Beijing is getting ready for the most important date in China’s political calendar. The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, which starts on the 18th October, has been billed as the most crucial in decades as China’s leader Xi Jinping aims to consolidate his power and prepare the country for its new, increasingly ascendant, role on the world stage.
Party congresses have been held every five years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) in 1921 when 12 delegates representing 57 members secretly met in Shanghai’s French Concession area. But the CPC now has close to 90 million members, around 7% of China’s population, and some 3,000 delegates will attend this year when it starts deliberations in the Great Hall of the People next week.
Xi Prepares for a Second Term
Xi took over the reins of power at the 18th Congress in 2012. During his first five-year term, he pursued an agenda of consolidating control, purging corruption and strengthening the primacy of the CPC into all aspects of political, social and economic life. This has been no mean feat as he has fought to balance the entrenched interests and competing demands of leadership factions, central and local government, enormous state-owned enterprises and the growing legion of giant private companies.
At the 19th Congress, where he will start his second and, according to tradition, last term the main task of the Party will be to select its leadership and set the theoretical framework and policy direction of China for the next five years.
And leadership is the all-important issue. The Congress is usually preceded by fierce political infighting and horse trading over senior positions, with most important decisions made in advance. But once the lights are on, we will get a good look at how successful Xi has been in gaining control and how constrained he is by the Party in his push for further political and economic change.
Changes at the Top Tables
The leadership pecking order, and Xi’s ability to place allies in crucial positions, will be critical. The makeup of the selection of the over 300-member Party Central Committee, 25-member Politburo and 7-person Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of political power, will give the best indication of Xi’s success in consolidating power and Party support for his agenda.
He has a good track record in this respect. During his first term, he carried out a full-on purge of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that modernised its structure, stamped out corruption and increased control by placing a younger generation of allies into key positions. This military reform was so thorough that at the upcoming Congress, 90% of the military delegates will be new faces and, at most, only 7 of 41 military delegates to the 300-strong Central Committee are likely to retain their seats.
Xi will be looking to repeat this feat with the CPC. The unofficial, but adhered to, rule is that Party officials step down once they are past 68 years old. Half of the Central Committee are due for retirement and, with another 40 members already purged on corruption charges, Xi is expected to take full advantage by promoting a younger generation of loyalists which could amount to the most profound change of the Central Committee for decades.
But everyone’s focus will be on the seven-person Standing Committee, of whom five are set to retire. If Xi is able to promote younger protégés – such as economic reform-minded Guangdong Party Secretary Hu Chuanhua and Chen Min’er, the Guizhou Party Chief, who are both current favourites to eventually succeed Xi as leader – then he would be showing a firm hand. And if he is able to reduce the seven-person committee to five as some have speculated, then his grip would be even stronger.
Even more attention is being focused on Wang Qishan, the eminently talented graft-buster behind Xi’s corruption purges who has been the de-facto number two to Xi. Wang is also one of the current Standing Committee’s economic reformers, with a strong understanding of finance and economics, but he is 69 and due to stand down. Speculation is rife that Xi will keep him on, and this break with the age precedent would not only highlight Xi’s political control but also have significant implications for his own position beyond the next Party Congress in 2022.
A Possible Third Term and Xi Jinping “Thought”
Since the 1980s, the People’s Republic of China’s constitution has restricted the state President to two consecutive five-year terms. On the Communist Party side of things, there are no such limits to the more powerful roles of Party General Secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission, but it has been another unofficial Party rule since 2002 that leaders retire after the two terms.
Xi currently holds all of these positions and, if Wang Qishan does stay on, then the age precedent will have been broken, and speculation will mount that Xi intends to further break with convention and go for a third term beyond 2022 when he is 72 years old. The Congress may give us more clues – it could decide to amend the PRC retirement laws, and Xi may not anoint a younger standing committee member, such as Hu Chuanhua and Chen Min’er, as intended successor.
And this is where “Xi Jinping Thought” is important. Xi is regarded in China as a core, and potentially transformational, leader maybe on a par with China’s communist liberator Mao Zedong and reformer Deng Xiaoping. Mao and Deng are the only leaders to have their names and theoretical contributions enshrined in the Party Constitution as “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory” respectively.
The Party and its and propaganda organs have been in overdrive promoting “Xi Jinping Thought” over the past year. If Xi’s “guiding theory” is included in the constitution, accompanied by his name as an eponymous theoretical contribution while he is in office, then that would put him in the same ideological league as Mao Zedong. It would indicate that Xi has reached a level of power not seen since Mao, and a third term would be just a minor detail.
