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China’s 19th National Peoples Congress October 2017 Heralds Return of Personality Cult: A Strategic Analysis

Paper No. 6317                                     Dated 30-Oct-2017

By Dr Subhash Kapila;

The major outcome of China’s 19th National People’s Congress (NPC) just concluded heralds a return of the “Personality Cult” with President Xi Jinping’s ruthless abolition of a ‘Collective Leadership’ and manoeuvring his elevation to China’s pantheon of Mao Tse Tung and Deng Xiao Peng.

The world may marvel at his meteoric rise leading to his dubbing as ‘China’s 21st Century Emperor’. (Refer to my SAAG Paper No. 6109 Dated 03 May 2016 “China’s 21st Century Emperor and its Implications for India”).  President Xi as in October 2017 has complete mastery of over all the Chinese State organs of power from the Party machine to the more significant absolute control of China’s military behemoth----the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Detailed implications are set out in my quoted SAAG Paper.

The United States, India and Japan as the three nations most impacted by President Xi’s monarchical sway over China with which nation they have many contentious and confrontational issues need to note that China opens up itself to major strategic vulnerabilities by reposing such powerful and unparalleled leverages of power in the persona of Chinese President Xi without the checks and balances of a ‘Collective Leadership’.

With President Xi Jinping emerging as “China’s Great Helmsman of the 21st Century” reminiscent of Mao then it logically opens up to the conclusion that in the wake of the 19th NPC and the ‘political debris’ that it has generated in its wake may create significant political upheaval in China in the next five years and lead to a repeat of a ‘Second Cultural Revolution’ as cataclysmic as Mao’s first Cultural Revolution.

So while the global powers and the world recalibrate their China- policy to cope with President Xi’s assuming monarchical sway of China’s military machine they must factor-in China’s strategic vulnerabilities generated so by the Chinese President. After all, his personal vulnerabilities as the sole arbiter of China’s foreign policies, national security strategy and military postures opens him to vicious domestic political attacks and challenges should failures take place in any of these domains.

The above could arise significantly from the ranks of the older Chinese leadership---former President, Prime Ministers and Senior Party functionaries. It could also significantly arise from the hundreds of Party seniors indicted and jailed for corruption. Notably within the PLA Forces under President Xi 13,000 officers stood sacked and more than 50 Generals of the PLA jailed.

No Armed Forces anywhere in the world can accept such humiliations of its senior officers with total silence because of the imposition of a heavy authoritarian political hand. At some stage this bubble is likely to burst out of the simmering so initiated.

At some stage many in China would question whether President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive was a genuine exercise to cleanse China or just a personal political expedient to ease out his political opposition and place his cronies in positions of power.

Chinese President Xi’s first term as China’s President stands marked by China’s switch from ‘Soft Power Diplomacy’ to a ‘Hard Power Strategy’ creating military turbulence in Indo Pacific Asia by its aggressive brinkmanship commencing with the South China Sea, extending to East China Sea and heightening tensions on the India-China Occupied Tibet Border. His first term was also marked by the unveiling of China’s Maritime Strategy Document which put the world on notice that China’s maritime ambitions now transcended dominance of the ‘Near Seas’  to transcending the oceans to ‘Distant Seas’.

More significantly, China’s defiance of The Hague Tribunal ruling against China’s claimed sovereignty over the South China Sea as illegal is a pointer to China’s scant regard for international conventions and laws. China preaches a rules-based international order but as per ‘Chinese Characteristics’ that is applicable to other countries and certainly not to China.

This propensity of China of international defiance is likely to emerge more strongly and acute as President Xi armed with his 19th NPC powerful portfolio pursues his ‘Great China Dream’. President Xi has displayed ruthless and hard line approaches in pursuit of his grandiose ambitions.

The latter speaks volumes of China’s emerging ambitions to emerge as a global power as a prelude to bidding for Superpower status. That again found resonance at the 19th NPC where Chinese President Xi Jinping asserted that “China can frame a new World Order”.

However as argued in my Book: “China-India Military Confrontation: 21st Century Perspectives” my analysis rules out the possibilities of China ever emerging as a Superpower. It is foredoomed to remain as the “Great Pretender”.

Analytically, inherent in the entire analysis are historical concerns attendant when a Rising Revisionist Power embarks on an inevitable journey of challenging the status quo of the Existing World Order. In China’s case it pits China against the United States as the Global Superpower and the predominant military power in Indo Pacific Asia. While China’s Pacific littoral and its adjoining Seas may be China’s courtyard but it cannot be forgotten that the Pacific Ocean is United States front yard which hosts its Forward Military Presence as American ‘Forward Defense Perimeter’ in Japan and South Korea. China’s armed conflict with the United States is inevitable and the question is not ever but when?

China has also to contend with its contending Asian rivals in the form of India and Japan which have a conflictual history with China but unfortunately for China are strategic partners of the United States.

The 19th CPC in my estimation marks a tipping point where from now onwards China with its burgeoning military machine and unprecedented global ambitions would push China towards a trajectory from which China, and certainly not President Xi, can retreat and nor can the United States and its strategic partners afford to concede strategic space to China to fulfil its unbridled ambitions.

 The most significant takeaway from the outcome of the Chinese 19th NPC is the unprecedented, and never happened before in the last seven decades, is that Chinese President Xi Jinping‘s successor on completion of his second term has not been announced. This is a potent signal that President Xi Jinping intends to opt for a third term as China’s President with all the leverages of state power that he has cornered in his persona.

Yet, there are many astute observers who point out that  the paradox of President Xi’s power is that though he may have emerged as the most powerful leader, the ability of President Xi to ‘shape Chinse society’ may have been over-rated. But then in terms of geopolitical analysis what is of utmost concern is not the reshaping of Chinese society but the geopolitical and strategic turbulence that President Xi can generate for Indo Pacific Asia with unquestioned command of the Chinese military behemoth while in power for the next five years or more.

In conclusion, it needs to be highlighted that this complicates the security environment outlined above in Indo Pacific Asia and portends that this vital region spanning the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean is in for serious and possibly military threatening challenging times.

(Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at