China's president is armouring his leadership at the 20th CCP Congress.
A few days before the historic 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a group of protesters unfurled two sheets with red inscriptions on the busy Sitong Bridge in Beijing's Haidan district. They called for the resignation of the "dictatorial traitor" Xi Jinping and an end to his zero COVID policy. In China, nurses with PPE, PCR tests and mass confinements are already commonplace, but not such expressions. Even less so in a city like Beijing, which is monitored 24 hours a day by almost eight million cameras. Dissent is usually controlled.
The dissenters chanted anti-government slogans and caused a smoke visible for miles around. Danger. It was a full-fledged challenge to Xi Jinping just hours before the start of the political event of the quinquennium. The police were soon on the scene in Sitong. Hours later there was no trace of the banners or the smoke, only images and videos recorded by passers-by swarming the social network WeChat, the country's most popular messaging application. It would not be long before they were censored.
Sitong Bridge, Haidian District, Beijing, a man displayed banners and shouted slogans against Xi Jinping. He had been arrested and voice disappeared, but maybe in the future, everyone who crosses this bridge will remember that there was once a man...#TheGreatTranslationMovement pic.twitter.com/Fr20sF9XFK— The Great Translation Movement 大翻译运动官方推号 (@TGTM_Official) October 13, 2022
The timing may or may not be intentional, but the latest outburst of protest to cross borders coincides with the 20th congress of the Party that has monopolised power in China since the founding of the People's Republic. In 1949, Mao Zedong's communists laid the foundations of the new state after defeating the Kuomintang nationalists, who have since retreated to Taiwan in a bloody civil war. More than seven decades later, control of the apparatus remains intact. Until this week, marked in red on the calendar.
"It is the meeting of a party that celebrated its 100th birthday in 2021, the second largest party in the world [96 million], in the third largest country in territorial terms and with the largest population. We are talking about the organisation that leads the world's co-leading nation in economic terms and that has a cultural history of which there are writings dating back more than 3,600 years," Rita Giménez, an institutional relations consultant, told Atalayar. Big words.
All eyes are on the event, but few can follow it closely. China is armoured because of COVID-19 and access to Beijing is even more complicated, even for locals. The authorities have limited mobility as much as possible. There will be few witnesses to what happens this week in the vicinity of the Great Hall of the People, the venue of the event located in the iconic Tiananmen Square, the epicentre of the mass mobilisations that in 1989 brought the one-party regime to its knees.
Inside the hall, the turnout is much larger. More than 2,300 party delegates are present, all of them approved by the president.
Xi Jinping intends to certify his third term at the head of the party. As General Secretary, he would retain the head of state and the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, i.e. control and command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), technically the military wing of the CCP. It is a given that he will win the endorsement of Party cadres. Xi will thus break a trend set in stone by his predecessors, from Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao to Jiang Zemin, who respected the time frame and limited their stay in power to two five-year terms.
"Everything suggests that, at the end of the Congress, Xi Jinping will retain the titles of secretary general and chairman of the Central Military Commission, and it is proposed that he will continue to preside over the People's Republic", Giménez points out, although he qualifies that this last condition "will have to be ratified by the National People's Congress, which is expected to be held in the spring of 2023".
Xi is different. His ambitions were exposed in 2018 when he removed term limits from the Constitution. He had a free hand. In all likelihood, the son of the revolutionary Xi Zhongxun, a leading member of the politburo who fought on Mao's side until he was purged as part of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), will surpass a decade at the helm of China, he will remain in power forever. According to analysts, Xi is already the most influential Chinese leader since Mao himself, whose regime ostracised his family. We will have to wait until Sunday, when the 20th CCP Congress is scheduled to end, to certify Xi's definitive assault on power.
The conclave fulfils three crucial functions, writes analyst Yu Jie in Chatham House: it sets the lines of action, reviews and modifies those Party statutes deemed necessary and, finally, it chooses the leaders. During the Congress, "a report is presented with the direction the Party wants to take in the next five years, which will define the country's policies during that period", explains Javier Borràs Arumí, an analyst specialising in China, in conversation with Atalayar.
The election method is opaque, but the mechanism is clear. The 2,300 delegates elect the 370 members of the Central Committee, who in turn select the 25 members of the politburo. The latter body chooses the Standing Committee, the real core of power that surrounds the General Secretary and is involved in major decisions. The number of members usually ranges from nine to five. With Xi there are seven, all of them men of his highest confidence.
Over the last decade, he has managed to almost completely wipe the other factions, the Shanghai faction and the Communist Youth League, off the map. However, some analysts point out that the foundations underpinning his leadership are much less solid.
There are certain unspoken rules governing the election process, such as "seven up, eight down". Leaders who are 67 or younger at the time of the Congress are eligible for re-election; those above that age must step aside. Xi, who will be 70 next June, does not qualify, but it matters little. He makes the rules.
"I believe that, over the past 10 years, Xi has shown us his great commitment to strengthening the role of the Communist Party as a fundamental leader in implementing his political philosophy of socialism with Chinese characteristics. It seems that he wants to ensure a strong party structure rooted in the territory, also in order to be able to elaborate better public policies," Giménez points out.
Important announcements will follow the Central Committee meeting scheduled for the day after the 20th Congress. The decisions taken there will have global resonance. Until then, too many questions remain unanswered: will Xi Jinping implement the drastic zero COVID policy, will there be structural changes in economic matters, and will the commitment to reunify Taiwan be reinforced? Another question is whether he will finally designate an successor.
