China Communist Party Congress to Help Xi Deal With North Korea Impasse

 | Sep 04, 2017 | 10:00 AM EDT
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The countdown has begun toward the inevitable "re-election" of Chinese President Xi Jinping. But who joins him at the top, and whether he wants to stay there for an unprecedented third term will be very interesting to watch.

China's leaders will gather in Beijing on October 18 for the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, according to an announcement from Xinhua, China's official news service. The date was a tight secret, since there's fierce jockeying for position leading up to it.

The get-together will establish the Communist Party's leadership, including its cabinet of secretaries, for the next five years. It also starts Xi's second five-year term as the general secretary of the Communist Party, as well as chairman of its armed forces. He'll then be rubber-stamped as president at a meeting in March.

Xi has been fiercely consolidating power. He will be looking to stack with his allies the Politburo Standing Committee, the cabinet that sits immediately below the president in the leadership hierarchy.

Five of the seven members of the cabinet will be 68 or older at the time of the meeting, which has in the past been the unofficial retirement age for them to step down. That's also true of at least 11 of the 25 members of the Politburo as a whole, as The New York Times explains.

Xi is ending his first five-year term and is sure to win re-appointment for another half-decade. The statement noted that China's leadership will pursue "with Xi at the core." The members of the cabinet, which has had as many as nine representatives and as few as five, join Xi on stage for a curtain call at the end of the congress, which normally lasts around a week.

Xi is China's strongest leader since the days of Chairman Mao Zedong, confirmed last year as China's "core leader." Though that has no title or post, it is language that confirms his status as the ultimate authority in the country. It has been used only to refer to Mao, the reformist revolutionary Deng Xiaoping, and the man Deng picked as his successor, Jiang Zemin.

The meetings in October will carry a flurry of official-sounding titles and functions. Premier Li Keqiang may well also win a second term, although that's not iron-clad. Anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan had been mooted as a possible replacement, although he's already 69.

If Xi retains the services of Wang on the committee, it would be a bold break with tradition. So, too, would it be if he does not announce his successor at the meeting, a move that he is reportedly considering. That would suggest Xi may seek to serve an unheralded third five-year term.

We're sure to have a bit more blather on the theory behind China's socialist advancement. Each Chinese leader is expected to come up with an exciting term for his take on how the country's social and economic progress under Communism should advance.

China is "striving for its final victory for achieving a moderately prosperous society in an all-round way," the cabinet said, and this is "a critical time for the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics."

First, of course, we had Marxism and Leninism. Then there was Mao Zedong Thought (with delights such as the Great Leap Forward) and Deng Xiaoping Theory. In recent years, we have had the "Three Represents" from Jiang Zemin, then Hu Jintao's idea of a "Harmonious Society" and "Scientific Outlook on Development."

Xi has already added the "Four Comprehensives" -- a four-pronged strategy to "comprehensively accomplish a moderately prosperous society," as well as to deepen reform, advance the rule of law, and enforce strict governance of the Communist Party.

The next meeting will undoubtedly lead to a new slogan for the banners under which socialism will advance. It will be informed by General Secretary Xi's "series of important remarks" and the party's "new governance concepts," Xinhua says, so it's sure to generate a new catchphrase.

Xi's Big Challenge Is North Korea

But there's also some very serious business to sort out. Xi is likely to get his way on most appointments. But how securely he surrounds himself with friendly faces and perhaps more importantly eliminates young rivals will determine the strength of his backing on contentious issues.

Xi has a migraine-level headache to handle in the form of North Korea. China is none-too-thrilled to have a loosely hinged nuclear nation next door.

Once the current North Korean "crisis" of this summer has passed, U.S. President Donald Trump may seek to heap pressure on Xi again to in turn pressure Pyongyang. 

That may take the form of further military maneuvers in the South China Sea, stronger shows of support for Japan in the East China Sea, and possibly deliberately ambiguous comments on Taiwan.

"China has lots of pressure points that might be exploited to push them to tighten the noose around Pyongyang's neck," Stephen Nagy, associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at International Christian University in Tokyo says.

A strong showing at this October's meeting would give Xi the backing necessary to be more obstreperous with Trump.

China also has to decide how to handle the investigation launched by the United States into its abuse of intellectual property. That "Section 301" investigation could see the United States impose retaliatory tariffs on Chinese goods over the next year.

The United States believes it is correct to draw on a little-used section of the Trade Act of 1974 to proceed with an investigation of its own instigation. China has hinted that is illegal, meaning it is highly likely to challenge the U.S. move through the World Trade Organization. The WTO stipulates that member nations must first attempt to resolve their differences through the WTO, which also has an agreement on intellectual property.

Trump has consistently muddled foreign affairs and matters of state with trade issues. He has also attempted to build a personal rapport with Xi, while then criticizing China as a whole.

If emboldened by October's leadership changes, Xi may take a tougher approach in dealing with Trump. Any imposition of tougher tariffs would undoubtedly see China respond in kind. A frosty trade war would then be likely. 

Trump needs China and Xi, so he alternates criticism with flattery. It's likely that China will be the key component of any permanent solution to address North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.

The best outcome, Nagy says, may be a situation where China and perhaps Russia guarantee North Korea's security in return for Pyongyang freezing its development of nuclear weapons and missile technology. China would also have to lead the inspections to verify its compliance.

Quite how strongly Xi can respond to pressure from the United States will be decided at next month's meeting. If he consolidates his hold on power, as I think is likely, Xi will come out of the meeting with even greater authority, with high-ranking supporters backing his moves over the next five years.

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