Looking at various congresses over the past nine decades, one can map a narrative of the Communist Party and its development. They form the backbone of the organisation’s story.
The first, in 1921, was an epic of endurance and survival, held over nine days – the first seven in Shanghai and the last two in neighbouring Zhejiang after police disrupted proceedings. Of the 13 delegates who attended, more than half were to end up murdered, exiled or purged in the ensuing years.
From such inauspicious beginnings the 19th party congress, held from Wednesday in Beijing, has grown. Over the decades, it has been at congresses that major strategic decisions have been made, decisions which have fundamentally shaped the party story. To adopt an agrarian rather than an urban form of revolution in the 1920s and 1930s; to accede to Mao’s dominant role in the 1940s. In the Maoist era, the three congresses held – the 8th in 1956, the 9th in 1969, and 10th in 1973 – marked moments before or after upheavals such as the Great Leap Forward in 1957, the Cultural Revolution in 1966, or the fall of Lin Biao in 1971.
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Since 1978, they have acquired a five-year rhythm, giving a sense of party continuity and predictability in a China convulsed by marketisations and social change. Each congress over this period has come to contribute to the unfolding tale of the reform era.
The 1982 congress saw the acceptance of socialism with Chinese characteristics – 1992 deepened this, with Deng Xiaoping’s final swansong. In 2002 it was the affirmation of Jiang Zemin’s “theory of the three represents” and the then radical notion of entrepreneurs being allowed to enter the party. In 2007 Hu Jintao introduced “scientific development”. The last congress, in 2012, saw the rise of Xi Jinping. We now know much more about how this subplot is developing – 2017 will be the start of a major new episode.
We still do not know what the specific ingredients will be in the new episode of this grand drama, but we get the drift of the overall plot from all that has come before.
We know we are not watching a tragedy. That belongs to the past – the era before 1949 – when there seemed to be no hope. The party has now progressed through the years of purgatory under Mao, into the sunnier period of optimism – of the promise of happy endings and bright messages. For all the talk surrounding this congress’ likely challenges and problems, there will one dominant metanarrative: things will turn out well in the end.
The party is delivering on its solemn promise of restoring China to its rightful place in the world, the century of humiliation over forever. Never has the country been stronger, richer, more respected, more feared. This congress will contribute to that confidence. There will be no dissenting voices. There will be no blips nor signs of uncertainty on this. It will be a congress that says to the world, and to Chinese people, we matter. And no one can take this moment of renaissance from us.
This is a global, not just a domestic message. It involves China speaking to the world as never before. In the past, even in 2012, congresses were largely domestic, introspective affairs – transacting party business for a party audience, watched by the rest of the county only when they could or would take time from their daily work and distractions. The rest of the world could make of it what they wanted – they were not the key audience.
In 2017, things are different. This is the first global congress – the first congress of the party since its assumption of international roles. In a week in which Xi appeared on the front of The Economist as the world’s most powerful man, the symbolism, and its timing, could not be more appropriate.
Many have been saying the story of the 2017 congress will be about the consolidation of power by Xi and about the emergence of him as an omnipotent autocrat. But Xi is, in fact, a character in the latest episode of a play that has been unfolding since 1921 – albeit the leading one. The real plot is about the party – about its survival, resilience and flourishing.
The one thing to do over the events in mid-October in Beijing is to resolutely focus on this story – the grander story of the party, not the individual players with their parts in it. Not looking at Xi’s rise as an individual, but how his rise is made meaningful within the metanarrative of the party itself. What does it say about the party’s plans, its future, its stewardship of China over the next decade or so.
In 2017, Xi is the main man – but the party is the story – and stories, unlike individuals, can go on indefinitely. ■
Kerry Brown is director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London