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A nation must think before it acts.
Alone at the Top
The Party Congress was expected to reaffirm, and perhaps further consolidate, Xi Jinping’s position as the most dominant Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, and to give him an extraordinary third and—physical and political health permitting—term as general secretary. In March of next year, Xi is on track for an unprecedented third term as state chairman (a post analogous to, and often translated into English as “president”)—a move that required a constitutional amendment in 2018 to suspend a two-term limit. With no prospect that he will give up the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, Xi will continue to occupy the three key posts at the apex of China’s party, state, and military structures, as well as his leadership role of the many ad hoc groups that Xi has created to address major policy issues and crisis, earning him the sobriquet “chairman of everything.”
Amendments to the Party Charter underscored Xi’s ever-more-exalted position. Going beyond the amendments at the 19th Party Congress that put “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” on par with the previously unrivaled “Mao Zedong Thought,” the 2022 changes added a pair of Xi-era slogans—the “two establishes” and the “two safeguards”—that affirm Xi’s role as the “core” leader.
In these respects, the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress could hardly have been more different from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s 20th Congress, where Khrushchev ’s 1956 secret speech marked the beginning of de-Stailinization and a dramatic—if, in the end, temporary—turn away from the extreme concentration of power in the Kremlin in the hands of a single dominant leader.
In another way, however, China’s 20th Party Congress did resemble its Soviet antecedent. In a moment captured in arresting video footage (not publicly shown within China), Xi’s predecessor as top leader, Hu Jintao, was ushered from the dais, evidently much to his surprise and against his will, and with Xi barely acknowledging the humiliating scene he surely had choreographed.
The confirmation that Xi is alone at the top entailed more than both literally and figuratively shunting off the stage the long-retired top member of the cohort of leaders senior to him. Two Standing Committee members—Li Keqiang (the current premier) and Wang Yang—who would have been age-eligible (at less than sixty-eight years old) to remain on the Politburo and its Standing Committee were dropped from both the Politburo and the Central Committee (the larger party body in whose name major policies are issued).
The junior generation of leaders fared little better. Xi’s third term, possibly to be followed by a fourth and more, meant that the so-called sixth generation of leaders would not assume the top posts soon, if ever. Xi did not signal a designated successor. The prior practice—albeit of such recent vintage and so few iterations that it could hardly be called institutionalized—had been for an age-eligible heir apparent to join the Politburo Standing Committee at the Party Congress that reappointed a general secretary to his second (and final) term. Xi has now eschewed this path twice (at both the 19th and 20th Party Congresses), while also flouting norms of the recent past that would have made Xi too old to serve beyond his second term.
A Passel of Protégés
It was no surprise that those close to Xi would dominate the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee—the most elite political body in China. But their complete dominance is noteworthy. When Xi came to power, there had been a relatively long-standing pattern of some balance among the top leadership. One group was broadly characterized by careers in China’s developed coastal regions and ties to Jiang Zemin (Hu’s immediate predecessor as China’s top leader) and his cohort. The group identified by service in more inland areas and ties to Hu Jintao and his cohort, and often called the tuanpai (because of their association with the Communist Youth League). Although the labels fit imperfectly, the latter group is sometimes characterized as populist and the former as elitist, in part because it included a good number “princelings” (taizidang)—the children of top leaders from the revolutionary era and the early years of the People’s Republic of China.
Xi has quashed this quasi-partisan intra-party equilibrium. In addition to marginalizing Hu, Li, Wang, Hu Chunhua (a once-rising star dropped from the Politburo at the 20th Party Congress) and the tuanpai, Xi—the consummate princeling—also moved to undercut his own former cohort, partly in the name of opposing factionalism. Tellingly, Xi’s initial consolidation of power included purging his principal rival for the top posts, fellow princeling Bo Xilai, whose downfall came in a lurid case of murder and corruption.