"It is very unlikely that his successor will emerge from this Congress; there are hardly any likely candidates who meet the required age standards," says Borràs. Giménez agrees that it is complicated to make predictions before knowing the future composition of the Standing Committee, but, "if we refer to what has happened in recent cases, both Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping were vice presidents of the People's Republic when they were announced as successors. However, [current vice-president] Wang Qishan, although he has a strong political profile, is older than his predecessors".
"An interesting question is who will be China's future Prime Minister," Borràs adds. "Li Keqiang, a technocrat with a more pragmatic and less ideological vision than Xi in the economic sphere, currently holds the post. But Li has already announced that he will retire. The Congress will clarify doubts about whether his successor is another technocrat, the name of Wang Yang [current member of the Standing Committee] or a xiist, recently Li Qiang, Party Secretary in Shanghai, has been mentioned".
Xi Jinping will have to take stock and readjust some of his decisions after a turbulent few months. The so-called zero COVID policy has accelerated the resurgence of an authoritarianism that is taking on personalist overtones. His thinking is already being studied in schools, his recipes for turning China into a global hegemonic power through socialism "with Chinese characteristics". Before, authority emanated from the Party; now power is practically in his hands.
"Xi's mandate has been marked by a return to the ideology and politicisation of the Party, as well as a nationalist discourse of rejuvenation of the nation, after decades during which the economy was almost everything," reflects Borràs. "His discourse reflects this reality, although he also foregrounds the central importance of the modernisation and development of the country, especially through science and technology. In short: he follows the developmentalist model of recent decades, but with a new and strong component of ideology and nationalism".
"There are no strong veterans who can limit Xi and, moreover, he has eliminated rival factions and interest groups through his anti-corruption campaign", explains Borràs in reference to the internal crusade undertaken by the president and his trusted men to sift out rival Party cadres. Xi has ordered the arrest of hundreds of high-ranking officials and around 100,000 middle- and low-ranking officials after they were accused of corruption, a common practice within the regime. Tigers" and "flies" have been brought down.
The analyst points out that "the greatest resistance, not opposition, that he may encounter is in the economic sphere from Li Keqiang's technocrats, who would pressure him to relax the zero COVID policy or not to implement such harsh regulations against technology companies and other large Chinese companies". The Asian giant, says Borràs, is "in its worst economic situation after decades of high growth" as a result, among other factors, of the iron policy to fight the pandemic, which brings with it the imposition of "quarantines and closures of companies every time cases appear".
Borràs assures that "businessmen, SMEs and citizens are being economically affected" by the strict health controls, systematic surveillance and massive confinements that have led the Chinese government to close down, for example, a city of more than 26 million inhabitants such as Shanghai, the country's main economic engine. "If the economic situation worsens seriously, that could generate critical voices from society, businessmen and even from within the Communist Party against Xi. It is likely that, if that were to happen, the president would look for a scapegoat among his subordinates to calm things down, while relaxing certain policies that negatively affect the economy," the analyst anticipates.
Chinese political commentator Deng Yuwen writes in Foreign Policy that the protection of private property may be enshrined in the constitution, "but in practice, entrepreneurs' assets are often at the mercy of the government or officials".
The result has been an unprecedented economic slowdown over the past 20 years. In all this time, soaring economic growth has been the perfect alibi to keep the population at bay, it has justified everything. Now, the cracks in the real estate system, which emerged with the Evergrande case, the traces of corruption and the serious pollution problem cast a shadow over the horizon.
Giménez explains to this newspaper that China "has opted to follow a strategy that Western market economies oppose: to control the pandemic as much as possible and put its growth at risk in the short term". "This decision, different from the logic followed by many European or North American governments, cannot be understood without at least knowing about the existence of the process of drawing up the five-year plans that the Chinese government presented at the 14th National People's Congress in March 2021".
One of the main themes of Xi Jinping's speech at the opening of the 20th CCP Congress was the 'One China' policy. The president said he sought a unification of Taiwan by peaceful means, but did not rule out the use of force. In this sense, foreign policy strategy has ostensibly changed with Xi at the helm. China has moved from practising "peaceful growth" to being much more assertive. This was demonstrated in September with the deployment of the largest military live-fire manoeuvres around the island of Formosa following the visit to Taipei of US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.
For Giménez, assertiveness and peaceful growth need not be at odds. "Without people and leaders who have a clear and grounded value system and who can present an understandable argument to others, without arrogance, we will not be able to achieve the much sought-after world peace. It is precisely assertiveness that has positioned China as an independent actor in the international debate," the consultancy adds.
Beijing's systemic repression of ethnic and religious minorities remains in the background. A recent UN report details the Chinese government's practices in Xinjiang province, where it has held hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in "re-education camps". It is further evidence of human rights violations committed under Xi Jinping's rule. The international community's denunciations, however, have not been sufficiently forceful. It did not merit a single mention in the opening speech.
"I reiterate the importance of understanding that China is proposing a change in the international decision-making system that includes all countries, with a special focus on strengthening South-South relations. This commitment is also a relevant factor when we analyse Sino-African or Sino-Latin American relations and the diplomatic positioning of most of the respective territories in the face of the Taiwan issue," Giménez concludes. Today no one questions China's leadership as a global actor and few doubt Xi Jinping's control over the Asian giant.