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The Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress: What Happened…And Didn’t – Analysis

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By June Teufel Dreyer*

(FPRI) — On Sunday, seven nearly identically dressed men in navy suits, white shirts, and conservative ties (all but one of them red) marched in order of political importance onto the stage of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The display ended months of suspense and rumors about the Chinese leadership, and revealed the new power structure at the top of the Chinese Communist Party. To no one’s surprise, Xi Jinping retained his position for a third term as party general secretary and head of the party’s Central Military Commission; barring a highly improbable catastrophe, he will be named president when the National People’s Congress—the highest state, as opposed to party, organ—meets in March. This third term, made possible by an earlier change in the constitution and unequaled since the days of People’s Republic of China founding father Mao Zedong, essentially allows Xi to remain head of party and state for as long as he wishes.

Also as rumored, Premier Li Keqiang—though at sixty-seven young enough to remain on the seven-member Standing Committee of the top party organ, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC)—was not retained. An informal tradition known as “seven up, eight down” is that if PBSC members are sixty-eight or older at the time of a party congress, they must retire; if 67 or younger, they may enter the committee or, if already here, can stay. Li’s position as premier will likely go to the number two entrant onto the stage, Li Qiang. Li, sixty-three, was party head in Shanghai, where his strict enforcement COVID-19 lockdown procedures impressed Xi but made him very unpopular with citizens. 

Third in rank order was sixty-five year old Zhao Liji who, as head of the party’s Central Discipline Inspection Commission vigorously pursued Xi’s signature campaign against corruption. He is likely to be named head of the National People’s Congress. Fourth in line was Wang Huning, sixty-seven and the party’s leading political theorist, who is believed to be named head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body that has been imperfectly compared to Britain’s House of Lords. Fifth-ranking Cai Xi, sixty-six, previously served as party chief in Beijing and will likely head the party’s extensive propaganda and censorship apparatus.

Number six, Ding Xuexing, is at age sixty the youngest member of the PBSC. Ding, who served as Xi’s chief of staff and head of the Party Central Committee’s General Office, is expected to be named first vice-premier of the National People’s Congress. Last at number seven was Li Xi, sixty-five, formerly party secretary of Guangdong province. He is Zhao Leji’s putative successor as head of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission.

Taken together, the most important criterion for elevation to the PBSC appears to be loyalty to Xi. All six men have some past ties to Xi and none with the Communist Youth League faction that is associated with Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Indeed in a moment of high drama, two muscular men escorted a bewildered-looking Hu—who had been seated next to Xi—out of the meeting. Xi looked on impassively, with state news agency Xinhua’s later explanation that Hu had taken ill being met with considerable skepticism. To dampen rumors, censors quickly removed Hu’s name from social media. Li Keqiang, dropped from the PBSC, had been Hu’s protégé. In yet another signal of the end of the Communist Youth League’s influence, incumbent vice-premier Hu Chunhua, fifty-nine and heretofore reputedly in line for appointment to the PBSC, not only failed to be appointed to the PBSC but was even dropped from the twenty-four-person Politburo. (Though its size has not been codified, the Politburo has traditionally had twenty-five members. There has been no official explanation for the reduced number this year.) He had been an aide to Li Keqiang and, like Li, had Communist Youth League connections

There were no indications of a successor to Xi, who could decide to run for a fourth term five years hence, but Ding Xuexing, at age sixty and known for his unswerving loyalty to Xi, would still be eligible to serve in ten years for at least one five-year term. Moreover, Xi, at sixty-nine, has already waived the seven up eight down age rule for himself and Ding could as well. 

In what must have been difficult for former president Hu Jintao to listen to, Xi’s speech to the more than 2,000 delegates contrasted the baleful situation of corruption, bureaucratism, hedonism, and extravagance when he took over with China’s achievements since he assumed office ten years ago. Xi outlined a bright future for China, at times seeming to promise all things to all people: China would open up further to the outside world while becoming more self-reliant; the rights of domestic entrepreneurs would be protected even as the role of state-owned enterprises would be expanded; and economic development would forge ahead at the same time as “common prosperity,” meaning redistribution of wealth, from its more affluent to its poorer citizens would take place.

Still, concerns were evident. A major worry is that recent declines in economic growth, which preceded the outbreak of COVID-19 but were exacerbated by it, may result in China falling into the middle-income trap and unable to reach the level of prosperity envisioned in Xi’s plans. The target of doubling the size of the nation’s economy by 2035 would require an average of 5 percent annual growth over the next fifteen years that many economists, both inside and outside China, regard as unrealistic. The last-minute announcement that trade data would not be released on October 18 as scheduled invited speculation that the numbers would not be good and that the statistics were being manipulated. When issued the day after the congress closed, whether massaged or not, the data showed a creditable 3.9 percent increase that nonetheless left growth for the first nine months of the year at 3.0 percent vis-a-via the planned target of 5.5 percent. While giving no specifics, Xi advocated self-reform as the answer to the question of how to escape the historical cycle of rise and fall: the party would boost its ability to purify, improve, renew, and excel. Self-reform and purification may not be enough to reverse the trend, however, particularly given Xi’s plans to expand the role of state-owned enterprises, which tend to be economically inefficient, rather than taking more pragmatic steps that would facilitate a strong recovery.

