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Dissecting China’s 20th National Party Congress: An Indian Perspective – OpEd

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The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (October16-22) concluded with a call by President Xi Jinping to “dare to struggle, dare to win, bury your heads, work hard and be determined to keep forging ahead.“ Xi acknowledged the “darkening geopolitical clouds on the horizon,” the “black swans,” “unpredictable dangerous events” and “grey rhinos” pointing to the foreseeable dangers and worsening external environment. His concluding speech was more about ideological rhetoric than substance and made no reference to global peace and development and de-emphasized economic development and economic reform – a total shift from economic growth to national security.

This congress can be compared to the historic 7th party congress (April 23-June 11, 1945 held in Yan’an, Shaanxi, not in Beijing) at which Mao Zedong succeed in capturing power by purging the then Chairman Wang Ming who was held responsible for party’s wrong line. Mao became the Chairman and his thought (‘Mao Zedong thought) also became the “guiding thought” leading the party thereafter. Mao had stressed the proletarian nature of the CPC, while underlining the need to deepen support among the rural masses.

Xi who has been re-elected General Secretary of the party for a third term has also promoted common prosperity, a personality cult and loyalty and has apparently done away with Collective leadership, by electing his confidants to the leading positions in the party. He has embarked on two big reforms – common prosperity and building PLA into a modern fighting force. Xi is attempting to achieve his ‘China Dream’ which seeks rejuvenation of China to become pre-eminent power in the world and supplant US as the lone global power in the world. He believes that to lead China to greatness he needs a few more years and terms as the party head. Like ‘Mao Zedong thought’, ‘Xi jinping thought’ has also been published in three volumes and is a must study in all educational institutions. The hallmark of the 20th congress has been the rise of only one faction – ‘Xi’s faction,’ a group of unflinching loyalists who have worked under him and have implemented his policies unwaveringly and have not hesitated to call him ‘Ling Xiu,’ a reverential term used only for Mao.

A comparison of 20th party congress with earlier ones reveals:

  1. The new members of the PBSC (7) and PB (24) and CMC are filled with his own loyal trustworthy associates. Xi has skillfully  used the Marxist axiom ‘Political power flows from the barrel of the gun’, like his predecessors — Mao used Marshal Lin Biao to remove and purge the senior leaders and rivals, Deng used Marshal Ye Jianying and General Yang Shankun to rehabilitate himself and remove Hua Guofeng the then chairman of the CPC,  Xi has also skillfully used 72 year old PLA leader General Zhang to remove and  sideline rivals, accumulated ultimate power by assuming the leadership of working groups operating outside the ministries that oversee everything from national security to economics policy. For the first time in several decades of the CPC, Chen Wenqing Minister of state security landed a coveted job in 24 member politburo and is expected to head party’s top security body — the central political and legal affairs commission. This reflects Xi’s growing importance to national security and perhaps his insecurity and compromises to retain power.
  2. In his inaugural speech, Xi lauded the party’s achievements and success over handling domestic problems and zero Covid policy. Xi urged the party members to steel themselves against numerous challenges including the hardening geopolitical climate. Security was also another main focus of his speech in which he lauded Hongkong’s transition from chaos to governance and vowed to ‘never commit to abandoning the use of force ‘to reunify’ Taiwan. Xi’s report appeared to be a carefully crafted message directed more towards domestic audience.  Xi believes that external adversaries will escalate the military crisis as the international configuration of forces is not turning in china’s favor hence the need to accelerate building of a world class military. Whereas the 18th party congress report (2012) was concerned with “guarding against and forestalling external intervention in the affairs of Hong Kong and Macao. The new report indicates a change in language and determination to take resolute action against such forces to prevent and stop interference in the affairs of Hong Hong and Macao. Indicating greater confidence to deal with such forces and hardening in evaluation of the threat perception that party sees coming from the external world forces.
  3. The PLA has been assured of being turned into a modern fighting force that can win wars and efforts have been stepped up to procure modern weaponry and indigenize production. Xi has also setup a new command for rocket forces, cyber warfare and strategic weapons. Xi has signaled his assurances of PLA support by discarding “seven up eight down policy” by retaining  the king maker — the 72 year old General Zhang fist vice chairman of CMC whose allegiance to Xi  goes back to his ‘Guan Xi’ of their respective fathers. He has also promoted generals Wang Haijiang and Xu Qiling to Central committee. He weidong  served earlier as commander WTC (2016-19), Wang is the current head of WTC, Xu who succeeded He, was commander WTC (2020). All the three leaders have experience of commanding WTC-the largest theatre command overseeing the disputed border with India.
  4. The CMC newly listed vice chairmen Zhang Youxia and He Weidong, are both from the Army, so no balance has been struck between the different branches of the PLA. Both He and Zhang are from PLA 31st army in the southeastern province of Fujian, across the Taiwan straits from Taiwan have long experience of Fujian frontline and have carried out operations against Taiwan. Zhang has combat experience in Vietnam and both could greatly enhance any military operation against Taiwan. Another promoted General is Liu Zhenli who has hard operational experience in Sino-Vietnam war. Xi evidently is focused on his military ambitions and reclaim what he thinks is China’s past glory and his dreams go beyond Taiwan which would be a starting point. 
  5. Li Qiang has been rushed into PBSC, possibly as future Premier. The Shanghai post is China’s most important and was previously held by jiang Zemin and Zhu Rong ji. No technocrats or an economist has found a place in the Apex body to manage the economy.
  6. The 19th party congress report exuded confidence in China’s ability to manage international environment, the 20th congress report talks about the “external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade and exert pressure on China. Now China appears to suspect or has grown over suspicious of external forces bent on suppressing and containing China.
  7. The 20th party congress report makes four references to “resolving Taiwan issue whereas the 19th party congress report referred to it only once. The reference to interference by external forces, few separatists seeking Taiwan independence, gross provocations etc reinforces a tone of menace and implacability.
  8. The 20th party congress marks a personal triumph for Xi by getting a third term in power and having status equal to Mao and Deng,  the undisputed leader, the unparalleled  authority within the party and state system, free hand in personnel appointments, breaking the established norms of collective leadership  and fixed terms , establishment of Xi Jinping thought as ‘21st century Marxism and the party’s guiding ideology ‘to ensure his imprint in policy making  and policy direction.  While factional struggle within the party cannot be rooted out, for the moment at least he seems to have convinced the party members to be in full control of the party. However, even then the future remains grim and fraught with more insecurities with uncertainty ahead.
  9. What concerns India is that unlike his speech at the 19th party congress (2017), this time XI talked about the capability to “win the local wars “. The next five years are likely to see rapid modernization of PLA leading up to 100th anniversary of PLA in 2027 and PLA would like to show case its strength and accomplish its twin tasks of reunification of Taiwan and India –china border. The 20th party congress did not see a triumphant leader painting a rosy picture but a grim leader reminding of difficult times ahead while reforming growth model and countering external hostile climate. Security, high-tech development and sovereignty of the nation which includes Taiwan and includes Indian Territory in Arunachal Pradesh and areas around Ladakh will continue to remain in focus in the coming five years. The Inclusion of ‘development interests’ for the first time in party report authorizes China to wage wars in other countries if its investments interests particularly along the Belt and Road initiative projects (40 Billion in POK) are threatened.  This belligerence might manifest itself in the Northern belt of the Indian subcontinent from Ladakh to Myanmar. 

Simply put, the 20th Party congress witnessed the ideological rhetoric in full stream, rise of Xi faction, rise of Eastern belt leaders, personal connections, Guan Xi, loyalty to the core leader — Xi — and the spread of his ‘personality cult,’ the like of which was witnessed during Mao era. Xi’s revival of one man rule has also ended the collective leadership era arrangement established by Deng within the party. 

During President Hu Jintao’s period various factions from PLA, propaganda department and security agencies etc. all took full advantage of weak collective leadership of the Hu Jintao government to further their own interests. But now with his enhanced power, status and leadership Xi may be able to have his policies and views implemented without much resistance. This might augur well for Sino-Indian relations, help resolve the pending border issue that needs strong leadership in both the countries to discuss and resolve the issue. Perhaps, the ‘three mutual’ advocated by the Indian Foreign Minister might provide a good starting point.

Prof. Ashok Tiku is a Senior China Analyst with 45 years of experience.

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