Google to Open Artificial Intelligence Centre in China
Google will be opening its first artificial intelligence (AI) research centre in China, despite many of its services being blocked there.
Fei-Fei Li, Chief Scientist of Google Cloud, said:
“I believe AI and its benefits have no borders. Whether a breakthrough occurs in Silicon Valley, Beijing or anywhere else, it has the potential to make everyone’s life better for the entire world. As an AI first company, this is an important part of our collective mission. And we want to work with the best AI talent, wherever that talent is, to achieve it.”
The research centre will focus on basic AI research, and will consist of a team in Beijing, who will be supported by Google China’s engineering teams.
Google’s search engine and its Gmail are banned in China. However, the country has 730 million internet users, making the market too large to ignore.
Google is not the only tech giant facing restrictions in China. Facebook is also banned, while Apple’ App Store has been subject to censorship. In order to comply with government requests, Apple removed many popular messaging and virtual private network (VPN) apps from its App Store in China earlier on this year.
China has recently announced plans to develop artificial intelligence, and wants to catch up with the US. However, human rights groups are concerned by China’s use of artificial intelligence to monitor its own citizens.
Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration: What Are Its Impacts?
‘Therefore, I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.’
President Donald Trump has further instructed the State Department to begin the process of moving its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, with Rex Tillerson also engaging other countries to join in relocating.
In yet another bombshell, the President of the United States unleashed a wave of condemnation across the world. With the obvious exception of Israel, leaders left and right have rushed in to accuse Mr Trump of exacerbating existing tensions within the region; British Prime Minister Theresa May called it ‘unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region,’ and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres deemed it as, ‘a moment of great anxiety.’
Palestinian authorities were outraged, with calls for another intifada to take place. The response by their Arab neighbours has seemingly been in similar vein. At the time of writing, protests have already broken out, with scores of Palestinians injured in clashes with Israeli troops across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and one fatally shot dead as of Friday.
The Multifaceted Aspects of Trump’s Move
There are a number of dimensions to consider when examining the implications of Trump’s latest move, and to simply label it as populist policymaking would not do it justice.
In that same speech, he talked about how he was a President that was finally ‘delivering’ in the elusive search for lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace where his predecessors had seemingly failed to do so for two decades. This self-aggrandizing is not new and has been characteristic of his presidency.
Yet, it must be noted that Trump is delivering – not peace and reconciliation, but on a campaign promise he had made. Trump is a charismatic showman, but even more so a stubborn politician. This move was made against th counsel of both Rex Tillerson, his foreign secretary, and defence secretary James Mattis, in favour of keeping a promise he had made to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee back in March of 2016.
As highlighted in the New York Times, Sheldon Adelson, a pro-Israel casino billionaire, is close to Trump and donated an estimated $25m to his campaign.
In fact, Mr Adelson serves as the single largest political donor not only to the Republican Party, but between both major parties, forking out millions in both 2012 and 2016. In addition to Mr Adelson and Jewish lobbying arms are the evangelical Christian groups that made switching to Jerusalem a top priority among their influential ranks. The numbers speak: in a 2014 Pew Survey, a staggering 82% of evangelicals were of the opinion that Israel was the land given by God to the Jews, with less than half of American Jews sharing the same sentiment.
John Hagee, leader of the Christians United for Israel, spoke of how, in each meeting with Trump and his Vice President Mike Pence, the embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem was brought up. Earlier this year, Pence, speaking at the Hagee’s group’s annual summit, described how the issue of moving the embassy was not an issue of how, but of when.
Trump’s move is aided further by the aforementioned Arab neighbours. To assume that the relocation would harm relations between the US and its Arab allies would be superficial, to say the least. It should be noted that the most important group of allies – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are united with Israel, and by extension the US, on a number of key issues. These include the mutual belief of Iran being the region’s most dangerous destabilizing force, along with the acknowledgement of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group.
Saudi Arabia stands as the most peculiar case. As the birthplace of Islam and the location of the two of the three holiest Islamic shrines (in Mecca and Medina), Saudi Arabia sees itself as the custodian of the religion; the de facto guardian of Muslims across the globe. However, symbolism gives way to a ruthless pragmatism, spearheaded by the ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
Bin Salman, whose recent top-down anti-corruption measures have swayed public opinion in his favour, is close to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Adding to that is the alleged Saudi proposal, which, as reported by the Times, would lead to Palestine accepting limited sovereignty and a total forfeiture of Jerusalem. This, in effect, draws the Saudi regime close to Israel and the most anti-Islam administration in US history.
