China’s most important political event of 2022, and indeed of the coming five years, will kick off on October 16 when the 20th National Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its 90 million members convenes.
Hong Kong: China’s most important political event of 2022, and indeed of the coming five years, will kick off on October 16 when the 20th National Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its 90 million members convenes.
Undoubtedly, Chairman Xi Jinping will extend his term in power for another five years. He will either be re-elected as general secretary of the CCP, or will be newly elected as chairman of the CCP, a title that has lain dormant since 1982 and was once the highest position ever held by Mao Zedong. The congress is taking place at one of the most perilous periods in international affairs in recent years. A war is raging in Ukraine as President Vladimir Putin attempts to burnish his credentials as a great Russian leader, and China remains a staunch supporter of this would-be tsar.
At the same time, Taiwan Strait tensions are at their highest in decades, as China attempts to pummel Taipei into acquiescence. Add to this economic malaise, diplomatic tensions with the USA, and the after-effects of a global pandemic and China’s own paranoid efforts to stamp out COVID-19, and all the ingredients for a brewing storm are present.
Xi, a subject of intense hero worship and a state-sanctioned personality cult, will pretend that all is serene in his government. As he sits unperturbedly atop the CCP pile, he will doubtlessly install more of his acolytes and proteges into top offices to carry out his divine wishes over the coming five years and beyond.
Yes, indeed, the 20th National Congress is a mightily important event not only for China but for the whole world.
Analyzing this important political event, the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institute in the USA held a discussion about the congress on October 4. It was aptly entitled, “Will China’s strongman become even stronger?”
Cheng Li, Director of the John L. Thornton China Center and a Senior Fellow at Brookings pointed out that no important leakage of information has occurred prior to the 20th National Congress. He said it was rare that the world really has no idea of who will be in the next Politburo Standing Committee – including no rumours put out by opposing factions – so this shows a high degree of discipline and unity.
Of the 2,296 delegates, some 80 per cent have their biographies online. Li added that there is no credible political or leadership challenge to Xi and, while some unexpected promotions might occur, there will not be major surprises at the congress. The academic said this all shows that “Xi Jinping, from his perspective, is in charge”.
Li highlighted another important aspect. “[In his] special first term, Xi Jinping ruled the country largely through the working ways of his political allies. Now, for the next term, he will rule the country largely by a team of his proteges, the leaders promoted by him.
Now, of course, we know the difference between allies and proteges, so that make him strong.”
Li also pointed out that, though Xi comes in for a lot of criticism overseas, he still remains immensely popular at home. He listed three reasons for this: the “elimination” of poverty, with 800 million Chinese lifted out of poverty in the past 40 or so years; green development, with less pollution; and reform in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Regarding the latter, the Brookings representative said this included moving away from the old Soviet model emphasizing ground forces, to one of PLA joint forces; that Xi has taken firm control of the services and operational theatres; and the promotion of new leaders loyal to himself.
In a sense, Xi saved the CCP from collapse ten years ago, as it was rocked with schisms, scandals and corruption. Li explained: “College students, ten years ago – based on my observation – very few of them were interested in joining the Chinese Communist Party.
What’s the point, they go to business, they go abroad, etc? But ten years later, there’s a huge percentage in China’s elite schools…a high percentage joined the Chinese Communist Party. This does not necessarily mean they believe in communism, but at least they find that the communist party will be with them for a long time. So that’s my read.”
Given all this, Xi may well feel he has the political capital to wisely spend at the upcoming CCP gala.
Not all Chinese citizens are enamoured with Xi, however. It is not black and white, because such ones are also proud of what China has achieved in recent years. Li explained: “I do realize that some criticism, some resentment can occur so quickly. But at the same time, these people also want to step into it, want China’s rise on the global stage and they’re also probably more critical about some US policies towards China, and certainly, they are nationalistic about Taiwan. So it’s a complicated spectrum. I mean, you can be liberal on certain issues, areas, but you can [also] be conservative on measures of sentiment, etc.”
In terms of its COVID-19 response, China is wavering between overconfidence and excessive fear. It does not have the world’s best vaccine, but it has achieved a creditable low infection rate, primarily because of enforcing Draconian lockdowns.
