Perhaps only the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II could compare to the pomp and ceremony that will accompany this congress in Beijing, with the weeklong conclave commencing on 16 October. It will be a highly orchestrated affair designed to showcase party solidarity, and to of course glorify the preeminence of Xi.
Xi remains firmly in charge of the one-party state, despite swirling rumors – propagated it seems by the Falun Gong and some Indian media – that a coup had occurred in Beijing. Military columns approaching Beijing and mass cancellations of flights were cited as “evidence” of Xi being put under house arrest.
This is not the case, however, as rumor mills ramp up ahead of such important CCP events. A total of 2,296 delegates have been appointed to the 20th Party Congress, including just over 200 full members and approximately 170 alternate members. They will rubber stamp Xi’s third five-year term in office, something unprecedented since the excesses of Mao Zedong’s reign.
Xi has carved out a niche as paramount leader, with no regulatory end in sight for the end of his tenure. To borrow a quote from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Certainly, none is more equal than Xi. China’s state constitution was amended in 2018 to eliminate any presidential limits, thus paving the way for Xi to remain in power indefinitely. Without doubt, Xi will retain his positions of CCP General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC).
In November 2021, the Central Committee canonized Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, claiming that it embodies “the best of the Chinese culture and ethos in our times and represents a new breakthrough in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context”. The Party Constitution is sure to be amended next month.
Expected revisions will “establish the position of comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the central party authorities and the core of the whole party”, and “establish the overriding status of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. Xi’s thoughts will be entrenched within the pantheon of CCP ideologies. Other revisions could be abolition of term limits for the CCP General Secretary and Chairman of the CMC; the Party Constitution does not currently stipulate the length of these two top posts. This is separate to the State Constitution, which was altered in 2018 to abolish the limit of two five-year terms.
Doctor Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation think-tank in the USA, Lam offered this observation: “Strongmen hate surprises – and will go the distance to ensure such events are carefully choreographed beforehand. This is why supreme leader Xi has repeatedly cautioned against ‘black swans’ appearing in Chinese politics. The putative Mao Zedong of the 21st century has solid confidence in the nation’s artificial intelligence-assisted mass surveillance apparatus; so he has not been daunted by the spate of demonstrations that have broken out in several provinces over bank and real estate defaults and related scandals. Instead, most of Xi’s energy has been consumed with finalizing personnel arrangements ahead of the 20th Party Congress that will consolidate the domination of his faction, and at the same time generate enough leeway to pacify opposition factions as well as party elders, many of whom have been disturbed by Xi’s apparent Maoist restoration and his anti-US and anti-Western stance.”
Creative new ideas will thus not appear at this meeting. The congress’ main purpose is to eulogize Xi and ensconce him as undisputed leader for a third term. Eschewing the policy of collective leadership introduced to prevent a recurrence of Mao’s errors as “Great Helmsman”, Xi opted to concentrate all decision-making power in his own hands. His hold over such areas as finance, foreign policy, personnel and ideology will be strengthened after the 20th Party Congress, despite the presence of the Communist Youth League Faction headed by Premier Li Keqiang, and the Shanghai Faction previously led by former president Jiang Zemin. In the coming five years, Xi’s power will be even more absolute.
The Central Committee will decide the make-up of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee and 25-member Politburo. Their two most prominent remaining Communist Youth League Faction members are Li and Vice Premier Hu Chunhua. However, it is likely that one will disappear, and quite possible that neither will remain after October’s congress.
Indeed, if Li retires and Hu is not offered a seat, this raises the specter of the Politburo Standing Committee being entirely dominated by Xi. Four candidates -all of whom are Xi’s men – to occupy up to three vacant committee seats are Cai Qi, Li Qiang, Chen Min’er and Ding Xuexiang.
Yet, stacking the deck like this does not guarantee unity. There was dissension under Mao, and personal ambition will ensure jostling for position occurs under Xi too. If Li retires as premier, then perhaps the most likely replacement is the popular Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference chairman Wang Yang, who was Vice Premier from 2013-18.
It is difficult to imagine the Chinese elite revolting against Xi. Indeed, elites are more likely to flee the country and establish themselves elsewhere than they are to conduct coups. Similarly, Xi has the populace wrapped up tight with surveillance and internal security forces, so large-scale protest movements like that in 1989 are hard to conceive.
That is not to say that public grievances against Xi will not grow in the next term. Sixty-nine-year-old Xi will stay in power for at least another five years, and presumably for the next ten until the 22nd Party Congress in 2032. That means he feels he has plenty of time to appoint a successor, and nobody else dare propose one either.
John S. Van Oudenaren, Editor-in-Chief of the China Brief at The Jamestown Foundation, commented: “In the long term, Xi’s inability or unwillingness to address the succession issue that plagues all non-monarchical, one-party states fosters immense uncertainty in the PRC system. Xi has rolled back the very modest progress made in the 1990s and 2000s to institutionalize the succession processes for the top-leadership posts. Moreover, the lack of a clear successor as Xi begins his second decade in power is likely to intensify the political maneuvering among sixth- and seventh-generation cadres as the general secretary enters old age.”