Are Arab Countries Indifferent?
Yet the current situation serves as a further reminder that the majority of leadership in the Arab world are, admittedly, indifferent to the Palestinian grievances. It is not aided by the status of these regimes – they are mostly unelected autocratic monarchies and thus do not reflect the will of the people. Further adding to that is how the Saudis’ onslaught on Yemen has further made a farce of any genuine Arab unity. A humanitarian crisis affecting millions of (mostly Muslims) is being instigated by the self-professed protector of all Muslims.
It would be naïve to neglect the Arab populaces in this discussion. Unlike their leaders who limit Israel-Palestine to rhetoric, the common Arab continues to see Palestine as an important symbol – representing decades of oppression, betrayal, and disunity. These same feelings form the foundations for extremism to be nurtured. Trump’s move reignites Palestine as a rallying cry for Muslims, who perceive his administration as being openly at war with Muslims.
Provocative populist nationalism serves its purpose in the short run, yet in the long run, especially in a region as volatile as the Middle East, it harbours even more anti-American resentment. Couple this latest move with Trump’s proposed travel ban, and the sentiment among Muslims is justified.
Terror groups, aided by social media’s ever-increasing role, prey exactly on people who are disillusioned and disheartened. The Islamic State, it must be noted, is far from being defeated, and this latest measure acts as a gift for recruiters with which to radicalise unsuspecting young men and women.
Extremist Islamic parties will also be in ‘celebratory’ mood, with those in US ally Pakistan being of particular importance. Designated terror group Laskar-e-Taiba’s (LET) founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed (accused of terrorist attacks in India) was recently released, and has set his eye on national elections.
Terrorist groups based in Kashmir have called upon lone wolves to attack American and Israeli embassies around the world as a result of this, with the Gaza-based Al Tawheed Brigades firing rockets at Israel. Pro-IS media group Tarjuman al-Asawirti described how the US understood only the language of bullets, car bombs, IEDs and the slitting of throats.’
Exacerbating this situation is the lack of diplomats on hand skilled enough to mitigate the fallout from this, though it must be considered that a long-term strategy hasn’t exactly been characteristic of the Trump administration, at least not in foreign policy. Fadah Pandith, former special representative to Muslim Communities at the State Department, questioned the timing of Trump’s latest move-right before Christmas-and describes how it exposed Americans to greater dangers.
The Implications of the Decision
What does this pronouncement? Just another macho publicity stunt? Detractions aside, there is a positive element in Trump’s latest decision. Formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by the US to Israel will put the former in a position of greater bargaining. This bargaining can include asking considerable concessions on part of the Israelis.
As for the Palestinians, this latest development, according to Emile Nakhleh, former CIA Senior Intelligence Service member, can hopefully act as a jolt for the Palestinian leadership. Hamas has proven to be an ineffective governing body, whilst the Palestinian Authority (PA) has long been mired in rampant corruption.
Their legitimacies are now being threatened and, in the face of rapid erosion, this latest move by the US can help galvanize the need to speed up peace talks, contrary to assumptions that it was the final nail in the coffin. This is the scenario desired by Trump, but it is only wishful thinking.
In the long run, however, it must be noted that nuance and compromise are central towards preventing tensions from escalating. Trump’s announcement has opened the floodgates to a number of speculations on whether there will be another intifada and, more importantly, on whether the two-state solution is still viable. The latter notion has gained traction recently, with Palestinian politicians now expressing interest in a one-state solution instead.
Yet this may be, again, unrealistic. Gaith al-Omari, a former adviser to the PA, states how these are empty threats, and that a two-state solution must persevere, and will continue to do so. The bottom line is that the US will still have a significant role to play in Israel-Palestine-the lingering question is how significant it will be.
Most importantly, the solution drawn must ensure that it does not leave one side gloating, and the other humiliated and disgruntled, which this latest move has clearly been unable to prevent. The Israel-Palestine conflict will continue to fester and ruin the lives of millions in the absence of compromise and understanding.
Gandhi Wins Congress Leadership
Rahul Gandhi faced no challengers in the race to succeed his mother, Sonia, as leader of India’s Congress Party.
Gandhi is the fourth generation of India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and has been destined from birth to one day head India’s Congress party. However, the 47-year-old has an uphill battle if he is ever to follow in his predecessors’ footsteps and win the Indian premiership. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is the country’s most internationally visible prime minister for a generation and cemented his position earlier this year by winning various state elections. Accordingly, the relatively inexperienced Gandhi will need more than his good name to unseat Modi and his BJP.
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