Behind China’s Theatrics
The National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party takes place every five years. The significance of this gathering lies in its deep optics and internal and external signaling. The National Congress is used to show who will run China for the next five years. The gathering is also a signpost to discern the direction the country will be taking in the next few years. All decisions are taken by the senior party leadership well before the National Congress meets. The 20th National Congress begins in a few days.
On top of the party hierarchy are two bodies: the 25-member Politburo and the much coveted 7-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). The supreme leader is the PSBC general secretary, who is the de-facto leader of the Chinese Communist Party and the country.
Despite the two-term norm set by Deng Xiaoping to avoid excesses witnessed under Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping looks firm in his endeavor to stay on as the PSBC general secretary and head of the Central Military Commission. This makes him the most powerful man in China. He has clearly departed from the collective leadership model of recent decades. His tenacity to stay at the helm demonstrates his determination to break established norms which have ensured prosperity and stability for the last few decades. Both his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, served for two terms each.
There are rumors that the coming session might see an amendment to the party constitution to redesignate Xi Jinping as Chairman, a position only held by Mao. This would help Xi supersede Deng in party history and hierarchy.
However, it is not that everyone in the party is awed by Xi or is completely overpowered. Serious observers note that the Chinese Communist Party has its own internal factions, the two dominant ones being the pro-reform faction which believes in economic liberalization, and the conservative one which is deeply grounded in Marxist ideological moorings.
Some experts have made upside projections which suggest that Wang Yang, Li Keqiang, and Hu Chunhua, three pro-reform members and rivals of Xi, could be accommodated in the PSBC if age norms (seven up, eight down) are followed. Given China’s precarious economic situation, such a possibility might even help. However, such a scenario seems less likely given Xi’s ideological turn leftward and his tightening grip on the party apparatus.
On the other hand, there is a high possibility that Xi would like to surround himself with members of his faction and sideline leaders like Li Keqiang and Wang Huning who might have grown too influential for his own liking. Xi has also already shown his appetite to do so with the purging of rivals in the past under his anti-corruption campaign. Recall that Bo Xilai is still behind bars.
Packing the house with pliant apparatchiks risks returning to a one-man show, with its own share of policy regression and weakening institutional checks and balances. Nationalist fervor is also being ratcheted up by official Chinese media by highlighting the “struggle” and the need to bolster the “combat capability” of the party in politics and ideology.
Some experts underline that Xi Jinping is here to stay and, despite domestic challenges at home, seems to be hurtling towards a full victory at the upcoming National Congress. The recent bungling with the zero-COVID strategy, slowing growth, and a crackdown on the tech sector have not seemed to dent Xi’s control. He has further used relentless ideological propaganda to cement his position and has consciously erased any meaningful reference to his predecessors.
Nationalism and the rhetoric of harking back to the realization of communism to “rejuvenate” the nation has also been adroitly used by Xi to cement his position and decry any opposition as anti-party and anti-state.
On the external front, Xi Jinping has called on party members to “resolutely oppose all acts that split the motherland, undermine national unity and social harmony and stability,” and “consciously guard against various risks.” Such oratory continues with the visibly vocal approach adopted by Xi Jinping who intensely believes that China’s time has come. Be it in the Himalayas or the South China Sea, growling is preferred over diplomatic sweet-talk. In an atmosphere of charged nationalism, making external policy changes and adjustments is also construed as weakness.
As far as relations with the West are concerned, the emerging pattern of the last few years is likely to continue with trade and investment being the latest victims of a sharpening geopolitical competition. With Russia, the Chinese are known not to like losers for friends but given the fraught atmosphere right now, they have maintained a studied silence. This has led many experts to posit that the “no-limits” partnership still stands in place. Putin’s recklessness might have perturbed the Chinese, but it has not deterred them. Experts have called for Beijing to strike a balance between high-octane rhetoric and patient pragmatism with a dose of realism.
In the last few years, Xi has prioritized a strengthened military, an assertive foreign policy, and increased pressure on Taiwan. Don’t expect Xi Jinping to go soft in a third term.