revival. Leninist organizational prescriptions serve as Xi’s blueprint to strengthen the Party’s control over government, the economy and society. His emphasis on expanding the CCP’s reach reinforces the totalitarian tendencies of the Chinese political system. In a novel type of “digital Leninism” (Sebastian Heilmann), the Party expands its control with the help of Big Data and information technology. (See Politics, Society and Media).

3. A socialist global power. Xi laid out an expansive global ambition. He did not call for a Communist world revolution, but he clearly moved away from China's previous reluctance to shape global affairs. In his speech, Xi said that China would move toward the “center of the world stage” and become a leading global power by 2050. He also stressed the CCP's "mission" to make active “contributions to mankind.” (See China and the World).

“This Party Congress marks the beginning of open systemic competition between China and Western market-oriented liberal democracies. Xi sees China on a historic mission to shape the future while Western powers are perceived as disunited, declining and turning away from global leadership.”

Sebastian Heilmann, President of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS)


China’s global mission: Xi Jinping sets new tone for international ambitions

Xi Jinping's assertive statements on China's leading role in the world in his political work report to the Party Congress represented a substantial change in tone and a clear break with his predecessors’ approach of keeping a low profile in international affairs.

By stating China's global ambitions, Xi basically described the new reality, as China has been working on expanding its global footprint on the security arena and the diplomatic arena for years now. Most of the priorities and goals in his report have been on Beijing’s agenda since at least 2013.

The section of the report on national defense and the military focuses on the need to modernize the army, make technology the “core combat capability” and improve the combat capabilities of the armed forces. This should be achieved with the leadership of the party, top-level design and civil-military integration. All of these priorities have been part of Xi’s efforts to modernize the People’s Liberation Army since 2013.


Similarly, the section on foreign policy is centered on the concept of building “a community with a shared future for mankind,” a concept that was introduced in a UN Security Council resolution on Afghanistan in March.

Xi called on China to work with other countries to face global challenges, including inequality and security threats such as terrorism, climate change and threats to cybersecurity. He also presented China as a champion of free trade and globalization. Xi also mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative as China’s main vehicle for international cooperation.

MERICS analysis:

“China’s Emergence as a Global Security Actor: Strategies for Europe.” MERICS Paper on China No 4, by Mikko Huotari, Jan Gaspers, Thomas Eder, Helena Legarda and Sabine Mokry

News in brief



The Party is everywhere: CCP strengthens grip over state, economy and society

At the Party Congress, Xi Jinping declared the CCP’s control over state, economy and society as the precondition for China’s ability to reach its domestic and foreign policy goals. In his political report, he stressed that the “China Dream” would remain mere fantasy without the CCP in charge.

Xi indicated plans to further increase the Party’s influence over the executive. The CCP so far issues abstract guidelines and leaves the implementation to government authorities. But Xi now suggested that local-level Party and state organs with similar functions might be merged in the future or at least share offices. The next session of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislative organ, in March 2018, could yield further clues as to what this might mean in practice.

Under Xi Jinping, the CCP has extended its organizational presence in private, including foreign companies. The Party thus secures its influence over economic decision making outside of the state sector – regardless of formal ownership or management structures. At the time of the Party Congress, the Party committees in private enterprises held meetings to discuss Xi’s report. Party-state media reported about such meetings in China’s leading technology companies such as Baidu or Tencent.

The Party has also broadened its propaganda work among the general public. It uses new formats and arguments to persuade citizens of its vision. It is however remarkable that Xi, despite his undisputed power, does not tolerate any form of dissent. We Chat, for example, was not allowed to let users change their names or profile pictures similar to international social media users who do this to express solidarity or disagreement with a current development.

Meanwhile, human rights groups reported at least 14 cases of jailed activists before the start of the Party Congress, and at least two forced disappearances.

MERICS analysis: 

“Ideas and ideologies competing for China’s political future. How online pluralism challenges official orthodoxy.” By Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Mareike Ohlberg, Simon Lang and Bertram Lang

Strong man rule: Xi Jinping keeps next generation out of inner leadership

The composition of China’s new Politburo shows a strong concentration of power around the person of Xi Jinping who appears unwilling to pave the way for a transition to the next leadership generation. In a clear break with Party tradition, not a single one of his potential heirs has joined the innermost leadership circle.

