The 20th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress opening on October 16 will be a celebration of the world’s largest political party, which boasts over 96 million members throughout China. However, all eyes are on one man: Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Following the horrors of the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution – and the death of Mao Zedong, who presided over both – the CCP under Deng Xiaoping set a two-term limit for its leaders in 1982. Xi abolished this rule in 2018, paving the way for him to rule indefinitely after his second term ends in 2023.
Drastic security measures
The leader of the world’s second-largest economy has done everything possible to ensure the congress runs smoothly. Beijing has been under special security measures since June. More than a million people have been arrested in the “public security crackdown” that has made the Chinese capital into a fortress. Employees of major companies based in Beijing are not allowed to leave the city for the duration of the congress. Visitors carrying bottles of water have to take a sip in front of police officers to show they are not carrying dangerous liquids.
And Chinese internet censors scrambled to remove any mention of a rare protest in Beijing on October 13 in which a banner displayed from a bridge called for “dictator and traitor Xi Jinping” to leave power.
Xi gathered all the Central Committee members on October 9 for a final rehearsal of the announcements to be made during the congress. The event will thus be a matter of rubber-stamping decisions already taken.
This comes after a rocky period for China. Over the past two years, “we’ve seen the coronavirus pandemic and China’s very costly zero-Covid policy; Sino-American tensions amid trade disputes; and a deepening of ties between Beijing and Moscow at a time when [President] Vladimir Putin has brought condemnation on Russia by invading Ukraine”, said Marc Lanteigne, a specialist in Chinese politics at the Arctic University of Norway.
Xi has concentrated so much power in his hands that it will be hard for him to avoid responsibility if the policies come under fire, Lanteigne said. So at the very most, the congress will strengthen Xi’s hold on the CCP – and at the very least, “it will show that, despite everything, Xi is still enormously powerful”.
But other than that, it is very hard to predict what will come out of the congress, because the CCP has become so “opaque” under Xi, noted Daniel Leese, a historian and China expert at the University of Freiburg.
Before previous CCP congresses, China specialists used to enjoy predicting who would be in and who would be out. Often, working papers would be leaked indicating someone was on the way up or on the way down as various party factions jostled for power.
This time, there are precious few signs to interpret, and those that remain are hard to decipher.
Leese said one recent trend has been a “decline in the number of pro-Xi propaganda articles” in the official press, adding: “This could mean that Xi has lost his shine – or it could mean he’s become so powerful that he doesn’t need propaganda anymore.”
‘Dictator of China’?
It will, however, be possible to discern some clues as to China’s future direction once the congress is over. The most important moment in the congress’s schedule is when the 25 politburo members are presented: the make-up of China’s supreme decision-making body is a clear sign of where the country is heading.
At this congress, almost half the seats are up for a change, the incumbents having hit the age limit of 68. “Then we’ll see how many loyalists Xi managed to get on the committee,” Leese said.
The composition of the politburo will show “how much room for manoeuvre Xi has”, Lanteigne added.
Analysts say there are two slightly dissenting factions beneath the surface of a party ostensibly united in devotion to Xi. One is the Shanghai clique backed by 96-year-old Jiang Zemin (Chinese president from 1993 to 2003) which wants more economic reforms. The other is the Communist Youth faction, which defends the party’s primacy over the leader.
It will be especially interesting to see what happens to Prime Minister Li Keqiang. He is now 67 years old, one year from retirement age – and Xi has done everything to minimise his influence. If Xi doesn’t succeed in getting Li “replaced with a loyalist”, it is a “sign that he hasn’t managed to shake up the status quo in his favour”, said Alex Payette, a sinologist and director of the Montreal-based geopolitical consultancy Cercius Group.
If Li is still positioned in the upper ranks of power after the congress, it could mean that China is turning away from Xi’s economic agenda – which has prioritised the zero-Covid policy over growth and clamped down on tech titans like Alibaba and Tencent. Tellingly, people talked about “Likonomics” in the early 2010s. “While self-effacing, Li has his own economic ideas,” Lanteigne observed. “If Xi is not able to get rid of him, it could mean that the CCP wants to try different economic policies amid slowing growth.”
“Xi is focused on the single most important outcome, which is to reaffirm his leadership of the CCP and of China for the foreseeable future,” noted Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
This would mean that “the future of China [would] depend on Xi getting policies right. … With the Chinese economy so integrated into the global economy, it is discomfiting that mistakes by Xi can destabilise the Chinese economy – with major ramifications for most parts of the world – and no one outside of China will be able to do much of anything to prevent that,” Tsang concluded.
“It is one thing to have a leader becoming a dictator of a small country largely insulated from the world. It is a different matter if such an eventuality happens to the second-biggest economy [in] the world, which is closely tied to the global economy.”
This article was adapted from the original in French.
The post Communist Party Congress will offer clues to China’s future appeared first on France 24.