The outcome of political infighting in 2017 will determine whether China gets back on a path of economic reform, openness and constructive relations with the rest of the world, or wastes even more years on an aggressively nationalist, economically timorous course. The omens do not look good.
The fighting will be fiercest at China’s quinquennial Communist Party congress in October. This is the most important gathering in the country’s political calendar because it, directly or indirectly, appoints new men—and they are mostly men—to the outfits at the top of China’s hierarchy: the 25-member Politburo, its seven-member Standing Committee (the inner sanctum) and the 350-member Central Committee, the embodiment of the elite. The congress provides President Xi Jinping with his best opportunity yet to put his stamp on the party.
The aim of this orderly changing of the guard is to ensure a steady-as-she-goes transition, in contrast to the capriciousness of Mao Zedong’s rule. But the coming changes will be more sweeping than usual and instead of predictable, incremental change will bring an uncertainty-inducing power struggle.
Supporters of Mr Xi have long argued that when he gets more people into positions of authority he will be able to give market forces “the decisive role” in the economy that he promised in 2013 but has so far failed to achieve. That would mean introducing competition to China’s state-owned enterprises, choking off their easy credit and reining in the economy’s addiction to debt-driven growth. But even if that is what Mr Xi really wants (which is far from certain), doing these things will require more than a successful party congress.
The president has already accumulated more power than any recent leader. He is party boss, commander-in-chief, head of the national security council and chairman of numerous “small leading groups” that influence every aspect of government. Yet his authority is concentrated at the pinnacle of the pyramid. Further down the slopes, his influence wanes. Only a handful of China’s 31 provinces, for instance, are run by his allies and, on some measures, his network of supporters amounts to less than a tenth of the Central Committee. This is because the committee was picked not by Mr Xi but by his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, at the time they selected him as president.
Assuming the normal retirement ages are respected, five of the seven members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee will step down, leaving only Mr Xi certain to keep his job and Li Keqiang, the prime minister, likely to keep his. Six of the other 18 Politburo members will retire and many more will exit the Central Committee.
Usually, 40-60 committee members leave when they reach the mandatory retirement age of 65. But 92 slots will have to be filled in 2017, largely because fewer youngsters were promoted in previous rounds. Some will be replaced on the principle of Buggins’s turn. Mr Xi, however, will insist that many of his own people are appointed to the vacancies, adding to the pervasive sense of uncertainty in party ranks.
Beijing and beyond
The crucial first step is under way: picking the delegates to the congress—about 2,300 of them—who vote for the various party bodies. Mr Xi does not choose the delegates himself. Provincial and other party leaders do. But he has been twisting their arms by, for example, promoting allies to top provincial jobs and by reducing the importance of the Communist Youth League, a branch of the party that used to be a route to the top and once controlled a big chunk of the Central Committee.
It seems likely that all this will result in a more pliable group of delegates and an increase in the number of Mr Xi’s supporters. It will be as if the American president skipped the hustings and simply packed the electoral college, Senate and Congress.
But even if Mr Xi is able to boost his support sharply, it will not necessarily lead to economic reform or a less nationalist foreign policy. For one thing, it is never simple for a leader to change gear after several years in power. For another, Mr Xi will not have a majority on the Central Committee even assuming he gets his people appointed to, say, half the vacant posts. Moreover, those farther away from the centre of power—bosses of state-owned enterprises or party secretaries in China’s 2,800 counties, the lowest level of administration—have become used to acting on their own. Lastly, Mr Xi has not been able to overcome resistance to change despite having so much formal power already. He and other leaders are at odds about what to do on the economy.
Mr Xi will extend his power but fail to make it absolute. And the struggle for reform will continue.