This will fuel speculation that Xi plans to remain in power beyond the next Party Congress in 2022.

The new Politburo has 25 members, its top decision-making body, the Standing Committee, has 7. The number of women in the new Politburo has shrunk from 2 to 1.

Next to Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, the new Standing Committee consists of the following members (listed according to their rank in the Party hierarchy):

Li Zhanshu, 67, has served as Xi Jinping’s chief of staff since 2012. Prior to his transfer to Beijing, he had gained a reputation as an effective administrator in poverty-stricken regions. If he will be nominated as chairman of the National People’s Congress in March 2018, this would strengthen the Party’s influence over China’s top legislative organ.

Wang Yang, 62, served as vice-premier of the State Council since 2013. He was in charge Xi’s project to reduce poverty by 2020 and the economy. Prior to his transfer to the capital, he acted as Party Secretary in the Guangdong where he enjoyed high popularity and was known as an economic reformer. It is expected that he will become chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a body with mere advisory functions.

Wang Huning, 62, has a reputation as the CCP’s top thinker. After he left academia in the late 1990s, he served as an advisor to three former presidents (Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao und Xi Jinping). He is said to be the key architect of Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents,” Hu Jintao’s “Scientific outlook on Development” and of Xi’s “China Dream.” In his new role as the secretary of the Secretariat of the Central Committee he will focus on ideology and propaganda work.

Zhao Leji, 60, is the new head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. As such, he replaces Wang Qishan as the leader of the anti-corruption campaign, Xi’s instrument to enforce Party discipline and loyalty. As the youngest member of the Standing Committee, he has the best chances to play a key role in Chinese politics beyond the next Party Congress in 2022.

Han Zheng, 63, is the party secretary of Shanghai. He succeeded Xi Jinping in this position. He proved himself as effective administrator and reformer. From March 2018 onwards, he might use his experience and skills as Li Keqiang’s deputy in the State Council.

MERICS analysis: 

“19th CCP Party Congress: "Xi Jinping keeps next generation out of inner leadership.” Interview with Matthias Stepan

News in brief

  • Hong Kong:Chinese history to become compulsory school subject
  • Gaokao reform:Education minister announces change of college entrance examination system



Quality not quantity: CCP addresses middle class concerns

The Party Congress has declared the start of a new phase of China’s economic development. By endorsing the shift from quantitative to qualitative growth goals in the party’s statute, the Xi leadership made it clear that it views its predecessors' target of a “moderately prosperous society” in reach and prepares to move into a new phase of development.

The emphasis on quality of life and sustainability reflects the changing demands of China’s urban middle class for a cleaner environment and improved access to health care and social security, but also for affordable housing and stable financial markets. Broadening the goals to include “soft” aspects also allows the Party to save face at a time when growth is slowing down.

All of these projects have been underway for quite some time, but the Party Congress reaffirmed its strong commitment to these goals. In his opening speech, Xi Jinping singled out property speculation as especially damaging and promised to curb this development in his speech. At least 50 cities have already put regulations in place to limit house purchases.

At the same time, the Chinese leadership has not given up on hard growth targets entirely. It has promised to double GDP and income by 2020. MERICS analysis indicates that the leadership will actively try to keep GDP growth at the level necessary to reach this goal (6.4 percent), even if this means slower progress on another urgent issue: the reduction of China’s daunting levels of debt.

But MERICS economists expect that it will not be possible to double urban disposable incomes, even at current high levels of GDP growth.

Equally, the plan to build up a social security system for China’s quickly aging population is a very ambitious promise. It raises questions about fiscal redistribution – which would risk alienating the urban middle class that the Party wants to keep content.

MERICS analysis: 

"Growth takes priority over debt reduction." MERICS Economic Indicators Q3/2017, by Max J. Zenglein and Maximilian Kärnfelt


European media focus on Xi Jinping’s power concentration

The main messages of the 19th Party Congress of the CCP were broadly covered in European media. Leading newspapers emphasized that the PRC’s President and Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping has become China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. In Germany, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung stressed that hopes for economic liberalization in China had been squashed by Xi. 

The Italian La Repubblica highlighted Xi’s message that China would not close its doors to the world. In France, Le Monde expressed concerns over the shrinking space for civil society in China. An article in the British Guardian focused on China’s determination to "take center stage in the world."