Takeaways from Xi’s Congress

Originally published at The Indian Express, 24 October 2022. p.14. Published online as ‘Xi Jinping’s Congress: What are the implications for China, the world, and India?

What are the main takeaways  from the CPC Congress? 

The CPC’s 20th Congress underlined General Secretary Xi Jinping’s role not just as the core of the Central Committee but also as the fount of new ideas and interpretations of Marxism within the Party. The Report to the Congress and the resolution on amendments to the Party constitution have a clear focus on China’s internal challenges, or, to put it more precisely, the challenges the Party sees to its continuing existence in power.

This “great new struggle” requires Party cadre to “study the history of the Party”, to remember its revolutionary ethos, to “[carry] forward our fighting spirit and [build] up our fighting ability” and to “strive in unity” in order to achieve “the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation”.

In his report to the 2017 Congress, Xi called “the principal contradiction facing Chinese society” as that “between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life”. Over the past few years, the Party tackled this contradiction by moving away from an emphasis on GDP growth rates and undermining the domination of the private sector. The approach was represented by the concept of “common prosperity”, which has now been incorporated into the Party constitution.

The Party has thus confirmed its return to a central role in directing the growth and development of the Chinese economy while the stress on greater self-reliance and strength in science and technology suggests increasing concerns about the impact of the international environment on China’s economic ambitions.

Meanwhile, it would appear that “Chinese characteristics” is no longer just about shaping China’s economic development path according to its own realities but also now an effort to both mark China as different from the rest of the world as well as promote it as a role model that other countries can copy and learn from.

How has Xi cemented his position through this Congress?

The 20th Congress certainly solidifies Xi Jinping’s authority as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. The most obvious manifestation is the fact that he has packed the Politburo and its Standing Committee with his supporters. Not only did he ignore age-related norms on retirement from the Central Committee for himself and for several of his supporters, he also ignored them when it came to the matter of retaining rivals who had not yet attained retirement age.

Thus, two former Politburo Standing Committee members Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, both of whom were under the informal retirement age of 68 but also seen as belonging to the rival Communist Youth League faction were booted from the Central Committee. Similarly, Hu Chunhua, a younger leader of the Communist Youth League faction and for long talked about as a possible successor to Xi or at least a contender for Li’s position as Premier has not even been included in the Politburo, leave alone the Standing Committee.

Instead, Xi has brought in Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang who was believed to be out of contention owing to a botched response to the Omicron variant in the city. The younger Li, previously a personal aide to Xi, is likely to be confirmed as Premier of the State Council in March next year. He appears to have been picked for his focus on innovation and advanced technologies, and ability to attract foreign investments in these sectors while at Shanghai.

The powerful Central Military Commission too, which Xi heads as Chairman – a more important position than President of the People’s Republic of China –is also filled with Xi loyalists.

Is Xi Jinping now greater than Deng Xiaoping in the CPC pantheon?

Any meaningful comparison of Xi with previous leaders can only be possible at the end of his tenure.

Xi’s challenges are very different from those that Deng Xiaoping or Mao Zedong faced. The Chinese economy is presently in doldrums as a result of long-standing structural factors, the impact of the Party’s zero-Covid strategy as well as pressure from the trade war with the United States and other developments in the international environment. But it is also no longer the weak economy of Mao’s time or the one slowly finding its feet during Deng’s. As the world’s second-largest economy, a globally influential political actor and a significant military power, China can no longer hide in plain sight as it did during Deng’s time. The Chinese Party-state is now called on to meet international expectations of a responsible role commensurate with its capabilities even as it grapples with domestic economic challenges as well as political ones such as ethnic disaffection. This remains a difficult task filled with potential pitfalls and missteps for the CPC and for Xi as its General Secretary.

Is this the end of factions in the CPC? 

It would be impossible to completely eliminate groupings based on personal loyalty or those based on common connections such as of home province, home town, school, university, or parents’ backgrounds. This is true of any political party in the world. Such groupings have coalesced in different ways to become factions with distinctive political and economic agendas throughout CPC history. The fact that the new Politburo Standing Committee is packed with Xi proteges or supporters suggests that hitherto prominent factions – the Shanghai faction of Jiang Zemin and the Communist Youth League faction of Hu Jintao – have lost influence

However, factions are necessary especially in non-democratic systems or one-Party states as a way of obtaining feedback or generating discussion on important policy decisions. Powerful leaders are able to stay above the fray and to pick and choose the most appropriate policy advice or positions from various factions.

Xi has clearly suppressed challenges to his political authority and the ideological path he has laid out for the Party and the country. He, nevertheless, continues to face challenges on the economic front. It is, therefore, likely that new factions will now emerge based not on political opposition to Xi but on questions about what direction and policies are most appropriate for the economy within the larger framework of his ‘New Era’ brand of politics. It is inevitable, of course, that these discussions on the economy – or on foreign policy – will also impact domestic politics.

What does China’s foreign policy look like going forward?  

China is likely to continue its assertive foreign policy. Combative foreign minister Wang Yi finds a place in the Central Committee as one among those who like Xi has been able to stay on despite being over the informal retirement age norm. Wang is likely to replace Yang Jiechi as Director of the Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission General Office, that is, as China’s top-ranking diplomat. Diplomacy, however, might not be the most apt description for the work of Chinese foreign ministry officials as they likely continue with their ‘wolf warrior’ tactics, and attempt to expand China’s extra-territorial jurisdiction over Chinese expatriates, dissidents, the Taiwanese, and diaspora.

In turn, the reasonable fear other countries might have that Xi’s victory in the battle for political supremacy at home might cause China to step up its assertiveness, even aggression, in the region and further afield, could lead to contrasting reactions in its neighbourhood. Bigger powers like United States, Japan and India might push back harder while weaker players like ASEAN – or at least some among its members – and others among China’s neighbours might decide that cooperation with China is the way to go.

What can India expect from a politically more powerful Xi? 

Very little is likely to change in the current state of India-China relations with New Delhi insisting on a resolution of the situation in eastern Ladakh arising from China’s transgressions of 2020, targeting Chinese economic interests in its jurisdiction and increasing political and security cooperation with the United States. The Chinese Party-state for its part, insists on separating other parts of the Sino-Indian relationship from the border situation and views the United States as its principal challenger and as an existential threat. The latter aspect has led to a tendency under Xi to view India as possessing no views or agency of its own and only doing the United States’ bidding.

This approach suits the CPC worldview because it would otherwise have to contend with India in Asia first before it could fully turn its attention to the United States. That, however, would complicate the Chinese narrative of being the latter’s putative successor as global superpower.

A more powerful Xi focused on the threat from the United States but at the same time constrained from acting directly against it could possibly target those he sees as US proxies – Taiwan, Japan, and India among others.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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