Event Report “China after the 19th Party Congress”

Dr. Lynette Ong (middle) and Dr. Sida Liu (right) speaking at the panel | Source: Contemporary Asian Studies Student Union

On November 28, 2017, the panel “China after the 19th Party Congress” was held at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. The Contemporary Asian Studies Student Union sponsored the event, with the Association of Political Science Students and the East Asian Studies Student Union as co-sponsors. The panelists were Dr. Lynette Ong, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Sida Liu, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and Faculty Fellow at the American Bar Association. Professor Ong currently serves as Director of Munk China Initiatives at the Munk School for Global Affairs and has research interests in authoritarian politics and the political economy of development. She has also published works on issues like state-led urbanization and local government debt. Professor Liu’s current research focuses on the intersections between sociology, Chinese law, and the legal profession, as well as social theory, criminal justice, and globalization. In the panel discussion, Professor Ong and Professor Liu analyzed the significance and impact of the 19th Party Congress, focusing on the contexts of elite politics and the legal system, respectively. Professor Ong and Professor Liu noted in both these areas clear signs of a shift in the leadership’s approach. The 19th Party Congress, they argued, reflects Xi Jinping’s embrace of assertive policies domestically and internationally.

Professor Ong noted that while there is a relative balance of political representation within the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping’s failure to appoint a successor and his anti-corruption campaign indicates that he may be attempting to consolidate power. In defiance of Deng Xiaoping’s succession rule, Xi did not appoint a successor into the Politburo Standing Committee. This may substantiate the concern that he does not intend to step down in 2022. While Xi has in effect broken the succession rule, it is encouraging that he did not break retirement age or promotion rules. Also encouraging is some balance in political representation in the Politburo. Premier Li Keqiang of the Communist Youth League, second in power to Xi, as well as other members belonging to the CYL and the “Shanghai Gang” may impede any attempt to consolidate power. At the same time, lack of transparency or formal procedures in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign coupled with its integration into party politics and hierarchy raise concerns about Xi’s use of charges of “corruption” to eliminate within-party opposition.

Chinese domestic and foreign policy under Xi mirrors his increased assertiveness in within-party politics. Meddling in foreign elections, the monitoring of Chinese citizens abroad, and rising academic censorship all speak to China’s willingness to “throw its weight around,” Ong contends. Furthermore, the “One Belt One Road” initiative may serve as an instrument of “soft power” that allows China to expand its global influence, especially among neighbouring countries. Xi’s emphasis on terms such as “rule of law,” “Marxism” and “national rejuvenation” and his lack of emphasis on words such as “reform and opening” and “democracy” in his speech at the 19th Congress attest to this prioritization of the expansion of political power, both within China and on the world stage.

Professor Liu argued that the concept of “governing the country according to yifa zhiguo” –instrumental “rule by law,” but also normative “rule of law” – encapsulates the dynamics of legal reforms in China over the past five to ten years. Rule according to yifa zhiguo, proposed in the 1990s and embraced at the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress in 2014, has had a contradictory impact on the Chinese legal system. On one hand, the concept’s normative aspect is manifest in China’s moves to professionalize the legal profession and ensure the rule of law in the court system. The case registration system legally requiring courts to take all legitimately filed cases is evidence of the latter. Restrictions on the amount of judges allowed in a court and stricter requirements of the National Judicial Exam are evidence of the former. Liu noted that on the other hand, China is seeing the use of “rule by law” as an instrument of political persecution. For instance, the rule of law served as pretense for both the “709” crackdown on human rights lawyers in 2015 and the extralegal shuanggui system of internal discipline.

Echoing Ong’s argument that Xi is seeking to expand the Party’s power, Liu contended that we are seeing the “Rise of the Party” in the Chinese legal profession. This is seen most prominently in the establishment of a Party Committee to directly supervise the legal profession. It is seen also in the in the move to legalize shuanggui through the creation of a National Supervisory Commission. As this would be a national-level institution, to do so would require rewriting the Constitution. From the perspective of criminal procedure, it would allow the extralegal practice to continue, doing little to stop violations by authorities.

In the Q&A period, an audience member raised the question of what structures and policies China had in place for the next five years to manage the rising expectations that come with improved social and economic conditions. Liu responded that it is important to consider the bigger picture of where them Party legitimacy lies. He hypothesized that for the past twenty to thirty years, legitimacy has flowed from economic growth. The Party’s more recent emphasis on concepts such as party and ideological loyalty over economics may be a response to the realization that past economic growth was unsustainable.

The panelists’ response to the question of a second audience member regarding the effectiveness of Xi’s reemphasis of Marxism made clear the potential for a collapse in legitimacy in the face of declining economic growth. The danger of emphasizing ideology as a new source of legitimacy is twofold. Firstly, as Liu argued, it may prevent intelligent and promising people from wanting to enter the government sector. Secondly, and more importantly, it may fail to effectively build legitimacy. Ong contended that Marxist ideology has currency in Chinese society only insofar as it allows one to achieve his or her goals more effectively. In other words, “to put on the right clothes that the emperor wants to see” is an important signal. Especially in light of declining economic legitimacy and the Party’s recent moves to consolidate power, the question remains of if and how the Party will be able to build legitimacy in the future.

Liu stressed two positive signs in his conclusion: first, the widespread professionalization in the bureaucracy and the legal system, and second, the generational shift. Xi is the last leader of the generation of the Cultural Revolution. Liu considers the Generation of 1989, people who were students during the 1989 student movement, to be the most liberal generation. This generation will be the in charge of the Chinese legal and political systems in ten years’ time.

Daniela Zaks is a first year student at the University of Toronto studying International Relations. She is currently serving as a Copy-editor for Synergy.

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