The 18th Party Congress Work Report outlines policy guidance for the next five years and thus provides a preview of the type of policies that the incoming Xi administration is likely to pursue . The main theme permeating the Work Report centered on solidifying the domestic and international foundations for China’s development as a great power. Domestically, the Work Report called for carrying out structural economic reforms to sustain balanced growth and systemic political reforms to improve governance and boost the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy. Guidance on Taiwan focused on laying the foundations for peaceful unification. The Work Report also called for stepping up efforts to shape an international order that is more responsive to Chinese power and reiterated Beijing’s determination to defend its growing array of interests.
For analysts of Chinese strategy and policy, the CCP Party Congress Work Report is perhaps the single most important document available for study. The Work Report “sets forth general guidelines for the party’s priorities, emphases and tasks for the coming five-year period” and “represents the consensus view of the broader party leadership,” according to Alice Miller (China Leadership Monitor, No. 18, Spring 2006). Underscoring this point, the spokesman for the 18th Party Congress emphasized the high-level participation and extensive coordination for the report. He explained Xi Jinping led the drafting team and the team worked directly for the Political Bureau. To support the effort, the CCP Central Committee organized “46 units to conduct investigations and studies” and produced “57 reports” on topics incorporated in the Work Report. The team carried out extensive coordination and consulted with General Secretary Hu Jintao before finalizing the Work Report for submission to the 18th Party Congress (Xinhua, November 7).
The Work Report is significant for analysis of Chinese strategy and policy in several ways. First, it presents the functional equivalents of a desired strategic end state and interim strategic objectives to support the end state along with timelines for each. To ensure the country remains on course to meet these goals, the Work Report provides guidance on the topics of economics, politics and governance, culture, defense, social welfare, resources, Taiwan and international relations. The Work Report also provides the theoretical logic in the form of updates to the CCP’s socialist theory that intellectually links these elements together .
Strategic End State and Objectives
The 18th Party Congress Work Report affirmed the Party’s vision of the end state and interim objectives outlined in previous congresses (Xinhua, November 8). This suggests the CCP leadership views the nation as “on track” to achieve its goals.
End state: The Work Report affirmed the end state of “rejuvenation of the Chinese people” in terms that were last updated at the previous party congress. The leadership defines “national rejuvenation” as “building a prosperous, powerful, democratic, civilized, and harmonious socialist modern country” by mid-21st century, which corresponds with the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.
Interim objectives: The Work Report listed objectives spanning economics, governance, and social services to be achieved by 2020. A notable area of emphasis concerned strengthening “institutions” (zhidu) and “systems” (tixi) This speaks to the idea of consolidating the party, state and economic institutions to establish a firm domestic foundation to sustain the nation’s rise. The Work Report otherwise appeared to uphold the objectives proposed in the preceding version, suggesting China’s leaders remain satisfied with the feasibility of its objectives.
Domestic Prosperity and Stability: Foundation for China’s Rise
The Work Report emphasized consolidating the domestic foundations for the nation’s development as a great power. Among many other topics, the Work Report outlined guidance to develop a balanced, sustainable economy; improve the effectiveness and responsiveness of government administration; promote stability by improving social services; and sustain military modernization. Guidance on Taiwan called for consolidating the economic and political foundations for eventual unification.
Economics: The Work Report upheld the judgment that economic development remains the “key to resolving all problems in the country.” Guidance focused on a “new development mode” that relies more on innovation, market incentives and information technology. It also called for changing policies to boost consumption, expand the domestic market and expand the service sector.
Politics and Government: The Work Report highlighted the importance of bolstering the regime’s legitimacy through competent governance. The guidance emphasized “systemic” (tixi) reform to standardize decision-making processes, institutionalize procedures and strengthen laws and regulations. Delivering the Work Report, Hu acknowledged the “grave threat” posed by corruption to the regime and called for stronger supervisory mechanisms. He also highlighted reforms to improve the overall competence and responsiveness of the party.
