20th CPC Congress and Xi’s Re-lection
China’s starts its new journey
Chinese President Xi Jinping secured an unusual third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party, the country’s most powerful position, after a weeklong Party congress session that ended on Oct. 22. During the meeting, some key Communist party leaders retired from the powerful seven-member Politburo standing committee — and several of Xi’s closest allies and protégés were instated.
Addressing the closing session, Xi Jinping, said that China would open its door wider to the rest of the world. “We’ll be steadfast in deepening reform and opening-up across the board, and in pursuing high-quality development,” Xi said when meeting the press at the Great Hall of the People, noting that a prosperous China will create many more opportunities for the world.
A unanimously approved resolution on alterations to the party charter mandates that all party members “uphold Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole.”
With the announcement of significant political resolutions on the last day of this important political gathering, China’s president, Xi Jinping, has increased his influence as a figurehead and improved his standing within the history of the party. Here we present key takeaways from the congress.
New Politburo Standing Committee
On Oct. 23, an event that marks that a series of important political agendas surrounding the 20th CPC National Congress came to a successful conclusion, members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo – China’s equivalent of the presidential cabinet and the country’s most powerful political body – appeared before the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In his address at the gathering, President Xi presented the six other members: Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang, and Li Xi. This group is considered the elite of the elite within the party, and getting to the top often requires not only a stellar political track record, but also deft manoeuvring of internal rivalries. Effectively handpicked by President Xi Jinping, most of them are new to the team apart from Zhao Leji and Wang Huning. Most, if not all, are, however, seen to be Xi loyalists as all six of them have worked with him over many years. Most significant is Li Qiang, the Shanghai party secretary. He will replace Premier Li Keqiang, who is being bundled into retirement. The new SCP reflects the further ascendancy of a harder line Xi faction in the Chinese leadership and a setback for the party’s liberalising wing.
The event marked the start of the next stage of China’s journey to build itself into a modern socialist country by 2035, and to become a great modern socialist country in all respects by the middle of this century.
Breaking with a tradition of factional checks and balances stretching back to Mao’s death in 1976, Xi installed a leadership configuration of loyalists at the extreme end of predictions. Some analysts had expected — or hoped for — the inclusion of a token member not allied with Xi.
Future development trajectory
While delivering a report at the congress, President Xi said that China would accelerate creating a new development pattern and pursue high-quality development. “We must fully and faithfully apply the new development philosophy on all fronts, continue reforms to develop the socialist market economy, promote high-standard opening-up, and accelerate efforts to foster a new pattern of development that is focused on the domestic economy and features positive interplay between domestic and international economic flows,” Xi said.
At the congress, a blueprint for China’s future development has been mapped out. As the world economy is facing a tough situation this year, with probably tougher prospects for the next, China’s economic outlook carries global significance. Voicing their confidence in China’s future growth, business communities worldwide believe that China’s modernization stride and innovation-driven growth will inject more certainty into the global economy.
Security over any other thing
Xi’s opening speech at the congress points to a profound reshuffling of the CPC’s priorities, with security replacing economic development at the top of the list. This was the first time since the CPC took power in 1949 that the paramount leader mentioned “security” more than “economy.” Xi insisted that security is the precondition for economic development: “National security is the foundation of national rejuvenation, and social stability is the precondition for national strength.” In the event of a trade-off between security and development, the former wins. The case in point is Xi’s decision “absolutely” not to waver on his zero-Covid policy, despite its devastating impact on the economy.
Xi’s definition of security, however, extends far beyond military matters and includes food, digital, energy and labour skills. This reflects China’s deep anxieties about constraints on its access to high-tech supply chains and food and energy shortages, as geopolitical tensions with the West deepen.
On growth, Xi seeks to define success not by headline growth figures, but by progress in tackling scarcity faced by certain segments of society, thereby meeting “people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.” To this end, the Party must devise a detailed strategy for managing the financial risks associated with the downsizing of China’s property sector, without damaging the personal wealth of millions of people. The urgent pursuit of greater security must be combined with measures that promote jobs and qualitative growth as Chinese cities emerge from long and severe pandemic lockdowns.
More power, more accountability
Having packed his leadership team with allies, and with the party constitution amended to enshrine Xi’s authority and ideas as its “core”, Xi sits virtually unchallenged, for the time being, at the apex of a political organisation that oversees a country with the world’s second largest economy, a rapidly modernising military and, perhaps most importantly, global ambitions to match its growing economic and military strength. It means China under Xi will continue to assert itself forcefully in what he calls “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
Xi’s assertiveness – in contrast to his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – is unsettling for China’s regional neighbours, including Australia, and for a US-led Western alliance more generally. Xi’s election, thus, may provoke stronger international pushback from the US-led Western countries.
Xi opened the congress with a speech indicating continuity in policy direction even as he rebranded his vision for the path ahead as “Chinese-style modernisation” and emphasised security in an increasingly dangerous world. He reiterated that “China will open its door wider to the rest of the world,” and pointed out that “just as China cannot develop in isolation from the world, the world needs China for its development.”
China’s economy faces a number of challenges at home and abroad – including Beijing’s zero-Covid policies and the trade conflict with the US. It has grown 3.9% in the July to September quarter from the same time last year, beating estimates. The decision made at the congress indicates that there will be more direct party-state direction of the economy.
In this context, a huge challenge to President Xi’s development strategy is, of course, his “zero Covid” policy that has weighed heavily with its nationwide shutdowns. This also contributed to a stuttering economy to the point where GDP growth is faltering for the first time in decades. The World Bank has cut its forecast for 2022 GDP growth to just 2.8%, from a previous forecast of 5.5%. GDP growth in 2021 was 8.1%. With a collapsing real estate sector weighing on a stretched banking system, the economy is Xi’s vulnerability. Getting the numbers from his comrades to endorse himself and his underlings in leadership roles is one thing; shifting the economy back on track is quite another.
Xi is here to stay
When Xi joined the Standing Committee in 2007, it was clear from his age and from the makeup of the committee that he was on track to replace Hu Jintao, who held China’s top post of party general secretary, once Hu’s second term ended in 2012.
There has been no heir-apparent since Xi assumed power, and he kept it that way.
None of the Standing Committee newcomers are young enough to take over in 2027 and serve two terms after that under the norms of Chinese politics. The youngest is Ding Xuexiang, who is 60.
The absence of a clear successor indicates that Xi may want to remain beyond three terms, increasing policy risk and unpredictability the longer he is in power, analysts say.
The lack of a successor creates key-man risk – Xi is 69 – and undermines the orderly leadership transition norms that were put in place after the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution to avoid a repeat of Mao’s struggles to hold power indefinitely.
China is a major country with nearly one-fifth of the world’s population and more than 18 percent of the global economy. Its political stability is good news for the whole world. The 20th CPC National Congress not only provides a clear plan for the next step of development, but also ensures a strong leadership core can guarantee its implementation. This gives the world stabilized expectations in observing and understanding China. Many analysts outside China have emphasized the continuity of China’s development direction and policies after the 20th CPC National Congress, which is rare in the current international situation full of uncertainties.
China is embarking on a long journey, one filled with glories and dreams. In the face of changes in the world, times, and history, China’s determination to take the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics will not change, its determination to learn from others and practice win-win cooperation with other countries will not change, and its determination to walk hand in hand with the world will not change. The CPC has provided both China with a clear sense of direction and great certainty. This is very rare and extremely valuable for a world entering a new phase of turbulence and transformation.
The writer is a member of staff.