As we approach the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) starting on October 16, much of the China-watching world is wondering what a newly anointed paramount leader Xi Jinping will be like. Similar to the old days of Kremlinologists, China hands are waiting to see what happens next week in both form and substance. What seems assured is that Xi is poised to secure a historic third term and cement his place as Communist China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
Xi has steadily consolidated power since becoming General Secretary of the CCP in 2012. Since then, he has systematically eliminated any known factional opposition to his rule. Next week, it is expected that Xi will exercise fundamentally unchallenged control over key CCP appointments and future policy diktats at the Congress.
It bears reviewing that next week's quasi coronation follows years of Xi assuming more and more power and honorifics not seen since the days of the venerable Chairman Mao:
In April 2016, it was revealed that Xi took on the previously unused title "commander in chief" of the People's Liberation Army, underscoring his control of the military despite already being the chairman of the Central Military Commission.
In October 2016, Xi is declared the "core of the Chinese Communist Party." This characterization had previously only been applied to Mao.
In October 2017, CCP delegates unanimously vote to make "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" a guiding principle and thus a key tenet in CCP ideology.
In February 2018 – It is proposed that China's constitution abolish term limits for presidents, allowing Xi to potentially serve indefinitely as China's head of state.
Then shortly later on March 11, 2018, the National People's Congress, China's rubber stamp Parliament endorses the change to the country's constitution, setting the stage for Xi to stay in power indefinitely.
In November 2021, the Central Committee of the CCP approved a resolution on the Party's "major achievements and historic experiences," in a move widely viewed as elevating Xi's power and influence as it is only the third "history resolution" issued by the CCP in its 100-year existence. The only other times were in in 1945 and 1981. Both previous occurrences were viewed as confirming and validating the supremacy of the leaders at the time, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, respectively.
Hence, there has been a multi-year lead-up to Xi's assumption of a third term at this once every five years Party Congress. What we will see next week undoubtedly is the public unveiling of decisions that have already been made. With little change expected in broad policy direction, key outcomes from the Congress will revolve around personnel – who joins Xi on the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and who replaces Premier Li Keqiang, who is set to retire in March.
Approximately 2,300 CCP members from across China will meet at the Great Hall of the People, colloquially referred to as the GHOP by many American China hands, on Beijing's Tiananmen Square for about one week. Their role is to select 200 or so full members of the CCP's Central Committee with full voting rights and another 170 alternate members. All of them will be "elected" based on a pre-selected pool. The new Central Committee's first plenum, held immediately after the Congress ends, will select from its ranks 25 members for the Politburo.
Most closely watched after the plenum will be the debut of the new Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top echelon consisting of only seven members. This number was reduced from nine by Xi. These are truly the men that run the PRC. And yes, it is all men. Xi will unveil his new top leadership team and they will all march out together wearing dark suits, white shirts, and red ties.
It is a foregone conclusion that Xi will again be conferred the role of General Secretary of the Communist Party. It is worth repeating that Xi leads China by virtue of being the General Secretary of the Party, and there were never any term limits placed on that position. Previous party leaders, however, have established a precedent of stepping down after two terms. This precedent is about to be broken.
The Party Congress will also result in a significant reshuffling of the top echelons of China's leadership across all policy domains including economic, diplomatic, security, and social policies for the next five years and beyond. It will introduce us all to the equivalent of the Chinese cabinet.
Xi will also again be given the role of Chairman of the Central Military Commission, typically the last position that any Chinese ruler has given up given the long-held notion that "the Party must control the gun." These two positions, General Secretary of the CCP and Chairman of the CMC are where the real power lie. We have to remember that China is still an old-style Leninist party-state, where the military is substantively and formally the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party and not subordinate to the state as represented by the PRC. Soldiers of the PLA swear allegiance to the CCP, not to the PRC. Xi's third title, President of the PRC, arguably the least consequential, is expected to be given to him during the annual National People's Congress in March 2023.
Frankly, no one expects to see many, if any, surprises next week at the Party Congress. What will perhaps be more interesting is what will happen after the Congress. For instance, will a "reelected" Xi feel empowered to review and refine policy decisions to try to ward off a protracted economic downturn, raising the chance of draconian zero COVID policies being eased despite the lack of widespread immunity among China's massive population people and the absence of effective mRNA vaccines. Not to mention the limitation of not being able to admit that previous policies were wrong. Communist Chinese leaders do not have a good track record when it comes to admitting their own mistakes.
In foreign policy, Xi has repeatedly set as the center of his policy objectives the so-called "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation by 2049." In order to achieve this overarching objective, Xi seeks to do the following: Match or surpass U.S. global influence in all elements of national power – diplomatic, information, military, and economic – or what the Chinese refer to as comprehensive national power; displace U.S. alliances and partnerships in the region; and revise the international order to favor Beijing's authoritarian state capitalist system.
This effort at rejuvenation will bring Taiwan's future to center stage again. Xi has quashed dissent in the Tibet and Xinjiang and made Hong Kong into just another Chinese city with a sweeping national security law. The only thing that remains to secure his place in Chinese history next to Mao is to finally resolve "the Taiwan question."
And this brings the U.S. and liked-minded democracies to an inflection point because how the "Taiwan question" is resolved will impact all of us. If China uses force to coerce a democratic nation of 23 million that has steadily voted to chart its own path, this will have repercussions not just in Asia, but around the world.
*Heino Klinck is a Member of MEMRI's Board of Advisors. He served as the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, 2019-2021. As an Army Foreign Area Officer, he served as a military attaché in China, 2004-2010.
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