The Party Congress Test: A Minimum Standard for Analyzing Beijing’s Intentions

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As the United States and China mark 40 years of normalized relations, a new consensus is emerging in Washington about Beijing’s problematic behavior. Concentration camps for Uighurs, economic espionage and intellectual property theft, and militarization of the South China Sea are just a few of the many issues that Vice President Mike Pence highlighted last October at the Hudson Institute. Democrats, like Sens. Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, also have leveled harsh critiques and urged a tougher U.S. position.

Consensus on the appropriate response to China, however, still evades Washington. Part of the reason is that there is little agreement about Beijing’s intentions and, therefore, the nature of China’s challenge beyond the immediate impact of the country’s actions. Too often Beijing’s intentions are assumed or deduced theoretically without reference to anything the Chinese Communist Party has said. A better baseline for answering these questions, however, would be the party congress work report issued every five years (the last one was October 2017). The report will not provide all the answers, but it should be a foundational document for understanding what Beijing intends and how its objectives fit together.

This approach might be called “The Party Congress Test” for China analysis as an analogue for the classic Beltway guidance for avoiding scandal: “The Washington Post Test.” According to this piece of Washington wisdom, every action and meeting should be governed by the question of “How would this look on the front page of the Washington Post?” In this case, statements of Beijing’s intentions should be measured first against the latest party congress work report. The party, after all, says 19th Party Congress Work Report “paint[s] a blueprint for [China’s] development.”

Despite widespread belief that the Chinese Communist Party has institutionalized its internal politics and policymaking, many analysts seem reluctant to address the implications for major party documents. These documents not only are the product of formal coordination across the party-state, but also are the product of a sequential process of analysis, theory-building, and policy design. These processes result in a relatively predictable hierarchy of sources and authoritativeness that flows downward from the constitution. At the highest level of authority are the speeches of the party’s general secretary and the party congress work reports. This point is not new — and arguably most China-watchers would agree with this aspect of institutionalization — but reading and using these documents seems to go out the window when evaluating Beijing’s intentions.

For many analysts inside and outside governments, Beijing’s ambitions are largely regional and therefore defensive and limited. In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Oriana Mastro argues “China does not want to usurp the United States’ position as the leader of a global order” and that Beijing’s “ultimate goal is to push the United States out of the Indo-Pacific and rival it on the global stage.” This view that China seeks regional dominance and global influence, but not global hegemony or leadership in a fundamentally different international order, is common among government analysts, and Mastro’s article is a useful proxy for those views.

Elsewhere, Western analysts and policymakers complain that Chinese statements about and concepts of global governance and the conduct of international relations are vague or that party leaders do not have a clear idea of what they want. For example, one analyst opined in a War on the Rocks podcast “I’m not sure that China knows” what it wants on the comparatively narrow issue of the maritime domain. From misunderstanding Xi Jinping’s “New Type of Great Power Relations” as just another bumper sticker to treating the party’s aspirations of turning the People’s Liberation Army into “world-class military” as a self-evident objective, many Western analysts appear to think Beijing’s policymaking is reactive rather than strategic, regional rather than global, constrained rather than creative.

None of these statements, however, are justifiable by available information. This is not a logical critique of the way in which these arguments are framed and developed, but rather an empirical one. It might be unrealistic to expect all analysts to evaluate Chinese intentions on the basis of party documents going back to 1921, but it is realistic to expect analysts to test their assessment against the party’s most authoritative statement of its objectives: the latest party congress work report. That is what I do here: Use the party congress work report to evaluate the claims of those who view Chinese ambitions as regionally constrained and only vaguely related to global governance. Any quotation, unless otherwise noted, is to the official translation of the 19th Party Congress Work Report.

Global, Not Regional, Ambitions

The document makes it fairly clear the Chinese Communist Party thinks about China on a global stage, not a regional one. The document mentions “mankind” 14 times, including the description of Xi Jinping’s new era beginning from 2017 as one in which China becomes more active: “an era that sees China moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind.” “Global” and “world” appear a combined 54 times. And “world-class” characterizes the measurement for the party’s ambitions for “globally-competitive firms,” “advanced manufacturing clusters,” “technologists and scientists,” and the People’s Liberation Army. Of the 33 times “region” (or its variations) appears, only once does it refer to anything outside what the party considers China. The only two references to Asia were in the “Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank” and the “Fourth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.”

More importantly, “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” or “the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation” (hereafter, “national rejuvenation”) — the shorthand for China’s rise to great power capability and status — operates on two levels: domestic and global. There is no intermediate regional space. Two paragraphs exemplify the party’s global focus:

China follows the principle of achieving shared growth through discussion and collaboration in engaging in global governance. China stands for democracy in international relations and the equality of all countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor. China supports the United Nations in playing an active role in international affairs, and supports the efforts of other developing countries to increase their representation and strengthen their voice in international affairs. China will continue to play its part as a major and responsible country, take an active part in reforming and developing the global governance system, and keep contributing Chinese wisdom and strength to global governance.

Comrades, the future of the world rests in the hands of the people of all countries; the future of mankind hinges on the choices they make. We, the Chinese, are ready to work with the people of all other countries to build a community of common destiny for mankind and create a bright tomorrow for all of us.

