The Soviet-style rituals in Beijing today may look arcane — the Great Hall of the People suffused in red, a giant hammer and sickle above the stage — but no meeting in the world this year is more important for Australia’s future.
The 19th five-yearly national congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the most powerful single organisation in the world, will mark a point of no return, beyond which the China being remade by President Xi Jinping will not change tack significantly for a decade or more to come.
Australia’s biggest trading partner, China — whose influence within our business world, universities and governments grows regardless of recent controversies — embarks on a new journey at the congress as Mr Xi assumes the full powers he requires to fulfil his “China dream” of rejuvenation.
He is rapidly elbowing aside the US — its diplomacy increasingly inchoate under Donald Trump — to seize the leading role also in the world of international relations.
The congress will appoint Xi allies to all key posts, it will enshrine “Xi’s Thought” — although the philosophical thrust remains elusive — alongside the ideologies of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, and it will commit the leadership to a more puritanical and zealous Leninist path.
Mr Xi — who will receive a further five-year term as general secretary, the top job in China, with a likely further five years to follow — will strive to build “a community of shared destiny” at first in the Asia-Pacific region then worldwide.
Australia must work out what role it can or wants to share in that community, just as in Mr Xi’s hallmark Belt and Road Initiative, whose ambitious goal is to build infrastructure, financial and online connectivity through Asia to Europe, with Beijing as its hub.
In his next term Mr Xi will preside over the centenary of the founding of the party, and over the party’s likely success in its goal of doubling China’s GDP in the decade to 2020.
Following the rousing opening ceremony rituals and Mr Xi’s opening address, the 2287 delegates to the congress will meet for about a week behind closed doors. Two thirds of them are officials of the 89 million-member party rather than “ordinary” members, 24 per cent of the total are women, 13 per cent are from the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police, and the biggest job category among non-officials is “professional and technical”.
At the conclusion next week, Mr Xi will lead along the Great Hall’s red-carpeted political catwalk, the parade of members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the seven — or it could be reduced to five — men at the top of the party tree. No woman has ever been appointed, nor is likely this time.
As usual, their names have been the subject of intense speculation. But they mean less than in the previous 50 years, since Mr Xi has restructured the party so he chairs the “leading small groups” that create most new policy, and to which the standing committee effectively applies its rubber stamp.
Buoyed by the immense success of his campaign to instil political orthodoxy, to purge factional rivals and to root out the blatantly corrupt, Mr Xi is set to launch a supervisory committee to conduct such investigations at every level of government and of state enterprises.
This will parallel the party inquisitions by the feared Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which has punished 223 top officials in the party and its military arm, the PLA, whose top leader — and driver of its rapid modernisation — is also Mr Xi.
Only North Korea can upset Mr Xi’s serene outlook. He has avoided meeting “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un, but the latter keeps firing missiles timed to grab the Chinese leader’s attention and disrupt important events — for instance, on the day he launched the Belt & Road forum.
Some party members are less enthused about Mr Xi’s focus on centralisation and control, and about the drumbeats of an emerging personality cult.
Concerns about a swing back to the ideologue Mao are reinforced when the party’s voice, People’s Daily, mentions Mr Xi three times more than it did his predecessor Hu Jintao at the same career stage.
Mr Xi enjoys substantially more People’s Daily mentions than the pragmatist Deng Xiaoping. Mao-era phrases such as class struggle, anti-socialism and foreign influences have surged, while terms such as intra-party democracy have tailed away.
Neo-Maoism expert Jude Blanchette said that “the relative lack of progress on liberalising economic reforms, not to mention Xi’s recent and repeated calls for greater party oversight of state-owned enterprises, are a strong indication to this group that Xi agrees with their concerns of capitalist infiltration”.
“His relative permissiveness of the neo-Maoists, in stark contrast to his harsh treatment of more liberal groups, hints strongly at his latent approval of them,” she said.
Mr Xi has inevitably created enemies not only by his treatment of liberals but also by his anti-corruption purge, including among some of the party’s most powerful family dynasties.
He has disappointed business people by indicating early in his first term that he would let “the market play a decisive role” in the economy, but this has not happened.
Arthur Kroeber, author of China’s Economy, said China had become a “post-reform” economy, its leaders focused on managing the system as it is.
And while 87 per cent of ordinary Chinese people said in an Ipsos survey that the country was headed in the right direction, unemployment, corruption and social inequality topped their lists of concerns, with twice as many — half of those surveyed — citing moral decline as a big issue compared with responses from other countries.
But Mr Xi has all the levers of power at his disposal, and is free of any significant rival. He knows who his critics are, and where they live. And most party members are pleased with the process of setting the party’s house in order and enhancing its authority, that has dominated Mr Xi’s first term, and feel buoyed by China’s continued economic growth and increased global prestige.
China Central Radio yesterday broadcast that party delegates from Hebei sang and danced their way to Beijing for the congress, on their high-speed train, “expressing their boundless love for the party, which they described in Xi’s words as like their dear mother”.
The on-board excitement climaxed, the radio station reported, with the crowd singing together: “Without the party, there is no new China.”
Wang Ning, the commander of China’s 1.5 million strong People’s Armed Police force, wrote in party publication Study Time that “we should demonstrate our unique, complete, unconditional, pure and absolute loyalty to President Xi”.
He said Mr Xi had “rescued the party and the army at a critical moment” by taking power and purging both.
But there were few if any calls at the time that either needed rescuing. Just as it is unclear now exactly where Mr Xi wants to take his China — except that it will be towards glory, and it will be on the shortest possible leash.
By ROWAN CALLICK