Van Oudenaren added, “Even if Xi self-selects a successor, as Mao Zedong attempted to do several times, there is no guarantee that such an anointed future leader would have the political clout to take the reins, particularly if the prevailing sentiment among other party elites is to move in an ideological or strategic direction that is at odds with Xi’s vision for China.”
For his part, Lam assessed: “The succession issue – as well as whether the CCP can cope with an unexpected event such as the sudden incapacitation of the supreme leader – is a taboo for the official media and heavily censored social media. Due to the longstanding rule of…retirement at 68…sixth-generation rising stars – officials born in the 1960s who would become Politburo Standing Committee members at the 20th or 21st Party Congress in 2027 – might end up being only transitional figures. The top prospects to fill this role include Xi’s protege and principal adviser Ding Xuexiang (born 1962) and the Party Secretary of Chongqing, Chen Min’er (1960).”
These two will be too old to assume power at the 22nd Party Congress under current protocols. On the other hand, potential successor candidates – those of the seventh generation born in the 1970s – have not yet really emerged or projected themselves on the political stage, since they are still middle-rank officials.
With Xi at the core of the party, his name enshrined in the Party Constitution, and his power base firmly controlled, the rest of the world can expect continuity of his policies, priorities and strategies. Deep in his being, Xi believes that the East – i.e. China – is rising, whilst the West is in decline. A Cold War has developed largely because of economic, geopolitical and technological competition with the USA. CCP efforts to usurp the US-led global order, to turn upside down established rules and norms, to establish military bases and illegally claim territory in the South China Sea, and its unstinting support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have set China on a pathway of confrontation.
By doing so, China has increasingly isolated itself from all but the most authoritarian of regimes. Xi has charted his course, and with a third term securely in the bag, the USA can expect intensified competition after the 20th Party Congress. Nonetheless, Xi faces significant challenges, including how China will handle COVID-19 now that the rest of the world has mostly learned to live with the pandemic. The country’s dynamic zero-COVID policy is like an economic millstone around its neck.
Lam commented: “In light of the CCP’s lack of ballot box legitimacy, economic growth and overall public support – or at least acquiescence – are key elements of the party’s legitimacy. Apart from…netizens paid to sing the party’s praises on social media, a substantial portion of citizens are frustrated by problems including pandemic-related quarantines, growing unemployment, declining spending power on consumer goods, as well as the real estate and banking crises.”
Xi will continue efforts already instituted to ameliorate some of these economic headwinds and to stimulate growth, plus the chairman needs to convince foreign investors not to withdraw from China’s market. However, Lam pointed out that the State Council’s preferred economic policy is simply a decades-old formula of boosting infrastructure spending at home, the side effect of which is massive government debt. Xi’s promotion of a “whole-country systemic approach” and “internal circulation”, amounting to reliance on China’s domestic market to generate economic growth, does not suggest a return to Deng Xiaoping’s market-oriented approach.
China’s COVID-19 lockdowns are draconian. Yet to backtrack now would belie the CCP’s narrative that its governance is superior to the West’s. This policy has raised social discontent and stunted the economy, but China is unlikely to drastically alter its approach, at least until after March 2023 when the new government is sworn in.
Certainly, early loosening of strict health protocols would cause COVID infections and deaths to explode, and this would cause political insecurity. Taiwan remains China’s whipping boy, and Xi has enforced an even harder line against Taipei after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August. Quite apart from a continuous tempo of warship and aircraft sorties, which now ignore the long-respected median line in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing’s latest effort to ostracize Taiwan is to rewrite history in the United Nations.
For example, Zhang Meifang, China’s Ambassador to Ireland, tweeted on 24 September: “Over the past five decades, the UN has always referred to Taiwan as ‘Taiwan, Province of China’: this is Taiwan’s only status in international law.”
However, this is a blatant lie, for the UN never describes Taiwan like this. The CCP is fraudulently “altering” UN documents in an attempt to turn its one-eyed claims into a reality. Not a single document of the UN Security Council or General Assembly support Beijing’s claims, as it subverts international norms to achieve its own ends.
The CCP, in recent decades, has successfully depoliticized the Chinese masses, and encouraged them only to think of economic gain. Xi has never engendered universal popularity, but his anti-reformist policies, creation of a cult personality, rising unemployment, losses on the stock market and in real estate for the middle class, COVID-19 lockdowns and economic headwinds are all combining to tarnish Xi’s aura.
Vain repetition and mouthing of vacuous slogans such as “the great renaissance of the Chinese nation” and the “Chinese dream” cannot dispel others’ misgivings. If China cannot close the gap with the USA, then Xi’s slogans will appear even emptier. Xi has set himself up as China’s second Messiah, perhaps hoping to outpace Mao if he manages to secure Taiwan for his own and the CCP’s glory. However, if he does not live up to the rhetoric, disappointment and resentment at home may grow. No matter what, the rest of the world will face continuing belligerence from China in the coming five years.