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How Western Leaders Should Respond to China’s “Two Sessions” Reforms

Mar 15, 2018

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As thousands of leaders in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gathered this week for the meetings in China’s "two sessions", almost all media coverage has focused one topic: Xi Jinping’s future as China’s leader. The proceedings have been characterized as a sort of finalization of Xi’s years-long consolidation of power, which has involved building a tight network of allies and taking direct control of a number of important decision making bodies. Ever since the vote this week to abolish constitutional term limits on the president, many analysts have described the two sessions as formally sanctioning a power grab by Xi that will throw the future of Chinese politics into doubt.

It’s generally agreed upon that the move will probably make Chinese politics simpler and more efficient in the short-term. Xi and a small circle of advisers will be able to swiftly enact major policies without bureaucratic delays or the fear of Xi becoming a lame duck in his second term. But looking to the future, a number of prominent political theorists and legal scholars have publically argued that the move represents a move away from a tradition of consensus politics, and may cause a power vacuum and a succession crisis when Xi does ultimately step down.

Despite the alarm over Xi’s newly-extended tenure, in most respects, the meetings this week and the events leading up to them show that most of the other norms of elite politics in China are still in place. As much as Xi has solidified his absolute authority over the country’s government and military spheres, he has also openly assembled a close circle of confidants, signaling to the outside world which individuals wield real influence in China and who may ultimately replace him years down the road. Leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere would be wise to continue forging connections to this set, as it is clear that Xi’s circle will be the collection of minds steering China for the foreseeable future.

It’s been clear since October that, so far, Xi has no intention of overhauling China’s leadership structure. First, despite speculation that he might downsize the Politburo Standing Committee last year from seven members to five, the traditional seven-member model remains in place. There was also a great deal of chatter that Xi might defy tradition by allowing the notorious anti-corruption tsar Wang Qishan to return to the Politburo Standing Committee for another five years, ignoring the fact that Wang has passed the unofficial retirement age of 68. Yet all this now appears to have been empty conjecture as Wang has already stepped down, and has appeared at the two sessions this week as a cadre without any formal political title.

Wang’s move to a more behind-the-scenes role is very much in keeping with China’s political traditions. Many former members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including past general secretaries like Jiang Zemin, have gradually retired into more unofficial roles while maintaining a great deal of influence and respect. Xi is reportedly expected to tap Wang to be China’s next vice president, a role in which he would still oversee high-level diplomacy and trade negotiations with the United States and other powerful countries. This would allow Xi to keep a close, and widely respected, ally in a key political position while observing political precedents and norms.

More immediately, the two sessions also serve as a demonstration of the level of support for Xi across all of China’s important centers of power. While there is a great deal of pomp and fanfare around symbolic actions like writing "Xi Jinping Thought" into the Chinese constitution as a guiding philosophy, more substantive demonstrations of support for Xi have also been made. For one, the leading voices within China’s military apparatus have spoken out in support of his expanded control. And in light of Wang’s likely reassignment, delegates to the meetings are poised to enact a new, outsized anticorruption body that will continue to pursue Xi’s probing transparency and anti-graft campaign. Together, these signal an indisputable unification of the CCP around Xi and his agenda, which may be more of a boon in the long run than a liability.

It is worth noting that Xi Jinping will turn 65 this year, and will therefore be entering his 70s by the end of his second presidential term. How much longer he will choose to personally steer the ship of state after that point isn’t clear, and it very well may be a matter of years, not decades. What Xi has already demonstrated is that he is an effective and methodical leader, and has earned his role by leading China ahead through almost Machiavellian tactics. And the strong endorsement from the military makes it less likely that any faction would try to challenge his authority.

Many Western historians will remember this year’s two sessions as a turning point in modern Chinese history. The presidency in China has long been the only of the three posts held by the Communist Party general secretary that comes with term limits. The other two, party general secretary and military commission chairman, have never been bound by this restriction. So to many observers, the changes this week seem to hint at a complete concentration of power for Xi that could potentially be a path toward the worst variety of authoritarianism.

Yet it also bears acknowledging that Xi has stopped short of many other changes that would defy both formal and unspoken precedents and put him in a position of even greater power. For example he has continued cycling leaders out of the politburo Politburo by retirement age, and bringing in new blood to replace them, and has continued to delegate many important decisions to trusted  advisors such as Wang. He has also continued to at least maintain the appearance of discursive, consensus-built leadership at the very top.

Speculation about how Xi may use or abuse the privilege of unlimited rule is premature and ultimately takes away from a more important implication of the two sessions this week. That is that China now has a fiercely effective group of elites running the country with an unprecedented ability to cut through red tape and enact policy rapidly. For better or worse, their vision for the future will be put in place more rapidly and efficiently than before, and this could mean many years of efficient and coherent governing ahead.

With this image of China’s future now coming into focus, leaders in the West should begin to earnestly plan for an extended future of collaboration with Xi and those in his orbit. While some handwringing will continue about what this week may mean five years from now, there is an immediate practical need to recognize and act on the reality these meetings have signaled: Xi will continue to rule and circle himself with protégés that share his vision, and cooperating with this group will be the foundation of U.S.-China relations for the foreseeable future.

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