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Why China’s 19th National Party Congress matters to the Philippines

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By Aaron Jed Rabena

ON Oct. 18, the largest ruling political party in the world – the Communist Party of China – will hold its quinquennial National Party Congress in Beijing. Unlike US presidential elections and American politics, not much is heard in the country about the most important political activity in the world’s second richest economy. The Philippines cannot be faulted for this as the country shares stronger political affinity with the United States and has long been exposed to American soft power such as Hollywood, CNN, and Harvard.

It should thus not come as a surprise if some Filipinos would still mistake China’s political system as similar to that with North Korea. Unlike the latter, however, Post-Mao China has since maintained a system of “collective leadership” where no one person or family can form a personality cult and monopolize political power indefinitely. In China’s 19th Party Congress, over 2,000 deputies coming from the provinces, state-owned enterprises, the military, and financial institutions will be in attendance for three significant reasons.

First, the deputies, through elections, will facilitate membership reshuffles and promotions in China’s major political decision-making institutions, as some would have to leave by reason of term and age limits: the 200-member Central Committee; the 25-member Politburo; and the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. The last of the three is China’s most powerful political body where the president and premier sit as members. The lesser members there are in the political institution, the higher its institutional rank in the Party structure, whose members may only be elected by the institution directly below it.

Second, the Party General Secretary, currently Xi Jinping, will also deliver the Party Work Report that will outline the Party’s achievements and political blueprint for the next five years. Third, and in accordance with tradition, the Congress will likewise render a vote of confidence on Xi and Li Keqiang for their second five-year terms, as president and premier, respectively. This, though, is not absolute as China’s former premier, Zhu Rongji, only served one five-year term (1998-2003). Additionally, political practice dictates that this year’s Congress should identify, by offer of seats at the Standing Committee, the Sixth Generation of leaders that may succeed Xi and Li in the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

China’s Party Congress is important to the Philippines in two ways.

First, China is a neighbor and an emerging superpower that increasingly plays a larger role on global let alone Asian regional governance. A recent study published by no less than the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute titled “At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World,” finds that US preeminence is in decline and that the world – due to substantial changes in the global balance of power – is on a path towards a multipolar international order. Given the far-reaching consequences that accompany the rise of China’s economic and strategic influence, the Philippines’ closest ally, the United States, conducts varied types of high-level government-to-government mechanisms with China (e.g., Comprehensive Economic Dialogue, Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Defense and Security Dialogue, and Social and Cultural Dialogue, among others).

Similarly, in the private sphere, top American think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Wilson Center have all devoted programs and experts specializing on China and Sino-US relations. More importantly, President Rodrigo Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” and “pivot to China” has made China a closer economic partner of the Philippines. In fact, China has already become the Philippines’ largest trading partner this year and continues to be a vital Philippine tourist market (third largest).

Second, the Party Congress is crucial on how China’s foreign policy may be affected by possible shifts in China’s domestic and strategic priorities. These shifts involve the evolution or expansion of an incumbent government’s methods in achieving major Party goals that cut across administrations. For example, Deng Xiaoping’s hallmark policy of economic “reform and opening up” to realize the goal of an advanced socialist market economy continues to be carried on and deepened in line with the official Chinese ideology of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.

Looking at China’s previous leaders and Xi’s first term of office suggest that each administration, depending on the generational socioeconomic challenges they are confronted with, has a Party doctrine that evolves or expands and not retracts, except during the time of Mao when China was still a command economy: Deng Xiaoping’s Deng Xiaoping Theory, Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents, Hu Jintao’s Scientific Outlook on Development, and Xi Jinping’s Four Comprehensives. Even Xi’s popular vision of the “Chinese Dream” has its roots in Deng’s “invigorate China” and Jiang’s “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

Noticeably, while Deng, Jiang, and Hu were focused on opening the Chinese economy and its gradual alignment with the global economy, Xi has gone beyond and began to preside over a more proactive Chinese foreign policy by spearheading multilateral trading and financial regimes such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It is also under Xi that China first had its overseas naval base in Djibouti.

These being said, the continued course of Xi’s foreign policy considerably depends on his domestic political and economic agenda. As Laura Neack argues, regardless of political system, heads of government are motivated by two identical goals: maintain political power and develop and sustain policy coalitions. In conjunction with this, Cheng Li and Zachary Balin of the Brookings Institution submit that Chinese foreign policy is “the product of a dynamic political environment.”

In China, where leaders are not directly elected by constituents, legitimacy, accumulation of political capital, and the pacification of oppositionists, derives from economic performance, provision of public goods, public trust, and public accountability. This is why under Xi, China’s multilateral economic initiatives were coordinated to complement ongoing domestic market reforms along with the need to develop new overseas markets, as stated in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020). On the political front, Xi has enabled a broad crackdown on corruption and strict implementation of Party discipline that have led to the indictment of around 100,000 “tigers and flies” or low- and high-ranking Party officials.

Xi has to deliver because even in one party states like China, power struggles exist in the form of “intra-party politics” or “intra-party factions,” which can cause profound domestic policy reconfigurations. It may be recalled that in the latter part of Mao’s reign, his wife, Jiang Qing (“Madame Mao”), led the so-called “Gang of Four” or the conservatives, in defending the Maoist line vis-à-vis the rising popularity of the reformists headed by Deng Xiaoping. Therefore, if Xi consolidates enough public support or political allies for his domestic policies, there may be higher probability of continued support for his foreign policy agenda as well.

As Xi enters his second term and having been designated last year as the Party’s “core leader,” a title of credibility that was last given to Jiang Zemin, there may be more progression than a significant adjustment in Chinese foreign policy. The first half of Xi’s term has seen his policies unfold and his second term will likely ensure that those continue to be carried out. For many countries including the Philippines, China’s rise presents both challenges and opportunities, and familiarization with China’s domestic politics lends great value in examining how Chinese foreign economic and security policy are shaped from within.

Aaron Jed Rabena is a Fellow at the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations (PCFR) and the Claudio Teehankee Center for the Rule of Law.

aaronrabena@gmail.com.

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