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“Digitization plays into the hands of the Communist Party”

On October 18, the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China will commence in Beijing. The event, which takes place every five years, will be attended by some 2,300 delegates and is expected to last one week. The Party Congress will make key decisions concerning China’s future and will be the starting point for a second five-year term for CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping.

Interview with Professor Sebastian Heilmann, President of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS):

Party Congresses are meant to demonstrate unity. How unified is the Communist Party behind Xi Jinping?

Xi Jinping is China’s strongman and has the political elite under his control. He has already placed many of his loyal followers in top positions and will continue to do so. There will be no surprises in the upcoming replacements in the Politburo and in the Politburo Standing Committee: no one in the party leadership is likely to challenge Xi’s position. At the same time, over the last five years, Xi has clearly expedited a concentration of power and established centralized structures. Consequently, Xi Jinping has a tight grasp on the center of power.

With the 19th Party Congress, Xi’s first term in office as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China will come to an end. How have the party and the country changed over the past five years?

The party leadership will deliver the usual images of a seemingly drab political ritual. However, one should not be misled by this, since this is only the system’s public face. Behind this façade, the party has not only drastically increased its control over governmental agencies, society and commerce, but has tightened its grip on the new digital economy and cyberspace.

The rapid development of new technologies facilitates the use of big data for the purposes of centralized political and financial control. The government works closely together with large Chinese IT companies, such as Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. Through China’s nascent Social Credit System of rating individual behavior, the state will intrude deeper than ever before into the daily life of each Chinese citizen: from traffic regulation to payment discipline to surveillance of both speech and friend circles in social networks. But companies will also be reined in by digital control. With his top-level approach Xi Jinping has centralized governance and planning much further than what was held possible five years ago.

What is the Chinese leadership hoping to achieve with this approach and what does it mean for Xi Jinping’s second term?

Xi Jinping is more ambitious than all his predecessors since Mao Zedong. His aspirations extend far beyond the defense of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. In the wake of digital transformation, something new has arisen in China: a “digital Leninism.” This new form of big data-supported governance exploits the dominant market positions of a few large IT corporations which are forced to provide the government with comprehensive data about citizens, companies and financial as well as societal processes. Digitization and oligopolies play into the hands of the authoritarian system and open new possibilities for centralized control and management.

Under Xi, the Chinese leadership will forge ahead with the expansion of a system that relies on big data and digital innovation. The CCP leaders believe that they have found a way to effectively control society. They are closer than ever before to achieving the old communist dream of perfect, centralized control and a planned economy that is more stable and less crisis-prone than a market economy.

However, it is by no means guaranteed that this dream will come true. It is also possible that central control through big data will fail due to the sheer data volumes and the high complexity of processing them, or that digital surveillance will impede business initiatives and thus innovation. This will, however, not stop the CCP from attempting to use the opportunities of digital transformation to stabilize the one-party system. 

China is an important trade partner for Germany and Europe and an active global player. How should we approach future cooperation with China?

China’s current development towards an efficient but authoritarian big data economy presents fundamental challenges to liberal market systems. Europe lags behind with respect to digital technologies and applications. Overall, the friction between China and the EU will increase in digital commerce and in cyberspace, whereas China’s digital policies may present a model for other authoritarian and partially authoritarian countries. European countries face the concrete question of whether the import of large-scale digital systems from China is desirable, from wireless networks to traffic control systems. The EU needs thorough screenings of investments and technological imports from China to ensure they conform to European legal and regulatory standards.


This interview or excerpts may be quoted with proper attribution. For questions and further information, please contact:

Dörte Ahlrichs, Communications Manager


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