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What the Inclusion of BRI in the Chinese Constitution Implies

Jagannath P. Panda is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • November 07, 2017

    The recently concluded 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) amended the Party’s Constitution to include the promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as one of the major future objectives. This has been seen as an “unexpected” development in Beijing’s political practice in some quarters.1 The amended constitution emphasises that China would work closely with the international community for “shared interest” and “shared growth” through the pursuit of the BRI.2 The use of phrases such as “shared growth” and “shared interest” is nothing new in Chinese official parlance and may look superfluous. But the BRI’s inclusion in the CPC’s amended Constitution is a significant development since the international community mostly views the initiative as an economic strategy that is linked to China’s external engagement policy, and less of a “political” proposition. No matter how minor this amendment might appear to be, it signifies a ‘Chinese state strategy’ in the making, both in the domestic and international contexts.

    Past National Congresses have also witnessed amendments to the Party’s Constitution. From the first amendment in 1982, the CPC Constitution has been amended six times before this, each of which brought about changes to the party’s governing principles and functioning style, and adding new leadership thoughts in the process. A similar pattern can be seen in the 2017 amendments as well. By acknowledging Xi Jinping’s strong leadership, the amended Constitution emphasises the importance of Communism in China and how the Communists have progressed smoothly since the 18th National Congress under the guidance of Comrade Xi Jinping as “chief representative”.

    Xi’s flagship thought of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” has also been entered into the Constitution, essentially implying that China would denounce the Western model of democracy and would like to persist with a system that draws its inspiration from Marxism-Leninism along with Mao Zedong’s thought and Deng Xiaoping’s theory and other established principles. The naming of Xi Jinping along with his thought was one of the highpoints of the 19th National Congress, for it elevated Xi’s position as a strong leader equivalent to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao failed to secure the distinction of having their name mentioned alongside their thoughts in the CPC constitution, even though their principal thoughts do figure in constitution. In fact, in the Communist system, naming a particular leader’s thoughts is a symbolic gesture and signifies his or her leadership persona.

    Likewise, the reference to the BRI in the Constitution was another big recognition for Xi Jinping himself since it was primarily known as his project. Further, the inclusion of BRI in the constitution signifies that it is a long-term national project that will continue to be pursued even if Xi were to step down from the presidency in 2022. (But there is speculation that Xi might continue to hold power as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and perhaps as the general secretary of the Party beyond 2022, the two most important positions that really influence the Party’s supervisory process in China’s political structure.) Moreover, since its formal announcement in 2013, BRI has primarily been seen as Xi’s “leadership” project. By naming the BRI in the CPC Charter, China has placed more policy weight on the initiative and offered it a legal sanctity. Further, its inclusion in the Charter reiterates the fact that the BRI is not merely an economic policy but rather a ‘political project’ that Beijing would like to pursue as part of its national developmental programme.

    At the same time, the constitutional amendment links BRI with China’s aspiration to ‘build a community of shared interest’ and to achieve “shared growth” through “discussion and collaboration”. This implies the leadership’s ambition to shape the world order through the progress and success of BRI. On the practical side, this implies China’s determination to further promote BRI internationally. China, under Xi’s leadership, has spent enormous resources and energy to promote this flagship initiative since 2013 when Xi formally introduced the initiative to the outside world.

    If Xi’s first tenure were to be seen as the ‘promotional’ phase of BRI, the induction of BRI into the Chinese constitution coinciding with the start of his second term as President would imply the beginning of its second ‘execution’ phase. In fact, to launch the execution plan, Beijing convened a forum in May 2017 which witnessed the attendance of 70 heads of international organisations, representatives from 130 countries and 29 national leaders. Releasing a “List of Deliverables” document during the forum, China emphasised the priority areas – policy, infrastructure, trade, financial and people-to-people connectivity – of the BRI.3

    The execution of BRI concerning these priority areas is, however, an uphill task. Domestically, the initial promotion and execution of BRI was carried out quite non-systematically. A number of provinces were initially offered a free hand to promote BRI and to sign deals abroad. By inducting BRI into the constitution, China has made it a procedural feature, offering more power to the central government. Earlier, provincial governments aimed to implement BRI as part of their five-year plans. For instance, Xinjiang and Guangxi from Western China were looking to promote infrastructure and trade connecting routes as priorities with the neighbouring Central Asian region. And the targets of Fujian, Guangdong and Shanghai from China’s eastern coastal regions prioritised foreign trade, shipping and logistics and e-commerce while promoting further “opening up”. Moreover, the induction of BRI into the constitution exerts the central leadership’s political control over the provinces since power struggles between different provinces and between the centre and the provinces area known issues in China. It may be recalled that due to his strict anti-corruption drive, Xi Jinping faced political opposition from various quarters and their business communities in various provinces, mainly in Hunan, Gansu, Guangxi, Chongqing and Beijing. 4

    The amendment clubbing BRI with “shared interests” and “shared growth” through “discussion and collaboration” elucidates the foreign policy intent that Beijing attaches to its external engagement policy. That means, Beijing may like to employ a more serious approach for convincing the international community to formally join the BRI, and sign agreements that would be beneficial to China and the outside world. This would further imply that China would pursue a more ‘purposeful’ external engagement policy where the top-down directives of the CPC would exert more pressure on Chinese banks, state-owned companies, private companies and business operators to promote investment decisions abroad that will reflect Beijing’s strategic objectives. The performance of the state-owned companies and private companies in promoting the BRI abroad has been under review for some time now. Beijing is slowly implementing a strict capital control mechanism to finance projects abroad under the BRI through different categories.5

    In terms of foreign policy, China would like to employ a more consultative process to execute BRI deals, through “discussion and collaboration”. Beijing would be pursuing this consultative process from a position of strength as the world’s second-largest economy. Foreign exchange reserves of US$ 3.1 trillion are likely to enable China offer deals which many smaller economies will find hard to resist or ignore. In addition, the constitutional amendment implies that China is still counting on a set of countries that are yet to offer open or full support to the BRI or have expressed reservations about participating in the initiative.

    Both the United States and Japan sent representatives to attend the BRI summit in May 2017, but neither is yet to offer full support for the initiative. Also, Beijing has not completely given up hope of gaining India’s support for the BRI. The recent Doklam border standoff and rising competition on various issues between the two countries may not really encourage China to vest too much hope on India. But the idea of promoting a “forward looking constructive” relationship between China and India, as discussed between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi during the Xiamen BRICS summit in 2017,6 is not entirely a proposition outside the purview of the BRI.

    To sum up, the inclusion of BRI in the CPC constitution was a deliberate political move. The BRI, with a proposed US$900 billion investment,7 is undoubtedly an initiative with global scope that is moreover closely linked to China’s future. Xi, in his speech to the National Congress, acknowledged the importance of BRI for the future of the Chinese economy. Stressing BRI as a “priority”, he emphasised on opening China further to the outside world and encouraged an equal emphasis on “bringing in” and “going global” in order to promote stable engagement with the international community. This implies that China’s external engagement policy will be more BRI-centric in the years to come. Nationally, the inclusion of BRI in the CPC charter was a historic moment for Xi Jinping personally. If Mao Zedong is remembered as the founding father of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Deng Xiaoping for his “Reform and Opening-up” policy which transformed China into what it is today, Xi Jinping will certainly be remembered for his Belt and Road policy in the years to come.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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