Foreign policy issues have never played a major role in party congresses, at least during the reform era, for understandable reasons. A party congress is mainly about domestic political power and domestic policies, and even then is primarily an exercise in tedious sloganeering, pumping up the party faithful, and presenting the new leadership lineup. Nonetheless, congresses can be important as indicators of future policy direction and power structure, including in the foreign policy arena. This essay examines the foreign policy aspects of both the congress work report delivered by then Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and the official membership roster of the new CCP Central Committee, Politburo, and Politburo Standing Committee.
The 18th Party Congress laid out a “steady on course” approach to cross-Strait relations, continuing to emphasize economic, cultural, and educational exchanges in the near term while seeking to lay a foundation of political trust for future political and security dialogues, including a peace accord. In a Taipei conference with both Kuomintang and Democratic Progressive Party representatives in mid-December, People’s Republic of China officials reiterated this patient approach while also calling for step-by-step progress. DPP participants, however, challenged the sincerity of PRC assertions of patience, charging that Beijing was shifting the agenda toward political issues to step up the pace and narrow the options to one: unification.
The advent of the 18th Party Congress in early November 2012 marked a large-scale turnover of senior military personnel in the People’s Liberation Army, including eight out of the ten uniformed members of the leading Central Military Commission. Moreover, the Party’s new general-secretary Xi Jinping also replaced Hu Jintao as CMC chairman, defying expectations that the latter would stay on for an additional two years. This article examines the reasons for Xi’s “early” promotion and profiles the new members, exploring their backgrounds and possible clues to their preferences and outlooks.
The recent 18th Party Congress, convened only after a year of extremely contentious politics, surprised by generating a leadership group that appeared lopsided in favor of supporters of former general secretary Jiang Zemin (江泽民), thereby raising questions about “politics by elders” (老人政治) and the limits of acceptable intervention. Ironically the apparent bias in favor of Jiang’s network may give new general secretary Xi Jinping (习近平) a relatively free hand in the next few years. Nevertheless, by generating the oldest Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) in years, the congress set up a situation in which five of the seven members of the PBSC will have to retire in only five years and many contentious issues will have to be readdressed relatively soon. Sorting out succession politics issues appears to be getting more difficult over time, but such a judgment will have to wait at least another five years.
Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are now the two top leaders in China. Both have moved quickly to break with the Hu-Wen administration and signal their support for dramatic new economic reforms. The structure of the new Politburo Standing Committee appears to support their aspirations. Neither Xi nor Li has yet committed to specific reform measures, and the obstacles to reform are formidable. However, both Xi and Li have committed to a process that will lead to the creation of a reform program by late 2013.
The processes of generational turnover of China’s leadership at the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th National Congress extended patterns of formal politics that trace their roots to Deng Xiaoping’s political reforms of the 1980s, that advanced in the Jiang Zemin era in the 1990s, and that matured under outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao in the 2000s. As such, the transition in the party leadership at the 18th Congress marked another step forward in the institutionalization of Chinese leadership politics.