Other confessed shortcomings included bottlenecks that hinder high-quality development and insufficiently strong capacity for scientific and technological innovation. Financial risks were alluded to—China’s huge property market has been teetering on the edge of disaster for over a year—but with no plan of action suggested. Steps must be taken to ensure that food, energy, and industrial supply chains are secure and reliable; wide gaps continue in the ideological domain. Ecological conservation and environmental protection remain “a formidable task.” Coincidentally, as the party congress met, the World Bank issued a report saying that China will need to invest $14 trillion in power and transportation to meet its goal of net zero emissions by 2060. Xi pledged that the anti-corruption campaign would continue to be pursued vigorously, though some might have wondered why, after so many years, it still remained a problem.

Marxism, Xi continued, must be developed to integrate it with China’s specific realities, which does not mean treating it as rigid dogma. Only by taking root in the rich historical and cultural soil of the county can the truth of Marxism flourish. Since Xi’s thoughts on ideology have been published in three volumes thus far, it seems likely that Xi intends to make himself the arbiter of doctrinal purity.

Internationally, Xi gave notice that he intended to vigorously pursue to goal of “re-uniting” Taiwan with China, peacefully if possible but by force if needed, which drew the loudest applause from his audience. Close observers of cross-Strait relations noted that he had not mentioned the one-country two-systems mantra that Taiwanese have repeatedly rejected, nor mentioned an alleged 1992 consensus on one-country two-systems that has proved so contentious and wondered if this meant he had abandoned the concept in favor of a more belligerent stance.

Given the lack of diversity of views at the top of the leadership, analysts parsed Xi’s speech for clues about policies for the future, finding little change from the two past party congresses on the number of mentions of modernization, reform, and the market, but large increases in national security and Marxism. Close scrutiny of Xi’s words also revealed two key omissions from past reports—first, that the country was “in a period of important strategic opportunity,” implying that it faced no imminent risk of major conflict and could therefore concentrate on economic growth, and second that “peace and development remain the themes of the era,” with the implication that China would continue to rise. His statement that the world had entered a period of turbulence and transformation tacitly acknowledged that the international environment had become more hostile. China, Xi promised, would meet the challenge “resolutely.” Despite his having reached age sixty-nine and therefore theoretically ineligible to serve, the elevation of Foreign Minister Wang Yi—known for his willingness to bluntly confront foreign interlocuters—to the Politburo seems to confirm the continuation of willingness to defend China’s perceived interests. Wang will replace the equally confrontational Yang Jiechi, seventy-two, who is retiring. 

Xi’s assessment of the increasingly hostile international environment is realistic. Missing from his words was any acknowledgment of how China’s behavior might have contributed to this hostility. International polls indicate noticeable drops in people holding favorable views of China; a 2022 Pew poll showed all-time highs for unfavorable ratings toward China in nine countries and toward Xi Jinping in eleven. A combination of assertive moves toward contested areas in the East and South China seas, menacing moves toward Taiwan, and seemingly gratuitously insulting “wolf warrior” behavior by Chinese diplomats undermined Xi’s instructions to senior party officials to create the image of a “credible, lovable and respectable China.” Just before the party congress began, diplomats in the Chinese consulate in Manchester, England, including the consul-general himself, emerged from its premises to tear down banners protesting China’s actions in Hong Kong. A demonstrator was dragged inside the consulate grounds and badly beaten, with the consul-general admitting to having pulled the man’s hair but justifying his actions since the victim was “abusing my country and my leader.”  

Also worrisome to many foreign countries was Beijing’s willingness to use its economic clout in order to exact compliance with its views. This incentivized efforts to decouple supply chains from dependence on China, particularly in areas relating to national security. In August, the US Congress passed the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act with its explicit intention of strengthening supply chains and national security. Among the CHIPS Act’s goals are to increase semiconductor production in the United States by 50 percent over the next five years. Two years before, reacting to concerns that America sourced 80 percent of rare earths—crucial to both weapons production and consumer goods—from China, then-President Donald Trump issued an executive order establishing a rare earth mineral strategy to help subsidize the re-shoring of manufacturing. Japan has introduced similar measures. Political and military alliances to push back against Chinese actions have also been energized. On the same day that the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress concluded, Australia and Japan signed a defense agreement clearly aimed at China and Russia, and in June, the Partners in the Blue Pacific was founded by Australia, Britain, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States to counteract Chinese actions in the South Pacific.

Facing headwinds from declining economic growth and increasing international hostility, Xi may find his third term significantly more challenging that the first two. As the congress showed, Xi has succeeded in stifling all opposition to his policies, meaning that he alone will bear responsibility for policies that fail.


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.

*About the author: June Teufel Dreyer, a Senior Fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI (http://www.fpri.org/) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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