There are glimpses of changes in this policy though, for already it uses the term “dynamic zero tolerance” instead of just plain “zero tolerance”. The Chief Advisor of Public Health also said China probably should treat COVID-19 as the regular flu.
Nonetheless, China will be one of the last countries to open up to the rest of the world but, when it does, it will probably be with a sharp rebound as businesses clamour for greater freedom. Whichever way it happens, China will declare victory and will trumpet the superiority of its socialist model.
Turning to the political realm, Xi has managed to squeeze most opponents out of places of power. That means he is popular in the top rungs of the party hierarchy, many of whom are now his loyal subjects, though Cheng Li speculated that in the few years after the congress, a new faction might emerge even from among his own proteges. However, Xi himself will be aware of this threat and will remain on guard.
The Central Committee will have a serious shake-up of its 376 members next week, with probably two-thirds of them set to change. While this is a high percentage, it is not unprecedented, because Xi has already changed a lot of the Central Committee through purges and his anti-corruption campaign.
As for the 25-member Politburo, probably 15 of its 25 members will be newcomers, according to Li’s predictions. He suspected that a number of them – perhaps seven or eight – might be intellectual/technology types, such as scientists or university presidents, a new breed of technocrats. This also reflects Xi’s emphasis on technology and civil-military fusion.
The Politburo Standing Committee, with currently just seven members, will also see serious changes with perhaps four new faces; these are likely to be of a younger generation. Nonetheless, Li said that Xi faces the challenge of not causing tensions and resentment with his choices of who to replace.
An important question is will Xi rule indefinitely?
Li offered his thoughts: “Well, this will be his third term. It’s unclear whether he will have a fourth term or not. The political establishment already endorsed a third term. Xi Jinping can probably plan for the fourth term, but it all depends on the next five years; it’s not a given. But I do not abide by the argument that Xi Jinping plans to stay there forever.”
Li was 90 per cent confident that Xi would not name a successor at this time, simply because it is still too early. Xi may therefore deliberately make it ambiguous by bringing several new younger leaders into the Politburo Standing Committee so as to not make any successor line obvious.
On the other hand, Xi cannot put off naming a successor indefinitely. “So, they delay the process for a while, but not too long. [If it’s] too long, I think there will be some pressure on him.”
Premier Li Keqiang is definitely stepping down, and Li listed four candidates that might replace him. Each successive premier has always been a vice-premier, so this is where they will presumably emanate from this time around too.
The four candidates for premier are Han Zheng, Hu Chunhua (who was a protege of Hu Jintao), Liu He and Wang Yang. Whichever one is chosen, it will send a message about Xi’s policy considerations, whether he is continuing current policy emphases (e.g. Zheng), unity of leadership (e.g. Hu, since he is from a different faction) or international appeal (e.g. Liu, who might help improve relations with the USA).
Pushed for an answer as to who is most likely to succeed Li Keqiang, the Brookings expert said perhaps either of the first two, though it remains an unknown.
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The largest challenge for China after Taiwan is possibly the Russia-Ukraine war. This issue has garnered a lot of attention from Chinese intellectual elites, social media commentators and entrepreneurs.
It is especially interesting given that, in recent decades, it is the USA that has been China’s most important foreign engagement partner. But now some feel that Russia and Putin have hijacked China’s foreign policy. Remember that Russia is a declining power while China is an emerging one, so in some respects, it is odd that Beijing has hitched its wagon to align with Putin’s priorities.
China is careful not to call Russia an ally, preferring the term “partner”. This is so that it does not unnecessarily cause offence to the European Union, which is a huge trading bloc for China.
Chinese leaders have never condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, even though there is no direct advantage for Beijing in supporting the war. Li said, “Most importantly, Chinese leaders feel that they do not want to see Russia fatally defeated by NATO and the United States. Why? Because if that happened, the next one will be you, China.”
So, behind the facade of unity, strength, resolve and wisdom, there is a bevvy of challenges and threats facing Xi, the CCP and China. The 20th National Congress will demonstrate to a large extent what tack China will take in the coming five years.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by HW News staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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