The party congress work report also frames Chinese security on a global scale in terms of both peace and conflict. First, Beijing’s ability to achieve its goals is linked to the rest of the world: “the Chinese Dream can be realized only in a peaceful international environment and under a stable international order.” Second, the report also notes national rejuvenation requires “toppling the three mountains of imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic-capitalism that were oppressing the Chinese people.” Contemporary threats of imperialism and bureaucratic-capitalism come from beyond China’s borders. Third, echoing Mao’s words on resistance, the report notes “where there is contradiction, there is struggle.” Although this phrase addresses national rejuvenation, the report points to contradictions in international affairs, particularly in areas of global governance.

Simply put, the party congress work report does not provide any evidence for regionally constrained ambitions. To those who reject this analysis on the basis that Chinese capabilities and reach fall short of their ambitious aims, Xi Jinping said “we should not stop pursuing our ideals because they seem out of our reach.” Capabilities today simply are not a reliable indicator of intentions for tomorrow.

Finding the Context for Concepts

The problem is not with the terminology, but rather with the analyst. Foreign analysts often turn to Chinese academics to provide an explanation for these terms rather than wading through the dense, sometimes byzantine prose of party documents. For example, a recent report from the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) relied exclusively on scholarly analysis to explain party concepts for international affairs — most notably the “community of common destiny for mankind” — ignoring the party congress work report, speeches by China’s senior diplomat and Politburo member Yang Jiechi, and a Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference (a rare, high-level forum in Beijing that issues seminal guidance to China’s foreign affairs establishment).

One of the benefits of working one’s way through a document like the 19th Party Congress Work Report is that the reader sees a clear nesting of ideas. At the top, national rejuvenation is identified as the overriding objective. The features of national rejuvenation are identified: national reunification; securing China’s international position and leadership in global affairs; and “build[ing] China into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful.” Each of those words attached to Chinese modernity, as the party defines it, have specific meanings within the party context that may not resemble how we in a liberal democratic society might understand them.

The international component for achieving national rejuvenation is titled “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色大国外交). The primary goal of this diplomacy — as it has been for some years — is fostering an environment in which China can continue to rise by “[fostering] a new type of international relations and [building] a community of common destiny for mankind.” This kind of language, as Nadege Rolland observed last year, “belongs to the realm of official political ‘formulations’ (提法) that are meant to indicate the Party line.” The party congress work report does not explain such concepts in detail. Rather, the report identifies the formulations and places them within the party’s framework for ends, ways, and means.

To understand a concept like a “community of common destiny for mankind,” the reader needs to recognize what the concept ultimately supports (“national rejuvenation” 中华民族伟大复兴), what the concept is (a feature of “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” 中国特色大国外交), and what it works with (“new type of international relations” 新型国际关系). Then, they need to look for the associated policy initiatives (“One Belt, One Road” 一路一带). These are unpacked in speeches, conferences, and policy documents. The pertinent and authoritative ones are identifiable for two reasons. One, they have a logical and hierarchical consistency. Two, they almost always are delivered by a senior official with direct responsibility for the work.

This example is not chosen randomly. In an exemplary article published by the Texas National Security Review, Liza Tobin did exactly this kind of work to explain the “community of common destiny for mankind” and its implications of Beijing’s effort to transform global governance. Tobin starts from the top-level concept and unpacks five dimensions of the “community of common destiny for mankind: politics, security, development (economic, social, technological, etc.), culture, and the environment. These are largely explained through Xi Jinping’s speeches or, in the case of the Chinese Communist Party’s definition of democracy, reference to the party’s political institutions. This approach leads Tobin to conclude that the “community of common destiny for mankind” is “Beijing’s long-term vision for transforming the international environment to make it compatible with China’s governance model and emergence as a global leader.” The concept outlines a comprehensive objective, places it within its broader context of Chinese ambitions, and breaks down the areas that Beijing needs to shape.

As bumper sticker slogans, concepts like “national rejuvenation,” “new type of international relations,” and “a community of common destiny for mankind” are not edifying or self-explanatory. But to read them like bumper stickers is to remove them from their context. They need to be translated from Chinese and from party-speak. Nor can they be understood without reference to the objectives and concepts that they are designed to support. Any attempt to explain such concepts without reference to the intellectual structure contained in party documents, e.g. the party congress work report, should met with skepticism. If these concepts have meaning, it is only within the logical structure of the system that created them. The party congress work report provides that structure.


All too often, analysts describe Chinese intentions as inscrutable or compare analyzing Chinese intentions to speculating based on dancing shadows on a cave wall. But another analogy is more apt and useful. Documents like the party congress work report are like the blueprint for a house — or, as official Chinese media says, a blueprint for national development. We cannot tell whose room is whose or what furniture belongs where or what colors the walls are painted. However, we can see how many cars the garage fits. We can see what kind of kitchen and family spaces they want. We can get a sense of how big the family might be or is intended to get. The basic features are identifiable. As the house is built, we can compare the real thing to the blueprint. Plenty of ambiguities still exist, but that is what research and observation (and intelligence collection) are supposed to help us resolve. We can see the construction, some of the deliveries, workers coming and going. Without the blueprint, there is no framework for understanding what is being seen. So if the party tells its own members that the party congress work report is a blueprint so they can understand their own role, one has to wonder why so many analysts insist on doing without it.

“What did the party congress work report say about this subject?” should be one of first questions government officials and editors should ask their analysts and writers. The answer will not be the whole picture, but it does provide a general guideline — just as it does for the rest of the Chinese Communist Party. These documents do exist within a coherent framework, so it is not as though these reports can be cherry-picked for whatever someone wants to say about China, the party, or their future.


Peter Mattis is a research fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a contributing editor to War on the Rocks. Follow him on Twitter: @PLMattis.

Image: Remko Tanis