The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) just concluded its 20th party congress. Out of close to 97 million party members, only about 2,300 were selected to attend this fanfare. The twice-a-decade event is an opportunity for the CCP to present its most senior leadership. The leadership composition, speeches, and an out-of-norm incident gave away clues about China’s next moves. Here are three important takeaways.
Comrade Xi to Emperor Xi
Communist China’s founder, Mao Zedong, remained the head of the party and the nation until he died in 1976. His successor Deng Xiaoping, determined to prevent a Mao-like dictator for life, instilled a new succession plan, which set a limit of two five-year terms for future party secretary and head of the state. The term limit for the head of the state was written into China’s constitution.
Deng’s plan worked for two decades, until Xi Jinping came into power in 2012. Xi had no interest in being bound by rules and norms set by others. Through a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that is still ongoing after 10 years, Xi has purged rivals, eliminated potential challengers (real or imagined), and even put some of his closest allies on notice.
Xi placed himself in charge of almost every essential government body, which earned him the nickname “the chairman of everything.” Xi also stamped out any possibility of a military coup by reorganizing the People’s Liberation Army and installing his most trusted allies in key positions. In 2018, Xi eliminated the constitutional term limit for the head of the state and signaled that he intended to rule for life, as Mao and all ancient Chinese emperors did.
The 20th party congress was seen as a coronation, marking comrade Xi’s end and emperor Xi’s beginning. Xi began the weeklong meeting by delivering a more than two-hour speech to defend his job performance in the last decade. In truth, under his watch, China’s economic growth has significantly slowed and human rights abuses have worsened — his genocidal policy against Uyghur Muslims has drawn international condemnation. Public opinion of China and Xi has deteriorated globally, mainly due to the poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and Xi’s aggressive foreign policy, including his militarization of the South China Sea. But according to Xi, his first decade’s rule was a success.
Xi concluded the party congress by presenting a new seven-person standing committee (the equivalent of a cabinet), which he staffed with officials whose best quality is their loyalty to him. He forced out Premier Li Keqiang, a potential rival. The most notable person Xi elevated to the committee is Li Qiang (no relation to Premier Li), currently the Communist Party secretary of Shanghai. Many people initially thought Li Qiang’s political career was over after his disastrous handling of Shanghai’s Covid lockdowns. Li Qiang’s elevation to China’s second-most-powerful position signals that loyalty, not competency, will be rewarded at emperor Xi’s court.
Additionally, Li Qiang’s promotion and Xi’s self-congratulatory speech indicate that emperor Xi plans to double down on his failed policies, including “zero Covid,” which is deeply unpopular among the Chinese people and has considerably slowed down China’s post-pandemic economic recovery. Xi did an about-face by delaying the release of China’s third-quarter GDP data last week during the congress. The World Bank forecasts that China’s economic growth will be only 2.8 percent this year. But Xi made it clear that his policies are here to stay, regardless of the poor results. Surrounding himself with only “yes” men also means no one will dare to question his judgment.
Preparing for a Military Confrontation over Taiwan
Xi emphasized security over economic growth in his speech because he believes that “external attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time.” According to Bonny Lin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Xi mentioned the word “security” 91 times in his speech. His call for “speeding up” the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army and a new emphasis on training seem to suggest that “the PLA may be shifting its approach to enhance readiness and gain experience conducting operations,” Lin wrote.
Xi received the most extended applause when he talked about Taiwan. He proclaimed that “Complete reunification of our country must be realized, and it can, without doubt, be realized,” and said he reserved “the option of taking all measures necessary.” The PLA’s live-fire drills after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan have given the world a preview of what military measures Xi is willing to take.
A day after Xi’s speech, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged at Stanford University that Xi plans to invade Taiwan on a “much faster timeline” than previously thought. Despite this new reality, the Biden administration’s Taiwan policy remains confusing. President Joe Biden publicly stated four times that he would send the U.S. military to Taiwan if China invaded the island. Each time, senior White House officials walked back the president’s comments. China’s Xi may decide that the best time to invade Taiwan is when the United States is led by an aging politician who often appears confused.
A Rare Public Power Struggle
On the last day of the party congress, Hu Jintao, former party secretary and head of state (2002 to 2012) and the person who promoted Xi as a successor was escorted off the stage. Chinese state media claimed Hu had to leave early for health reasons. But if it were true, why did Hu look like he didn’t want to go, and no one else got up to help him? Why didn’t Xi seem surprised? Instead, he seemed indifferent. After all, Xi owes his elevation to power to Hu. Hu has seniority in the party and is a decade older than Xi. Even for appearance’s sake, Xi should have stood up as a sign of respect to Hu as Hu exited the stage.
The CCP has always choreographed its public events to minuscule detail, and the party prefers secrecy and usually keeps its bloody inner-party power struggle behind closed doors.
The more probable explanation for Hu’s humiliating exit on the only day cameras were allowed inside the party congress is that his public removal was premeditated, and the order could only come from one person, Xi himself.
Weeks before the party congress, there was a widespread rumor of Xi being under house arrest due to a military coup. Additionally, right before the start of the party congress, one person in tightly controlled Beijing staged a protest on a busy overpass, including chanting, “Go on strike at school and work, remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping! We want to eat, we want freedom, we want to vote!” He was quickly taken away by police, but pictures and videos of the protests spread over China’s social media like wildfire before censors took them down.
The demonstration and its viral image suggested deep dissatisfaction with Xi’s policies among some Chinese people. By humiliating Hu in such a public way, Xi probably signals to the domestic and international audience, including his potential enemies, that he has firm control and will crush any opposition mercilessly.
After securing his power at the party congress, Xi has shown that he is willing to get what he wants regardless of cost and by any means necessary. He will let nothing and no one stop him.