The new top seven are all the general secretary’s men. Although the career paths of the Chinese Communist Party’s top elite are sufficiently complicated and varied that few-word descriptions are problematic, the new Politburo Standing Committee includes at least two (Li Qiang and Cai Qi) who served with Xi earlier in his career, and two (Wang Huning and Ding Xueliang) who have been Xi’s close aides during his tenure at the top. One (Li) made the cut—and became heir-apparent to the premiership—despite his role in the unpopular COVID lockdown of Shanghai, seemingly because of his demonstrated loyalty to Xi and his zeal (albeit belated and costly) in implementing Xi’s signature “dynamic zero COVID” approach to the outbreak in China’s largest city.
The Party Does Indeed Lead All
A prominent trope of the Xi era has revived a Mao-era nostrum: “the party leads all.” The phrase is an apt description of Xi’s rule, which has seen the extension of greater party penetration of, and control over, state enterprises (where party vetting of company chiefs has combined with state financial leverage), private firms (which have been required to establish party committees), and high-flying and free-wheeling entrepreneurs (whose wings have been clipped by tighter regulation, corruption prosecutions, and sharp signals that they needed to toe the party’s line, lower their public profiles, rein in speculative investments at home and abroad, and contribute to Xi’s agenda of “common prosperity”). The party’s tightening grip has extended beyond the economy to civil society organizations, religious organizations, grassroots rural governance, the media, courts, and more. The once-prominent project of “separating Party and government” has faded from view, and more of what was once the state’s domain in issuing rules and policies has fallen to party bodies or joint party-state action. The sometimes-ad hoc, issue-specific small groups organized under party leadership and often chaired by Xi have become a principal locus of policymaking during Xi’s tenure.
Xi’s Report on the Work of the Party (the basis for his nearly two-hour speech to the Party Congress) praised and celebrated the party-centric features of Xi’s tenure. As is customary, the report praised the party’s leadership across a vast range of issues and credited party leadership with a long list of reported successes on matters ranging from economic development to coping with the pandemic to social order to national security and “national rejuvenation.” The prose giving the party pride of place and celebrating its predominance was arguably even more sweeping than in the relatively recent past, declaring that party leadership is “exercised in all aspects and every stage” of the party’s and the country’s work, and that this leadership role “ensures” that the party will “always” be the “pillar” for the Chinese people.
More striking—and perhaps presaging Hu’s unceremonious removal from the Party Congress ceremonies—was the report’s withering account of the problems with the party and party leadership before Xi came to power. The report criticizes the weakness, indiscipline, corruption (a signal concern of the Xi era), and low political consciousness within the party during the years before Xi. It touts the great accomplishments achieved in recent years through what might be called the re-Leninization of the Chinese Communist Party as a more disciplined, centralized, top-down, organizationally strong, and political mission-oriented institution.
The selection of Politburo Standing Committee at the Party Congress sent much the same message. Among Xi’s half-dozen fellow members, most have had significant roles in the party’s powerful disciplinary and anti-corruption apparatus or the party’s general office (the key body for internal organization and appointments to key positions throughout the party-state and beyond), and one (Wang Huning) is known as Xi’s principal ideologist. Although the group includes three with backgrounds as provincial party secretaries, none has had a career principally defined by service in government positions or the management of economic affairs.
Power, Responsibility, and Risk
With the top leader so solely in command of a party with so broad a reach and so firm a grasp, Xi moves into his third term with an extraordinary concentration of power. But with such power comes responsibility and risk. China faces daunting difficulties, many of them interrelated, including: slowing economic growth (revealed—unusually—only after the Party Congress to be a poor—by PRC standards—4 percent), the COVID-19 pandemic (which has slowed the economy and sown public resentment of Xi’s approach), pollution and climate change, an increasingly rivalrous relationship with the United States (which has arguably reached its lowest point since before normalization of relations in 1979), chronic and periodically severe tensions with neighbors (often over territorial issues), and diminished soft power (especially in the Global North, born of China’s more assertive Xi-era foreign policy and strident “wolf warrior” diplomacy, high-profile human rights violations in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet, and an ostensibly “no limits” partnership with Russia, announced on the eve of Putin’s war in Ukraine).
