The conclusions of the XVIII Congress of the Chinese Communist Party have disappointed those who were under the illusion that it would constitute an opportunity to start China down the path of democratic reform. Nevertheless, those very characteristics of cohesion, discipline, and respect for hierarchy, that could appear to Western observers to be a symptom of the rigidity of the regime, could actually represent an essential condition for the beginning of the process, as long as the new Chinese leadership recognizes that this would be to the benefit of the country and the Party.
The dust has settled on the spasmodic media attention focused on the XVIII CCP Congress. Only a few weeks after the end of the meeting, a conscious analysis can be made regarding the outcomes and scenarios, as opposed to the contrasts between reformists and conservatives that defined Italian evaluations. Until now, a primarily negative opinion has prevailed, of the CCP’s excessive caution, the prevalence of the old guard in the new leadership, and the absence of any signs of innovation. Xi Jinping’s new leadership and the composition of the Standing Committee is an expression of the apparatus, of tradition, without elements of irregularity and without giving representation to civil society or to women. International press and observers have expressed disappointment for the conclusion of the Congress: a missed occasion to start China on the path to a more open society more integrated in the international arena.
These evaluations make the mistake of being too superficial, and they confuse aspirations with reality. The result is a general disillusionment. In reality, the Congress closed in the only way possible: a cohesive majority, tempered by discipline, respectful of the hierarchies and shaped for the exertion of power. The history of the CCP – in this respect not much different from that of the rest of the country – has taught that such a composition is not the enemy of innovation. The indispensible condition for the affirmation of reforms is to have a strong Party that allows them rather than be subjected to them. For this reason a Politburo free from eccentricities is the best guarantee for movement towards reform. The authentic analytic discrimination is to understand whether the changes are useful to the country and the Party. Only after this is determined can reforms be enacted, and a reformist majority is not needed to do that.
The political history of the main characters does not aid in predicting their next move. All of the members of the Standing Committee have the same pedigree, a cursus honorum that led them to schools of the Party, through the halls of the administration, the difficulties of local governments, behind the closed doors of the banks and state-owned enterprise. Most importantly, every one of them has shown themselves to be flexible, capable of applying alternative methods but all converging on a single objective: making China’s interests coincide with those of the Party. They have been educated at China’s best universities, almost all are engineers, and all have roots in China’s history and culture. None of them is known for being unique, studying abroad, or unusual events in their personal life. As unusual as this may seem, it is this very regularity that can lead to reforms. Chinese political life is full of these apparent contradictions. Mao Zedong was Supreme Leader of the Party, his rule was never questioned, but he did not hesitate to unleash the Red Guard against the headquarters of his own party. Lin Biao was the representative of the most radical faction of the CCP, and yet he was accused of being the heir of Confucius and of “covering himself in the left to make policy of the right.” Deng Xiaoping was always a Stalinist, in the front lines repressing the students at Tiananmen, but he will go down in history as the architect of the new China, prosperous and reformed.
It will not be the rigors of ideology, but the pragmatism of the choices made that will determine the destiny of any eventual reforms. The procedures of the Congress confirm the necessity for unity. The selection of a new leader is a compromise among the various interests of the country, the reflections of a situation that is much more complex than in the past. The solemn liturgy has remained, along with the confirmation of the 1800’s lexicon: Plenum, Central Committee, General Secretary. And yet a different China imposed a collective decision. Xi is the synthesis of complexity. More than imposing his own line, he will manage a path that has already been established. He was chosen to be a Secretary of unity and progress. The best way to move forward is to remain united. The times when a Congressional majority was necessary to gain the most powerful and sought-after positions are now gone. Today there are no minorities to punish or cajole: there is only one shared Party line. Reforms will happen if they are functional.
If this is China’s hope, the road to the end appears very rocky. Innovation might be a necessity before it gets the chance to be a choice. The country’s enormous contradictions will not allow it to persevere with a development model that appeared successful, but is now threatening to become suffocated. The country needs to emerge from the primarily quantitative economic model, based on titanic production of products destined for export. China needs to reduce savings and convert them into the consumption that has been repressed for too long. China cannot continue to rely on exports towards wealthier markets, or on the attraction of investment from multinational corporations. It needs to promote the ambition to favor technologically advanced and non-polluting technology, after having been the factory of the world for decades. The tension between Beijing and the Provinces threatens to escalate, due to the difficulty of accessing credit and the housing bubble that finances local governments but risks becoming an uncontrollable crisis. Over all of this hover social issues, where income inequality, access to welfare, and lack of opportunities are going beyond physiological limits and are provoking widespread manifestations of protest.
It will not therefore be the genesis of the Political Bureau that allows the destiny of the country to be predicted. It will instead be important how the contradictions that have been created will be comprehended and managed. The China that has been delivered to Xi Jinping is powerful but paradoxically more fragile. It is vulnerable to the crisis and the uncertainties of globalization. It has improved the quality of life of its population, but must still contend with ever more pressing social demands. It has developed enviable wealth, but is unable to continue to control information as completely as before, thanks to new methods of communication that have become available. It needs to handle a new reality, where the alternation of censorship and openness is difficult but essential. It will need to calibrate its interventions carefully, without getting trapped in the sterility of the conflict between reformers and conservatives. It is approaching a complex period, treacherous and unprecedented. The disorder under Chinese skies will be great, but the situation will not be automatically excellent.