Culture: The Work Report called for increasing efforts to raise the global competitiveness and influence of Chinese culture to augment the nation’s power. Guidance to boost the “moral quality of the people” suggests the CCP will continue to control Internet content tightly.
Social services: The Work Report carried over guidance from the previous congress in calling for programs to resolve the root causes of social instability by expanding opportunities for education, job opportunities, health care and social security programs.
Ecology: This new section called for improving the quality of China’s environment, suggesting the CCP has recognized the politically destabilizing impact that environmental degradation can play if left unaddressed.
Defense: Guidance on defense issues largely carried over from the previous congress. The Work Report called on the military to raise its war-fighting capabilities to more effectively carry out its historic missions. It called for sustaining reforms and consolidating gains from earlier efforts to standardize and institutionalize various aspects of the People’s Liberation Army modernization program.
Taiwan: The Work Report indicated confidence in China’s ability to manage the Taiwan situation under the current policy framework. It called for “solidifying and deepening the political, cultural and social foundation” for “peaceful development of cross-Strait relations” that can facilitate eventual unification.
International Relations: Building Leverage and Defending Interests
The section on guidance for foreign policy stood out in the tone and specificity compared to previous Work Reports. Especially noteworthy was the guidance to perform the following tasks:
(1) Revise relations with great powers;
(2) Consolidate China’s influence in Asia;
(3) Leverage developing powers to promote reform in the world order;
(4) Leverage multilateral venues to facilitate reform of the international order; and
(5) Protect Chinese rights and interests in the maritime and other domains.
Great Power Relations: The Work Report called for “establishing a long term, stable, and healthy development of the new type great power relationship.” Derived from the New Security Concept proposed in 1997, the “new type of great power relationship” (xinxing daguo guanxi) sought by China is one in which countries agree to respect one another’s interests, strengthen cooperation, and establish dialogue mechanisms. The Work Report implied the “long-term stability” of this approach is premised on the United States accommodating China’s interests.
China’s Periphery: This congress’ report expanded on the preceding version by calling for “consolidating good neighborly and friendly relations” and “deepening cooperation for mutual benefits.” This suggests the CCP leadership seeks to consolidate Chinese influence in the region and deepen regional economic integration and trade relations. Chinese documents link the growing integration of Asia, presumably under Chinese leadership, as essential to realizing a multi-polar world .
Developing Countries: The Work Report highlighted China’s willingness to “strengthen unity and cooperation” with developing countries and “support the representation and voice of developing countries in international affairs.” This may be read as a bid to cultivate like-minded partners who share China’s dissatisfaction with elements of the current world order and who might be enlisted as political partners to promote reforms that accommodate the interests of China and other rising powers.
Multilateral Diplomacy: The 18th Party Congress Work Report also called for “strengthening the social foundation” for the “development of international relations” through engagement in a multitude of bilateral and multilateral political, civic and other organizations. The goal—just as described in the 17th Party Congress Work Report—is to “advance the development of an international order and system in a just and reasonable direction.”
Core Interests: The report reiterated China’s determination to defend its growing array of security, sovereignty and developmental interests. This suggests the leadership will continue to promote policies aimed at defending Chinese interests abroad primarily through participation in United Nations operations as well as activity in the space, cyberspace and maritime domains.
Maritime Power: For the first time, the Work Report defined China as a “maritime power” that will “firmly uphold its maritime rights and interests.” Significantly, China’s leaders included this language in the section on protecting resources, signaling Beijing views that the maritime domain concerns developmental interests as much as security interests. It also suggests Beijing views maritime disputes as a whole-of-government issue rather than a purely military affair.
Policy Implementation: Historical Examples
Since the passing of Deng, trends in the institutionalization of political decision making and party processes have increased the importance of strategic documents such as the party congress work reports. Guidance issued by a previous party congress remains in force through subsequent congresses until refined or rendered obsolete by new guidance. In practice, the general language of the work report allows considerable flexibility for tactical decision making. The spirit and tenor of the guidance set in the work reports, however, generally permeates policymaking through the period.