If such challenges become deeper crises, or if policy responses to them fail, Xi (and those immediately around him) will be less able than their recent predecessors to blame anyone else within the Chinese system. Xi “owns” the problems and any failures in addressing them. The centralization of power in Xi’s hands, and the marginalization of elites who are not beholden to him—or thoroughly like-minded—raises the risk that well-founded criticisms of policies—and ideas for better alternatives—will not reach Xi’s ears or alter his thinking. Yes-men, and those whose status and privilege come largely from above, have a hard time saying no to the boss.
For those who hold, and might otherwise press, heterodox views and different approaches, the post-20th Party Congress landscape is bleak. With Xi and those loyal to him have attained a near-monopoly of political space, potential challengers face a seemingly insurmountable collective action problem. Xi may be—or become—unpopular among elites and masses, but unorganized discontent and disaffection mean relatively little in such contexts. You can’t beat something with nothing and under Xi, at least for now, potential rivals, opponents, and reformers have nothing in terms of meaningful opportunities for organizing against, or even remonstrating with, an emperor-like leader.
The Party Congress also signaled, as it typically does, policy priorities for the term ahead. A hallmark of Xi’s rule that received resounding confirmation at the Party Congress is an emphasis on domestic order and security. The Xi years have brought a vast expansion of the high-tech surveillance state, extensive investment in the more traditional, labor-intensive tools of governance and social management at the most local levels (including through an extended “grid management system” for urban areas), a crackdown on all forms organized dissent (and individual acts of dissent as well), suppression of those who would seek to constrain the regime’s power (including the once-vibrant “rights protection lawyers” and a wide variety of civil society groups). In the half-decade since the 19th Party Congress, the COVID crisis supercharged these trends.
Xi’s Report to the Party Congress framed these as correct approaches and foreshadowed no near-term intent to revisit existing approaches. Instead, there were reaffirmations of the recent success and future importance of the party’s accomplishments in exercising strong and unified leadership across all areas of economy and society and the policies and laws that regulate them, reining in sources of economic disorder (including corruption and crime, as well as the disregard for legal and moral obligations that the “social credit” system addresses), restoring order in Hong Kong after the protests, and protecting society from the potential ravages of the pandemic. The strikingly brief discussion of the pandemic, and the plaudits for the “all-out people’s war” the party had lead to safeguard the people’s security and well-being, suggested that the serious and mounting economic costs and the striking signs of popular disapproval of zero COVID policies were not leading Xi and the leadership to reconsider their approach.
Here, as well, the post-Congress line-up of the top leadership was on message. In addition to the plurality with past or present roles in the disciplinary and organizational units charged with maintaining party effectiveness and control and checking corruption, two members have recent high-profile experience in “social order” work. As provincial party chief, Li Qiang led the harsh and controversial COVID lockdown in Shanghai. As Beijing party head, Cai Qi oversaw the rapid and large-scale demolition of buildings that housed a large and hard-to-monitor (and thus, in the regime’s view, potentially order-threatening) internal migrant population. Such work reportedly impressed Xi and boosted both men’s political fortunes.
(Market-Friendly) Economics Not in Command?
In the pre-Xi decades of China’s Reform Era (1979-2012) and into the early Xi years, economic growth and development was usually the predominant goal for the party (except in moments of political crisis such as the Tiananmen movement of 1989). The principal strategy for the economy was broadly (and compared to prior baselines) market-oriented and internationally open. Under Xi, much has changed on this front, and the 20th Party Congress signals the continuity or intensification of a pair of Xi-era shifts.
First, security concerns, broadly defined, have partly eclipsed the emphasis on economic growth. To be sure, and as Xi’s Report reflected, the Party Congress continued to stress the importance of China’s “socialist modernization,” with a particular emphasis on innovation, education and workforce development—a sensible strategy for a country where the sheer size of the economy, rising production costs, and an aging population have made obsolete the early Reform Era strategy of boosting growth rates through relatively low-end exports. The Congress also restated China’s commitment to economic globalization and openness to trade—a position that has been especially prominent since the Global Financial crisis in 2007–2008 and the backlash against international economic integration that followed. A signature Xi-era policy—the Belt and Road Initiative—was framed as part of China’s commitment to international economic openness.
Yet, as the “dynamic zero COVID” policy—lauded at the Congress—shows, Xi’s regime has been willing to tolerate large-scale economic losses as the price of its approach to the pandemic, even as the rest of the world reopens. The need to share the benefits of growth more broadly—a familiar issue now framed in terms of Xi’s notion of “common prosperity”—was another non-growth-focused point that drew at least rhetorical emphasis.
But the most striking theme was the securitization of economic issues. The report speaks of the need to assure food security, energy security, and supply chain security. It warned of the dangers to China of moves by other countries—implicitly the United States and its allies—to impose protectionist policies, disrupt supply chains, impose sanctions, adopt “maximum pressure” tactics, and seek to decouple their economies from China’s. It strongly emphasized the need for China to be more capable and self-reliant in technology and innovation. Unmentioned but looming large in the background to these imperatives were moves by the United States under Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden to impose tariffs on Chinese exports, restrict Chinese firms’ to US markets (especially in the telecommunications sector), and, especially, to block China’s and Chinese companies’ access to vital computer chips. Underscoring the last—and largest—of these concerns was a new set of highly restrictive China-targeting measures on US semiconductor technology adopted by the Biden administration on the eve of the Party Congress.
Second, the Party Congress continued a turn toward a greater role for the state in China’s economy. To some extent, this shift is the economic conjoined twin of the political decision to assert greater party and state control over, and in, enterprises, especially in technology sectors. Partly, it is a response to the international dimension of China’s economic security concerns: greater technology and innovation self-sufficiency as a way to mitigate the risks of US-imposed or US-led restrictions, sanctions, decoupling, and so on. It also appears to be, simply, a less market-accepting vision of the economy and economic policy than Xi’s predecessors embraced. Whatever the mix of underlying reasons, the Party Congress embraced the Xi-era approach where the state, of course led by the party, plays a large role in investing in science and technology and innovation, selecting what sectors, firms, research institutes, and universities will receive the state’s considerable largesse and policy support.
Here, again, personnel moves at the Party Congress aligned with the policy message. The near-absence on the Politburo Standing Committee of leaders strongly associated with market-oriented and internationally open growth was the most striking indication. The arguable exception—Li Xi—served as party secretary in Guangdong the provincial poster-child for the earlier Reform-Era approach to economic growth and development. But he ranks last among the seven, is in charge of the party discipline and anti-corruption portfolio, and took a sharp turn away from the relatively politically liberal approach of his predecessor in Guangdong, the now-marginalized Wang Yang. A few members of the Politburo (not on its Standing Committee) have more economics-focused backgrounds, but two of them are associated with the space and aerospace industries—sectors where the state role is, unsurprisingly, large.
Foreign Policy: Models and Storms
The foreign policy vision on display at the Party Congress was partly optimistic and ambitious, partly dark and foreboding—and disconcerting for the United States (and others, including Taiwan). On one hand, Xi’s Report to the Congress reiterated and gave new prominence to the assertion that a Chinese model—particularly China’s development experience—offers a template, and inspiration for other countries, especially in the Global South. Echoing the Xi-era slogan of a “community of common destiny / shared future for mankind” [renlei mingyun gongtong ti], the report asserts that the party and the Chinese people have shown “humanity” how to achieve development and address other “common challenges.” This pronouncement entailed a thinly veiled challenge to the liberal economic and democratic political model that has (re)gained a more central place in Biden-era US foreign policy and that has been an object of pointed criticism from the ideological workshops in Xi’s China.
On the other hand, Xi’s message at the Party Congress downplayed long-standing, more sanguine themes. There was, to be sure, much touting of China’s contributions to global peace and development, its respect for other states’ sovereignty (notwithstanding China’s unmentioned refusal to strongly condemn Russia’s seizure of much of Ukraine), and its steadfast eschewal of hegemonic ambitions. But, in the report’s rhetoric, seeking a peaceful international environment conducive to China’s development goals lost its former primacy as a foreign policy goal. The idea that China enjoys an extended period of “strategic opportunity”—and thus could confidently and benignly pursue a larger international role and greater influence—gave way to a more crabbed notion. In the 20th Party Congress view, “strategic opportunity” now coexists with risks, challenges and uncertainties. China must be prepared for “high winds,” “rough waters” and “dangerous storms” and the threats of “black swans” (unforeseen but highly disruptive events) and “gray rhinos” (obvious major dangers that receive too little timely attention). Tellingly, the report included a novel and very lengthy and unusually detailed section on national security (and also emphasized the party’s leading role in this area, as in all others).
Although Xi’ report—in contrast to the US National Security Strategies of the Trump and Biden administrations—did not name his regime’s principal challenge and competitor, the message has been and remains clear. The United States was the obvious referent in denunciations of “hegemonic, high-handed and bullying acts” of one of more unnamed actors “playing zero-sum games” and causing serious harm. Here, too, personnel changes following the 20th Party Congress underscore, and may exacerbate, the point. Liu He, seen in the United States as relatively measured in handling the highly contentious bilateral economic relationship during the Trump and early Biden administrations, has been retired. The increasingly confrontational Wang Yi has joined the Politburo, despite being too old for the post under the now-battered age norms, and in effect succeeding the more senior and generally similar-minded Yang Jiechi.
The Party Congress also addressed the principal potential flashpoint in the increasingly antagonistic US-China relationship: Taiwan. Taiwan has been the recipient of sharply increased and bipartisan US support during the Trump and Biden administrations, and the target of China’s massive military exercises in August following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. As a PRC White Paper (possibly released earlier than initially planned, in response to the Pelosi visit) affirmed, the Chinese regime’s core approach to Taiwan remains fundamentally unchanged. Peaceful reunification is still the preferred method, but China will use force if it is—in the Chinese leadership’s assessment—necessary to do so. Here, the 20th Party Congress reiterated long-standing positions.
Xi’s report omitted his earlier warnings that the Taiwan question could not be passed on from generation to generation. (Ironically, the implied threat has become less imminent with Xi’s decision to remain in power beyond the ordinary period for his generation.) But the Xi-era’s generally toughened tone on Taiwan issues continued at the 20th Party Congress and in some respects sharpened. An amendment to the Party Charter added “resolutely opposing” Taiwan independence gave the Taiwan issue a higher formal status in party policy.
The ongoing insistence that the “one country, two systems” model is the only acceptable template for ruling post-unification Taiwan looks even less accommodating—and more unappealing in Taiwan—in light of developments since the 19th Party Congress five years ago. The severe loss of promised autonomy, democracy, and liberal rights in Hong Kong version of “one country, two systems” in the aftermath of the 2019–20 Hong Kong protests and China’s imposition of a draconian National Security Law for Hong Kong. Xi’s familiar words at the 20th Party Congress on the formula for Taiwan’s unification take on a darker tone in light of the August 2022 Taiwan White Paper’s willfully tone-deaf paean—echoed in Xi’s Congress Report—to the model’s success in Hong Kong.
The demonization of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party and President Tsai Ing-wen also continued apace at the Party Congress, with Xi’s Report declaring the party’s unwavering opposition to activities in Taiwan that are “separatist” or aimed at “independence” and to foreign “interference” in cross-Strait relations. Here, too, the relatively rote language of the Party Report looks harsher, first, against the backdrop of the strikingly hard-edged and specific denunciation of Tsai and the DPP in the first-in-two-decades White Paper released in the run-up to the Party Congress, and, second, in light of the worrisome prospect that the 2024 successor to the term-limited Tsai will be less moderate or less adept in handling cross-Strait relations.
The Third Term May Not Be a Charm…
In terms of personnel, politics, domestic policy, and foreign affairs, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party went broadly as expected. But, on most fronts, it went strikingly far. With Xi and Xi loyalists in charge and now formally recommitted to a distinctively Xi-era policies, the trajectory for Xi’s third term is in some respects clear. China faces major challenges at home and abroad. Xi and the party have embraced a particular set of approaches to address them and weakened checks on their power and mechanisms for revisiting policy choices. How Xi and his coterie of loyalists among the top leadership fare, and how they respond to failures and new challenges, is uncertain and highly consequential—and pose significant risks—for China and the world.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.