Column by Oscar Almén


On 18 October, China’s communist party will begin its 19th National Congress. Fewer negotiations than usual will take place between different groups in the party this year. The party leader, General Secretary Xi Jinping, has used his five years in power to intensively combat the groups within the party that do not belong to his own, thereby strengthening his power.

This has also resulted in a tougher political climate with further restrictions on the media and civil society. The party congress will demonstrate how successful he has been in this fight for power. Decisive indications of this include what takes place in the Politburo Standing Committee and whether Xi Jinping’s name will be written in the party’s statute, which has previously only been the case for Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Xi Jinping has, among other things, placed a heavy emphasis on fighting corruption and ensuring the implementation of environmental legislation. These policies have strong support among the public and Xi’s popularity has also been strengthened through the cult of personality that has been established by the party’s propaganda apparatus. Bearing in mind the very poor experiences the party has had with personality cults and power concentration from the time of Mao Zedong, this development may be considered remarkable. Previously, the party urged collective leadership, in which the party as an organisation was above individuals. This entailed different groupings in the party that had to negotiate with one another. This power balance has now been disturbed. As a result, Xi Jinping has greater potential to implement the central power’s policies. But this is also risky, as no force exists to stop him from making serious mistakes.

Xi Jinping’s policies have also had an impact on my own research of how local agencies and civil society integrate in different cities in China and what this says about regional political differences. In the last four years, space for non-governmental organisations seems to have declined. Conducting research on social issues in China has become increasingly difficult and my Chinese research colleagues say that their lectures are now carefully monitored to make sure they do not say anything to students that could be perceived as questioning Xi Jinping’s policies.

The regime has not only increased political control in China over its own citizens, but has also increased its influence beyond China’s borders. In October 2015, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai was abducted from his vacation home in Thailand to China, where he has been detained ever since. In January 2016 he was forced to confess to an alleged traffic accident on TV. The likely reason for Gui Minhai’s abduction was that his publishing company in Hong Kong published books that described detailed embarrassments and rumours about China’s political leaders, including Xi Jinping.

The Gui Minhai case, a foreign citizen who was taken from outside of China’s borders, shows that the regime has moved the limits of what it is permitted to do. In light of China’s increased international influence, it is more important than ever that forces exist in China that can limit Xi Jinping’s personal power. The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China can give us an indication of whether such opposing forces still exist.

Oscar Almén, researcher at Department of Government