"Shiba Da," the 18th Party Congress, concluded last week with the seven (not nine!) members of the reconstituted Politburo Standing Committee appearing together for the first time on the red carpet in Beijing's Great Hall of the People. Many have asked what implications the Congress has for Christians in China. While it is known that religious policy was on the agenda this year, only time will tell how the closed-door discussions on this topic will play out in terms of actual policy.
Looking at the big picture, however, there are several aspects of the Congress that have indirect but nonetheless significant bearing on the future of the church in China.
First is the simple fact that the Congress indeed took place on schedule (give or take a month) and culminated in an orderly transfer of power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. This is only the second such transfer of power in China's long history. Moreover Xi has neither revolutionary credentials nor was he handpicked by someone who had them (unlike both Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who could trace their "revolutionary bloodline" back to Deng Xiaoping). Granted the "transfer" was from one carefully vetted leader to another of the same party and was anything but democratic. Yet it signified the Party's continued transition away from strongman leadership and toward a consensus model.
Secondly, the shrinking of the Politburo Standing Committee from nine members back down to the original seven may suggest the current leadership's desire for a more efficient environment in which this consensus process can take place. It is easier to achieve unity among seven than among nine. Vigorous backroom negotiations, particularly involving retired Party elders such as Jiang, obviously preceded the decision on the final line-up. In the end, however, there emerged a streamlined leadership team.
Finally, this Party Congress was preceded by both the Bo Xilai scandal and Western news reports of the incredible wealth amassed by China's top leaders. These highlighted the need for the Party to take seriously the problem of discipline within its ranks and to face up to growing discontent among a disgruntled populace. Had Bo, the flamboyant left-leaning party boss from Chongqing, been able to continue his upward trajectory he would have likely pulled the leadership in the direction of a dangerous return to Cultural Revolution-style politics. This humbling realization has undoubtedly prompted more than a little introspection within the Party.
The picture that emerges from this congress is of a leadership with institutionalized processes, willing to play by its rules and increasingly on guard against the abuses of power that have characterized much of China's strongman rule in the past. For Christians in China it is a hopeful sign that the government is continuing its move toward a less ideological, more rational approach, and that in time this will translate into policies that allow believers to play their rightful role in society.
President of ChinaSource. Follow Brent on Twitter - @BrentSFulton.
For further thoughts on the 18th Party Congress and implications for the church in China, please see Brent Fulton's recent interview with Compass Direct.
Image credit: Bert van Dijk, via Flickr
Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of... View Full Bio