The outcome of political infighting in 2017 will determine whether China gets back on a path of economic reform, openness and constructive relations with the rest of the world, or wastes even more years on an aggressively nationalist, economically timorous course. The omens do not look good.
The fighting will be fiercest at China’s quinquennial Communist Party congress in October. This is the most important gathering in the country’s political calendar because it, directly or indirectly, appoints new men—and they are mostly men—to the outfits at the top of China’s hierarchy: the 25-member Politburo, its seven-member Standing Committee (the inner sanctum) and the 350-member Central Committee, the embodiment of the elite. The congress provides President Xi Jinping with his best opportunity yet to put his stamp on the party.
The aim of this orderly changing of the guard is to ensure a steady-as-she-goes transition, in contrast to the capriciousness of Mao Zedong’s rule. But the coming changes will be more sweeping than usual and instead of predictable, incremental change will bring an uncertainty-inducing power struggle.