The 20th Communist Party Congress in China signaled a total centralization of powers in the person of Xi Jinping, demolishing informal political processes in the party while retaining specific Xi-nurtured factions and sectarian networks, tearing away from established party-state norms, the movement towards decoupling from the US, and keeping China’s sights firmly on preparations to seize regional and global power. Xi secured a third term, and perhaps tenure for life. There is a new narrative of Chinese assertiveness and resolve.
Four specific outcomes are visible from the party congress. First, the resurrection of centralized authority. Under previous presidents since Deng Xiaoping, “collective leadership” had provided stability to the decision-making process in China. Xi has driven the party to return to the principle of “core” leadership, with himself embodying that core. This has been enforced through changes in the constitution of the Chinese Communist Party.
For instance, the constitution has been amended to include “two establishes” — to establish Xi as the “core” of the leadership of the CCP and his “thought” as having the “guiding” role for the rank and file; and “two safeguards” — that of safeguarding the “core” status of Xi and that of his centralized authority. These amendments are binding on the CCP’s 96 million cadres across the country.
Xi needed this figment of constitutional legitimacy to establish his iron hand, to overcome the decades-long party dynamics of intensive shadowboxing between various factions. Hu Jintao and his Communist Youth League were jettisoned visibly and symbolically, although it may still be hard to wipe out established factions or their political influence in the party.
A second, and more substantial, way in which factional politics was sought to be obliterated was in the composition of the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee. Defying the predictions of China analysts the world over, it was the most surprising outcome of the 20th CCP. We will never know what actually transpired at the congress, partly due to the opaque political system of China but also because there is no Chinese Julian Assange or Edward Snowden around.
However, the visual image of Hu Jintao’s dissatisfaction with the list of members in the hands of Xi Jinping, and the efforts of Li Zhanshu and Wang Huning to prevent Hu from taking a look at the list at the final session of the congress point to political friction emerging soon.
Nevertheless, the current Politburo and its Standing Committee are packed with Xi loyalists, mainly those belonging to Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, where he worked as party secretary in the 1990s and 2000s, or from his home province, Shaanxi. They belong to the “new Zhejiang Army”, “Shanghai Gang” and other factions.
A third outcome that has both domestic and external implications is the excessive focus on national security at the 20th CCP, compared to the Deng Xiaoping-era obsession with “economics at the center”. Xi declared that China will “pursue a holistic approach to national security and promote national security in all areas and stages of the work of the party and the country.” In its obsession to build a “fortified China,” the party congress resolved to make national security “the foundation for national rejuvenation.”
Strikingly, there was no mention of the Jiang Zemin-Hu Jintao era “peace and development” in the work report. With this, we should expect a national security state to come to the fore in China, one that seeks solutions not in diplomacy or moderate policies but in coercive postures, if not outright military onslaught.
A fourth potential outcome is an acceleration of decoupling from the United States, with its implications for globalization and the rest of the world, including India. Though Xi made these intentions known through the 14th Five Year Plan, Made in China 2025, and other schemes to restructure China’s economy to become less dependent on exports and run on domestic consumption, the signal from the 20th CCP is one of heightened paranoia and jingoism, alluding to “external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China”.
While this is meant to counter recent setbacks in relations with the US, in the backdrop of the tariff wars, a ban on semiconductor sales, and the US resolve to “out-compete” China, the party congress sends an unambiguous signal of “effectively responding” to external challenges. More acrimony is to be expected then, not just in Taiwan, of which a specific mention was made in the amended party constitution, but also over the rest of the neighborhood. New Delhi, take note.
This article was first published in Deccan Herald as Xi Jinping, the new Mao, on Nov 06, 2022.
About the Author
Srikanth Kondapalli, Dean, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.
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