20th party congress: At pinnacle of prowess, Xi Jinping will romp to a third term, but clouds are darkening on horizon

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A few weeks ago, around 24-25 September, a wildfire rumour engulfed Indian social media that CPC general secretary and Chinese president Xi Jinping has been upstaged in a palace coup, and a PLA revolt has resulted in his house arrest. The trigger seemed to be Xi’s absence for a few days from public eye — he had just returned from Samarkand — and the source was traced to journalists associated with a sect (Falun Gong) known for spinning conspiracy theories.

Serious analysts and China watchers were unanimously dismissive but the rumour, curiously, proved sticky and gained legs in India where the media obsessed over it for nearly two days, driven mostly by social media chatter. The phenomenon was interesting. It pointed to the sheer opposition in India against Xi that was enough to give wings to a wild speculation, and lack of understanding of the ways of power structure in China. There’s little possibility of Xi being upstaged in a coup, and even if that happens, it won’t be through a PLA uprising.

With the 20th national congress of the Communist Party of China starting Sunday — the week-long event where Chinese top leadership transitions, major reshuffles of supporting cast, development goals, policy decisions, internal deliberations and nearly everything else are revealed to the public, it is worth looking at what to expect from the marquee event of a party that controls every facet of Chinese life.

At the outset, the centrality of CPC in China’s existence as a nation-state should be clear. Party leaders say love for China equates to love for the CPC and the party comes before the country. For instance, a Xinhua report on the preparations for the 20th party congress says, “the congress will thoroughly review the international and domestic situations, comprehensively grasp the new requirements for the development of the cause of the Party and the country on the new journey in the new era.”

The party comes even ahead of the country.

From this vantage point, let us now see what is likely to happen at the highly anticipated event that takes place once every five years. Around 2300 Communist Party delegates from different parts of China (from a pool of 95 million members) have arrived in Beijing for the event — all no doubt duly swabbed multiple times for Covid. And in a highly choreographed affair at Tiananmen Square’s Great Hall of the People where every little detail would have been rehearsed and accounted for — including the exact placement of teacups — around 200 of them will join the CPC Central Committee (204 to be exact) along with 170 alternate members.

From the Central Committee, around 25 elite politicians will be ‘elected’ to Politburo which, in turn, will nominate members for the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) of super elites (currently the number stands at 7) headed by party general secretary Xi. The CPC likes to call this process “whole process people’s democracy”.

In reality, every facet of the core leadership process is micro-managed by Xi, who holds three key positions — general secretary of the CPC, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and the post of Chinese president — and has amassed a degree of control over the party structure unseen since the times of Great Helmsman Mao Zedong.

Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency, quoting a spokesperson of the party’s cadre selection wing, reported in September that “Xi has ‘personally deployed’ the selection of the delegates and has heard multiple reports on the progress.”

Charles Parton of Council on Geostrategy adds that “although the congress formally ‘elects’ members of the new Central Committee (CC), the reality is that adherents of Xi have already been placed in party positions which account for the bulk of CC membership. Xi will have decided who is to join him in the Politburo and its Standing Committee. Only at the edges does the congress have a very small amount of discretion.

This centralization of power and transformation of Chinese political system from a collective dictatorship to one-man authoritarianism has made Xi almost invincible. No one expects him to bow out after two terms — an informal system put in place by Deng Xiaoping, and no one is predicting political shakeups.

Deng, who transformed Chinese politics, wanted to limit the concentration of power and end the cult of personality that symbolized Mao’s rule. Since taking over as president, Xi has worked assiduously, meticulously and patiently to end Deng’s legacy.

He got the Communist Party to remove the two-term limit on presidency in 2018 that has been in place since the 1990s and added his philosophy — ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era’ — into the party charter, an honour awarded only to Deng and Mao.

Deng, however, got it after his death. It indicates that in terms of influence, ‘helmsman’ Xi is next only to Mao.

Xi had also bucked the trend of anointing a successor — a process by which he came up the ladder when then president Hu Jintao inducted Xi into the PBSC at the 17th party congress in 2007. Xi was then the party secretary of Shanghai.

