With such good news, why take a risk? Peter Harris discusses the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China.

AuthorHarris, Peter

In his report to the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China last October, President Xi Jinping was resolutely upbeat about China's achievements and prospects. At the same time the Congress unveiled a new Politburo Standing Committee and a new military commission that are, it seems, amenable to Xi's will. For the next four years or so President Xi will be in a commanding position, strong enough to achieve many of his goals. So why has he changed the rules, allowing him to stay on indefinitely as China's leader? There are several possible explanations, none of them entirely reassuring.


Human nature being what it is, good news is often less compelling than bad news. So it is really not much of a surprise that 92-yearold Jiang Zemin, one of China's retired leaders, dozed off now and again during President Xi Jinping's report to the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing last October. The three-and-a-half-hour report may have been a bit dull, but it was resolutely positive and optimistic, and full of good news.

President Xi's report was an important one. Not perhaps the most important speech of the 21st century, as President Donald Trump's former confidante Steve Bannon described it, but a milestone nonetheless--a milestone on the long road to China's triumphant emergence as a wealthy, powerful state--or re-emergence, we should say, after a two-century-long interlude. And a milestone, too, on the road to President Xi's steady accumulation of untrammelled power. So we should all pay some attention to it, and to what it said.

The speech began with the adage, 'Don't forget your initial intention', which Xi says twice, adding after the second time, 'then you will get what you want in the end'. This intention, or 'mission' as the official English translation puts it, was and is for Chinese communists to seek happiness for the Chinese people and the rejuvenation for the Chinese nation.

So at the very outset Xi reminded his audience of his great new vision for China and Chinese communists, his 'China Dream', which he returned to in more detail later on. As Xi described it, the vision rested on an elegantly simple version of Chinese history, one drawn largely from the template prose of China's Communist Party and state constitutions, but embellished with Xi's own thoughts and insights. As he told his 2280-strong audience of Congress delegates, China has come a very long way since the October Revolution in Moscow in 1917. Despite the efforts of many patriots, the country was beset by turmoil and foreign aggression until the Communist Party of China, founded in 1921, 'shouldered the historic mission of national rejuvenation'. After 28 years of painful struggle the New Democratic revolution was completed and China's great transition from feudal autocracy to people's democracy began. The party united the people and led the new revolution of reform and opening up, still continuing today.

Bowdlerised history

This is, of course, history that is not just elegantly simple but also heavily bowdlerised. Thomas Bowdler, an upright English doctor who died two centuries ago, published a family version of the collected works of William Shakespeare that cut out all the offensive and improper bits from Shakespeare's writings. In the same way, President Xi's account of Communist Party history cut out the offensive and improper bits from China's recent history. Just to remind, these include the fact that the Chinese Communist Party was founded as an arm of the Comintern, or Communist International, intent on promoting proletarian revolution, rather than a party just seeking to make people happy. They also include the central role of the Guomindang or National Party in China during the anti-Japanese war; the bloody class-struggle campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s; the massive famine brought on by the Great Leap Forward in 1959-61; and the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong's final years, which brought the party to its knees, not to mention the 1989 Tiananmen crisis. Nowhere in Xi's brief historical overview are any of these things mentioned. Only once or twice in his review are there glimpses of uncertainty, as when he declares that the party never forgot its mission 'whether it was going with the flow or facing adversities'. Otherwise he is a consummate purveyor of optimism.

In his report Xi followed his brief review of recent Chinese history with a discussion of the Communist Party's achievements of the previous five years. He described the changes during these years as profound and fundamental. He began with achievements in economic development, which he mentioned with justifiable pride, given the remarkable advances in this field. He praised the 'One Belt One Road' initiative, widely seen as his flagship endeavour, though he did not call it that, and touched on the massive movement of people from rural to urban areas of China, which he sets at more than 80 million migrants, though without going into the problems still attendant on the tricky hukou or household registration system that authorities have to manage to integrate rural migrants into urban life. He then discussed the development of socialist democracy and the rule of law, asserting that justice in China is impartially administered, a controversial claim given the widespread suppression of democracy activists and human rights lawyers and the essentially extra-legal activities of the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. One by one he ticked off the achievements: on the theoretical and cultural fronts, in improving living standards, on building an ecological civilisation (as he put it), on reforming the military, on the fresh progress made in work on Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan--news to the...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT