On October 16-22, 2022, the 20th Congress of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) took place in Beijing. On October 23, the 1st Plenum of the 20th CPC Central Committee was held, where the Secretary General of the CPC Central Committee, the Politburo and its Standing Committee were elected. These events marked the end of the previous five-year cycle in China’s political process and the beginning of a new, already the third five-year cycle with Xi Jinping at the helm of China.
Traditionally, CPC Congresses are perceived as milestones, symbolizing new stages in China’s development. This time there were no fundamental changes – on the contrary, the Congress confirmed the course of holding to the policy pursued over the past ten years. Even with this initially obvious arrangement, however, there was room for a few intrigues that had preoccupied Sinologists before the Congress. Now, a few days after its conclusion, it is possible to review the main outcomes and highlight the points worthy of note in the analysis of Chinese policy in the years to come.
Intrigue 1: Will there be a third term?
Everything is seemingly clear with this issue. Xi Jinping had done his best in good time to preclude the question of his successor being raised at the 20th Congress. This was necessary to ensure confidence in the future and stability of the system instead of stirring it in the lead-up to a programmed change of power. It is no coincidence that the Chinese have recently been talking so much about the malignancy of short electoral cycles in the U.S., when you have to vie for power every few years, leveraging your capitals.
Several institutional junctures pointed to the “third term”. First, the age limit is no longer relevant, so it is no longer imperative to fit one’s entire career into a span of up to 68 years. Five years ago, Xi Jinping, who will turn 69 in 2022, deliberately set a precedent for ageing leaders to keep getting new positions, having appointed the elderly Wang Qishan to the unimportant but still honorable position China’s Deputy Chairman. Second, at the last congress, Xi Jinping did not give prominence to any younger guys or specifically marked anyone as his “successor”. It is simply impossible to think of Wang Qishan as Xi Jinping’s successor. Third, the constitutional provision limiting the number of terms in the office of PRC Chairman was abolished (there had been no such limit for party leaders anyway). This meant that Xi Jinping would be able to combine the two highest positions in the Party and the state in the future for the same reason of concern over the regime stability and predictability.
Decisions of the CPC congresses are normally prepared in advance, with only ceremonial announcements made during the congress. So, one can be sure that both Xi Jinping and all 2,000 delegates were flocking to Beijing knowing full surely that the “party core” would retain their tenures at least for another five-year term. However, this information was inaccessible to outside observers, and so a certain intrigue—albeit largely far-fetched—loomed large till the last. Nevertheless, Xi Jinping’s supremacy was never challenged throughout the Congress, and it was announced on October 23 that at the 1st Plenum of the 20th CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping is elected General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee for the next five years.
Intrigue 2: Who will be the “right-hand man”?
While nobody was surprised at Xi Jinping leading a group of comrades entering the press hall in the afternoon of October 23, 2022 to hold a press conference on the plenum’s outcomes, those who followed him were gazed at with particular intensity. In recent months, the question of who will be the “right-hand man” in the party hierarchy, and hence the future head of government, was in fact the main cadre intrigue of the congress.
The current head of government (Premier of China’s State Council) Li Keqiang could not stay in office, because the two-term five-year limit in this post (two 5-year terms) was preserved in Article 87 of the PRC’s Constitution. In addition, there has been talk throughout the ten years of Xi Jinping’s rule that the Xi-Li tandem was the result of an intra-elite compromise, which Xi Jinping quickly became uncomfortable with, and now he can finally appoint “his own premier”.
Most analysts agreed that the government should be headed by one of the current deputy prime ministers, as had always been the case in previous years. Either First Vice Premier Han Zheng (68) or Hu Chunhua (59) in charge of agriculture and regional development were suggested as most likely candidates. Two other vice premiers, Liu He (70) and Sun Chunlan (72), were not taken seriously due to their age—high enough by the Chinese elite’s tacit rotation rules.
Shortly before the congress, the Western media began hectically circulating information that the new Premier of the State Council would be the 67-year-old Wang Yang, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Advisory Council (a specific “deliberative assembly” sitting simultaneously with the parliament). This was hard to believe.
By any standard, Wang Yang is already “past his prime,” since he holds the honorary but pre-retirement position of chairman, and he is also known for his conditionally liberal-market views which hardly resonate with Xi Jinping. Apparently, those analysts who were used to looking at the world exclusively through the prism of neoliberal discourse were so sure that only a liberal-market approach could help the Chinese economy that they simply indulged in wishful thinking.
Yet, Xi Jingping is not swayed by the views of Hong Kong analysts, and he made many people gape by his choice of the “right-hand man.” He stayed his choice on Li Qiang, the 63-year-old secretary of the Shanghai Party Committee, known for his allegiance to Xi. Li Qiang has long been on the radar as one of the members of Xi’s close circle, expected to be among the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee at the end of the congress. However, he had no experience of working in central agencies, much less leading the State Council, and this was thought to be an important hurdle.
As of now, loyalty turned out to be more important than experience. In circumvention of the deeply-rooted unspoken rules, Li Qiang was appointed “second in command” and party secretary of the Chinese State Council. This will allow him to oversee all HR and procedural decisions in the government already now, while six months later, in March 2023, he can expect to be elected as the new premier.
Li Qiang is virtually unknown outside China, although he has served as the head of three regions of the Yangtze River mouth (Shanghai and the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang). The fact that it was Li Qiang who authored the tough two-month lockdown in Shanghai in spring 2022 may give us some idea about this leader. If we continue the analogy, we can say that the course of zero tolerance for the coronavirus will be maintained nationwide, and in case of emergency the government will follow the “end justifies the means” principle.
Intrigue 3: Who will be members of Politburo Standing Committee?
Since the onset of the “reform and opening up” era at the cusp between the 1970s and 1980s, the Chinese carefully positioned the party’s mandarins as a “collective leadership,” – hence a special significance of the power balance in the party’s highest body, the Politburo Standing Committee, which has consisted of seven members in recent years.
And while the importance of the Standing Committee has declined amid the current situation of the “party core” reinforcement, the question of who exactly will be included in the “Magnificent Seven” is one of the main intrigues of the congress. If not for other reasons, then hierarchical rankings of the top-tier party members normally show who will occupy what position in the highest state bodies.
Already on October 22, 2022, when the list of those elected to the new Central Committee was published, it became clear that the Standing Committee would be renewed by more than half—Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng, who had exceeded the conventional limit of 68, were retiring, as were Li Keqiang and Wang Yang. Thus, Xi Jinping himself and his slightly younger sidekicks Zhao Leji and Wang Huning were those left.
Building on the results of the CPC Central Committee Plenum, it became clear that they would occupy the top government positions in the new five-year cycle. Xi Jinping, from the “first seat,” will also become Chairman of the PRC, Zhao Leji (No. 3 in the party hierarchy) will head the parliament, while Wang Huning (No. 4) will head the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (an advisory body).
In addition to Li Qiang (No. 2), the Standing Committee also includes three new members, ranked fifth through seventh in the party hierarchy. They are Cai Qi (former secretary of the Beijing Party Committee), Ding Xuexiang (head of the Central Committee Office) and Li Xi (former secretary of the Guangdong Party Committee). All of them are Xi Jinping’s protégés, his closest associates bound to him by personal loyalty.
It has already been announced that Li Xi will head the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, a key body in the party structure that handles anti-corruption work. Cai Qi will become the “first secretary” of the CPC Secretariat – that is, he will take care of organizational work in the central office. No such announcement has yet been made concerning Ding Xuexiang, but it is clear that he will be promoted in the near future, too.
Ding Xuexiang, 60, is in the spotlight. He is now the youngest member of the Standing Committee and, what’s more, the only one in his generation to have received such an honor. Hu Chunhua and Chen Min’er, his peers long spoken of as candidates to become Xi Jinping’s “successor,” did not hit the list of the Standing Committee members (and Hu Chunhua slipped past the Politburo either, though he had previously served two terms there, which could be a sign of disfavor and even disgrace). If the March “two sessions” result in Ding Xuexiang promoted to PRC Deputy Chairman’s post, it would be safe to speak of him as Xi’s successor. However, it is more likely that Xi Jinping, who has not yet completed his mission at the head of China, will try not to make such obvious signals and will continue to keep the “youth” at a distance.
Intrigue 4: What will Xi Jinping’s keynote address be about?
Traditionally, one can judge what kind of mission this is by the statement delivered by Xi Jinping on the first day of the Congress. Previously, at even-numbered CPC congresses, such a final report used to be the summary of the ten-year rule and a kind of “precept” for descendants. Now, given the breakdown of the former elite rotation rules, the report should solely be perceived as a record of the political philosophy guiding Xi Jinping personally and the Party in general.
It should be noted that the title of the document is emphatically couched in the best traditions of the Chinese revolutionary narrative: “holding high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics… and striving in unity to build a modern socialist country in all respects…” Building a “modern socialist state” is the current goal of the Chinese Communist Party, meaning that by 2049 (the year of the PRC’s centennial) social development should be at such an advanced stage that will allow socialism to take hold and reign. “The great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics” is the means to achieve this goal, which comes down to the fact that in China it is necessary to have regard for local specifics (the huge population that until recently lived in poverty), local traditions (including Confucianism and the revolutionary practices of previous generations of Chinese communists), and so it is possible to depart from the “classical model of building socialism”, or to use market mechanisms, to be more exact.
Meanwhile, it follows from the address that the current leadership is abandoning its previous fixation on the market and high rates of economic growth in favor of a focus on social development. One of the report’s central concepts is the “human dimension”, people’s welfare and interests. Xi Jinping has emphasized that it is the individual who is the cornerstone of China’s development concept and, therefore, developing those areas of social welfare that were underestimated in previous decades—healthcare, the pension system, and insurance—is of particular importance.
As can be seen from Xinhua’s program article on the congress outcomes, titled Xi Jinping — the Man Who Leads China on a New March, the current leadership is even credited with “putting forward a new child-bearing policy, whereby a married couple can have three children, and taking measures to reduce the home assignment and extracurricular teaching burden on students.”
It should be understood that China does not resort to these measures for the mere fun of it. The country is on the verge of demographic crisis caused by a longtime policy of birth control, social inequality (one of its tools being a host of expensive tutors hired by well-to-do parents for their kids) has reached frightening proportions, while the emphasis on social aspects has been made only when the economy is obviously stalling.
Another top priority is security. The new report contains rather alarming notes: “At any time, there may be an escalation of external pressure and deterrence. China is entering a period of development, simultaneously abounding in strategic chances, risks and challenges, with uncertain and hard-to-predict factors being on a steep rise, while events labeled as “black swan” and “gray rhino” can occur at any time.
Terms of the Western political science, like “black swan” and “gray rhino”, reveal the hand of Wang Huning, the party’s chief ideologist and former dean of the Faculty of International Relations at Fudan University. Yet, the fact that China has approached Xi Jinping’s third term in office, facing most serious geopolitical challenges, is sensed by all. The main of them is surely the “Taiwan issue” that has sharply aggravated of late. In his report, the Secretary General has once again reiterated his adherence to the principle of “one China” and warned against attempts to declare Taiwan’s independence as well as against the interference of external forces (the same theses were entered into the CPC Charter). Neither the West, nor the United States, nor any other country is directly mentioned, but it is clear these very opponents of China are meant by “outside pressure and deterrence”.
In the context of security, another goal was named: By 2027, the centennial of the People’s Liberation Army of China, there should emerge a “Silent China,” a term that implies both the absence of threats within the country and China’s rightful place on the global stage, given that stable sovereign development is simply impossible without it.
U.S. observers were quick to say that China might try to establish control over Taiwan by 2027, but neither the text of the report, nor the accompanying documents and speeches give any grounds for this conclusion. In fact, a provocation on the “Taiwan issue” that would force China to strike back using military means can already occur at any moment—and this is the very “black swan” Xi Jinping really means.
If policy-makers on the banks of Potomac decide to abstain from launching this “bird” into the waters of the Taiwan Strait, it is likely that in the next five years China will be immersed in its internal issues associated with the restructuring of the very paradigm of socio-economic development: from staking on exports and GDP growth to refocusing on domestic consumption and social aspects. In the meantime, the policy of closeness due to the coronavirus pandemic, the trend for tough intervention of the government in the affairs of large corporations and further tightening of party control in all spheres of social life will obviously persist.
From our partner RIAC