While the work reports generally touch on the same subjects each time, they have typically introduced new areas of emphasis. The 15th Party Congress Work Report issued in 1997 emphasized economic development. It introduced the judgment that development was the “key solving all China’s problems” and provided guidance on restructuring the economy and increasing trade. This guidance facilitated China’s political willingness to join the World Trade Organization (Xinhua, September 21, 1997). The 16th Party Congress Work Report issued in 2002 highlighted the imperative to improve CCP governance capacity (Xinhua, November 17, 2002). This opened political space for authorities to respond more flexibly to domestic crises in subsequent years, starting with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.
Reflecting China’s increased strength, the 17th Party Congress Work Report in 2007 sought to steer growth in a more balanced direction. It also directed the Chinese polity to step up efforts to protect the nation’s security, sovereignty and developmental interests (later known as “core interests”) of which the Work Report’s inclusion of guidance to carry out the PLA’s “historic missions” constituted the military counterpart (Xinhua, October 24). This shaped a political climate that enabled the deployment of PLA Navy escorts to the Gulf of Aden and that set the political tone that contributed to the numerous maritime confrontations in China’s “near seas” (jinhai) in subsequent years.
The policy guidance embodied in the 18th Party Congress Work Report offers insight into the likely contours of a policy agenda at the start of Xi’s administration. The leadership appears to have reached consensus on the imperative to undertake structural reforms to sustain the nation’s economic growth. Politically, the leadership appears united in its support for a moderate reform program aimed at enhancing the responsiveness and efficiency of government service as well as standardizing and systematizing party decision-making processes, but without surrendering any of the CCP’s power.
For China’s Taiwan policy, the guidance suggests a continuation of policies to promote the mainland’s gradual economic, cultural and political integration with Taiwan. So long as such trends can plausibly be interpreted by Beijing as progress toward laying the material foundations for eventual unification, the CCP leadership led by Xi may be satisfied with the “peaceful development” of cross-Strait ties.
The tone of the guidance on international relations suggests considerable sensitivity. The Work Report shows the CCP leadership is determined to defend its growing array of interests. The report, however, also suggests concern about U.S. reactions to the historic possibility of Chinese economic power closing in on that of the world superpower in coming years. This can be seen in Beijing’s eagerness to establish a “new type great power relationship” with the United States and other great powers as a way to avoid the debilitating conflicts that have characterized great-power transitions in the past.
China’s leaders appear determined to shape the world order to accommodate Chinese power. Beijing, however, does not appear to be banking solely on the goodwill of the United States and other status quo powers to do so. The Work Report highlights policy guidance to increase Chinese leverage through partnerships with developing countries that also may seek to change the current order. The Work Report calls for increasing leverage by consolidating relations within Asia and cultivating sympathetic audiences in multilateral and bilateral venues.
Beijing’s growing policy agenda and willingness to engage with world powers suggests opportunities to increase cooperation. The inclusion of environmental issues in the Work Report is an example of growing areas of convergence with which the United States could engage China. Conversely, China’s leaders under Xi are likely to seek ways to increase pressure on perceived obstacles to Chinese objectives—albeit in a manner that avoids conflict that could derail China from its larger ambitions. While the details of Chinese day-to-day policymaking will likely continue to remain hidden from view, understanding China’s strategic goals and guidance as laid out in the Work Report and other crucial documents provides crucial context that can enable U.S. policymakers to understand and engage Chinese leaders more effectively.
For the official English translation of Hu Jintao’s Work Report to the 18th Party Congress, go to https://news.xinhuanet.com/english/special/18cpcnc/2012-11/17/c_131981259.htm.
For a fuller discussion of how Chinese leaders articulate national strategy in publicly available documents, see Timothy R. Heath, “What Does China Want?,” Asian Security, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2012, pp. 54–72.
China’s Peaceful Development, State Council Information Office, 2011.