Xi made himself the “core” of the party in 2016, a title that hasn’t been used in a decade. Going against him would mean going against the party. The Sixth Plenum last year adopted a historic resolution and officially put on him on the same pedestal as stalwarts Deng and Mao, paving the way for an unprecedented third term at helm.

In January, ideology chief Wang Huning said the party must highlight the slogan of “two establishments” that further entrenches Xi’s status as the “core” leader and establishes his political doctrine. These are calibrated moves of power consolidation.

In September, the CPC revealed that it is all set to amend its Constitution at the 20th party congress and dropped its clearest hint yet that Xi is all set to reign for another five years. The Constitution is a binding document for the party.

It is now no longer in doubt that Xi will continue for another five more years as president. The speculation is centred around whether the constitutional amendment will give Xi the epithet of ‘party chairman’ — a position held only by founder Mao, and if Xi will rule for the rest of his life, as Mao did.

It is also possible that the amendment in charter would include a shortening of Xi’s clunky banner ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era’ into a pithier ‘Xi Jinping Thought’. That would be the final rhetorical triumph that gives Xi parity with Mao (Mao Zedong Thought).

These are not word games but a vital indicator of power. As China Media Project observes, “words play a crucial role in signalling power and standing within the Chinese Communist Party. And for individual CCP leaders, ‘banner terms’ are an important way to signal and consolidate their legacies, writing them (if possible) even before history has a chance to.”

The opacity of Chinese elite politics makes it almost impossible to predict major shifts, but all visible hands are pointing at that direction. The biggest indicator of things going to plan is that key events in run up to the all-important party congress on Sunday have taken place with crushing predictability and lack of drama. Xi has ended factionalism and uprooted the possibilities of elite resistance.

The key changes in party charter, the sweeping changes in personnel, the careful selection of Xi loyalists in key leadership positions and smoothening of all the rough edges to ensure Xi’s continuation of power, the deliberations and drafting of key CPC documents  — all took place months ago and awaits only official endorsement at the party congress.

For instance, the general secretary’s report to the congress, which in this case is Xi’s report to the 20th party congress summarizing the party’s work over the past five years, is one of the most important documents in CPC’s corpus.

Charles Parton, in the Council on Geostrategy explainer referred to above, calls it “the grandfather of generations of documents to come out over the next five years. It sets the overarching tone of his rule. Unsurprisingly, great care is taken in its drafting, revision and final production, a process which lasts nine months.”

At the recently held four-day seventh plenum, where the outgoing 370 (full and alternate) members of the Central Committee convened on Sunday for the final key meeting ahead of the party congress, Xi gave a briefing on the work report while his PBSC colleague Wang Huning “gave an explanation to the plenum” about the draft revisions to the party charter that have been carried out — which in all probability means a further promotion for ‘helmsman Xi’.

These critical wheeling-dealings took place behind closed doors with not even a hint of discord seeping out. So, the thing to understand is that the party congress marks the formal end, not the start of the negotiations in Chinese political system. It is the culmination of give-and take, deliberations, long knives and haggling. The platform provided by the congress is to tell the party, the wider public and the world about the major decisions that have already taken place.

The quiet inevitability that marked the proceedings point to the success of Xi’s coercive apparatus that has snuffed out even a modicum of opposition and shaped the party’s power structure in accord with his iron will.

South China Morning Post quotes professor Xie Maosong of Tsinghua University, as saying, “the lead time of this announcement, the formation of the delegations, did not deviate from the norm. Also, all the key people are in the list of delegates. In fact, there is no news, but subtly the party is trying to tell people that no news is good news because the transition will be smooth.”

Yet this hasn’t always been the case. To understand how much Chinese politics has changed under Xi, a comparison with the Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao-era paints a stark picture. Under Xi, foreign media has been starved of details, leave alone juicy morsels leaked by competing factions. State-approved packaged reports are sent to journalists and all TV channels play the same content. New York-based China watcher Ho Pin tells Associated Press that “factions, pluralism and open political differences that once existed within China’s one-party system” have vanished, faced with Xi’s repressive machinery.

It would be wrong to assume that Xi’s freakish control over and ideological straitjacketing of the party through a signature anti-corruption campaign to rid it of excesses is a direction that party elders didn’t bargain for when they inducted Xi — a princeling with a clean image and a record of faithfulness and devotion towards the party.

The CPC had always been obsessed with the fall of USSR. Towards the end of Hu Jintao-era, there was a feeling that the party is setting itself up for an inevitable fall. Deng’s reform and opening-up had led to a laissez-faire economy, inordinate wealth among a section of the populace and its attendant ills. The party was apprehensive that institutionalized corruption was eroding its legitimacy within the society, and it became increasingly scared of colour revolutions.

The Communist Party of China did not want a Mikhail Gorbachev, so it settled on Xi, who had shown resolve in dealing with the civil unrest following Tiananmen Square movement as chief of Ningde city.

As Christian Shepherd and Eva Dou write in Washington Post, “under the lax leadership of Xi’s predecessor, Hu, rampant corruption, factionalism and mounting social discontent were undermining legitimacy. Xi was brought in to clean up the mess.” The report quotes Christopher Johnson, former China analyst at CIA, as saying, “there was a broad consensus that the party was at an existential turning point and that something needed to be done.”

The scandals of Hu era — when the wife of deposed Politburo official and Xi’s one-time rival Bo Xilai was charged with the murder of a British businessman — is now unthinkable. Once in power, Xi turned on the screws on institutionalized corruption through his crusade against ‘tigers and flies’ and in the process used the plank as a political tool to isolate and remove threats to his reign.

As of April 2022, 4.7 million party officials had been investigated under Xi and 1.5 million have been punished, according to official data. Around 1,100 officials have been caught since the beginning of this year, according to party data, reports AFP.

Xi exerts total control over the party’s security apparatus, but this control hasn’t come about in a day. It is the culmination of ruthless pursuit. Willy Lam, Chinese University of Hong Kong political analyst, writes in Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief issue that “Xi’s long-standing distrust of the political-legal (zhengfa) apparatus springs from the fact that his arch-enemy, former PBSC member and internal security czar Zhou Yongkang, who was sentenced to lifetime imprisonment in 2015, still has large numbers of followers and underlings in the police, the secret police, and the judicial system.”

Just three weeks before the party congress, three former police chiefs Gong Daoan (Shanghai), Deng Huilin (Chongqing) and Liu Xinyun (Shanxi) were handed heavy sentences for corruption. They were all accused of “disloyalty” to Xi.

This final round of purge also included two heavyweights in the political-legal apparatus — former deputy public security minister Sun Lijun, 53, who was found guilty of “seriously damaging the unity of the party”, and China’s former justice minister Fu Zhenghua, who had spearheaded several high-profile investigations into corruption. Fu was accused of taking bribes.

China’s anti-graft watchdog, according to a report in Guardian, held that “Fu had also been part of a ‘political gang’ of Sun Lijun”, who was “also accused of not embracing President Xi Jinping’s authority.” Both were handed suspended death sentences that would be commuted to life imprisonment. They won’t ever be free.

The use of anti-corruption plank sanctified Xi’s purges with moral justification, public support and made it difficult even for his elite rivals to hit back.

Xi was brought in to solve the party’s internal troubles, and he has used that as a leverage to entrench his position as the paramount leader, decimate all opposition and shape himself as the “core” of party that claims to be the key to China’s ‘great rejuvenation’. This entrenchment of indispensability has happened over time, and with the 20th party congress we are likely to see its culmination.

Professor Xiaohong Xu of University of Michigan who researches modern Chinese politics, writes on Twitter that the 20th party congress “will be an unprecedented moment of triumph and consolidation” for the Xi and his loyalists — the “zenith, just as the 9th was for the Maoists.”

Xi is likely to fill the top leadership positions with men who have shown loyalty to him over the years, or those who pose no threat to his personal authority. Media speculation is centred around two names. Vice premier Hu Chunhua — the youngest official promoted to the Politburo in the past 30 years — who could be promoted to the PBSC and Wang Yang, a ‘liberal’ member of the PBSC who is reportedly in running to China’s next premier when Li Keqiang retires next March. Nikkei Asia says Hu could be the next premier.

Both Hu and Wang have ties with Communist Youth League — a rival faction to Xi. Hu, in particular, is known as a Hu Jintao protégé. Their likely promotions, if fulfilled, do not necessarily mean a check in Xi’s power or compromise, however. Reuters says that “in recent years under Xi, Wang has seemingly tempered his reformist tendencies, echoing the party’s tough line on sensitive political issues including Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet, while expressing support for Xi.”

As far as Hu is concerned, China watcher Bill Bishop points out in his Sinocism newsletter that “Hu (has) worked hard to separate himself from that grouping (Communist Youth League), due to the downfall of Sun Zhengcai and a sense of betrayal from others associated with the grouping after he did not make the 19th Politburo Standing Committee and was seen as the ‘discarded crown prince’.”

Does that mean Xi has untrammelled power? Though Xi enjoys unprecedented control over the CPC’s three key power centres — the military, the propaganda machinery and the internal security apparatus — he is grappling with a number of internal and external challenges.

The IMF has cut China’s growth forecast to 3.2 per cent in 2022, which, if true, would be country’s lowest growth rate in four decades. Nomura has pegged it at even less at a meagre 2.7 per cent. Every one in five Chinese urban youth is unemployed, its currency is hitting record lows against a rampaging US dollar and the property sector — the lifeblood of its economy that contributes more than a quarter of China’s economic output — is overleveraged and suffering from a deep malaise. “Buyers are dropping out, borrowers are on mortgage strikes and developers face a liquidity squeeze. In July the value of new home sales fell by 29% compared with a year earlier,” says The Economist.

The situation has been compounded by Xi’s determined implementation of a tough zero-Covid policy that has harmed economic recovery and is now forcing the normally compliant public to run out of patience.

Even as Shanghai is quietly shutting down schools, entertainment venues, bars and gyms just ahead of party congress, the CPC is making it clear that zero-tolerance approach to Covid will stay.

Despite the tight control over political expression, rare protests broke out on Thursday with banners unfurled over bridges at a busy Beijing thoroughfare calling for elections and the ouster of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, along with plumes of billowing smoke. One of the protest banners read: “Food not Covid tests. Reform not Cultural Revolution. Freedom not lockdown. Votes not leaders. Dignity not lies. Citizens not slaves.” Another called on students and workers to “go on strike remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping”.

Video clips and photographs of the banners quickly spread on social media before they were removed by censors. Such political protests are rare in China, and one attacking the top leader just ahead of CPC’s most important meeting, when the Capital turns into a fortress, is unheard of. It points to strong discontent within the society.

Externally, too, Xi is faced with a barrage of problems. The Joe Biden administration unveiled its 48-page National Security strategy on Wednesday where China has been called “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.” According to Biden, “China harbors the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order in favor of one that tilts the global playing field to its benefit.”

The US has taken note of China’s “goal of global chip domination by 2049” and is moving swiftly to throw a spanner in Xi’s plans.

The Biden administration has implemented some of the toughest export controls under a mechanism called FDPR (foreign direct product rule) “to make it harder for China to develop and maintain supercomputers and AI technology.” Analysts say the US is “trying to block the development of China’s technology power by any means.”

Even as it grapples with America’s containment strategy in tech sector, China is also faced with a difficult Indo-Pacific dynamic where the Quad has firmed up, a US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) is in place and under the AUKUS framework, Australia may get access to nuclear-powered submarines.

Europe is turning increasingly antagonistic and Xi’s ‘no-limit’ partnership with Russian president Vladimir Putin is proving to be a costly blunder. It is possible that though the 20th party congress sees Xi at the pinnacle of power, it will be downhill from here.

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20th party congress: At pinnacle of prowess, Xi Jinping will romp to a third term, but clouds are darkening on horizon
20th party congress: At pinnacle of prowess, Xi Jinping will romp to a third term, but clouds are darkening on horizon
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