The 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party: Sea Change or Much Ado About Nothing?
On October 22, 2022, Xi Jinping was elected to a third term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Even though his elevation violated what many observers had come to believe was a new norm whereby the general secretary would serve only two terms and would retire before or soon after they turned 70, his election was not a surprise. When he was named to a second term in 2017 at the 19th Party Congress, the lineup of the Politburo and its Standing Committee was such that there was no obvious heir apparent, a role Xi had assumed at the 17th Party Congress in 2007 when he and Li Keqiang were elected to the Politburo Standing Committee. Five years later at the 18th Party Congress, Xi became general secretary, as expected. Li was elevated to the premiership the following March, thus seamlessly shifting power to a new generation of leaders.
There were, however, two interconnected surprises on the last day of the 20th Party Congress. First, Xi’s predecessor as general secretary, Hu Jintao, who was seated to Xi’s right, was seen fumbling with a red folder. Outgoing Politburo Standing Committee member Li Zhanshan, who was seated to Hu’s right, leaned over, and appeared to gently tell Hu to leave the folder alone, that it was not time to open it. Hu persisted. Li then reached over and slid the folder away from Hu, who then tried to retrieve it. At that point Xi signaled to an aid standing in the wings who approached Hu and took his arm in what seemed to be an effort to help Hu stand up. Hu resisted and seemed disoriented but eventually, he stood up. As he was being escorted across the dais, Hu touched Xi on the shoulder and said something to him. He then touched Li Keqiang, who was sitting to Xi’s left. Hu looked confused and unsteady on his feet. But he quickly found his balance and walked off under his own power, and exited stage left. After Hu left, the congress resumed its deliberations, which included electing the Politburo.
Hu’s exit was an oddly unscripted moment in what is normally a tightly stage-managed political performance. According to the official Chinese media, Hu had not been feeling well before the congress but had nevertheless insisted on attending. Once the closing session began, the Chinese media reported, he felt unwell and was led off stage to receive medical care. In other words, “Just an old man feeling a bit queasy. Nothing to see. Let’s move along with the business at hand, comrades.”
But Hu’s exit was not the only surprise. First, when the new 20th Politburo was elected, it had one fewer member than the outgoing 19th Politburo. Because the Politburo does not have a fixed size, the reduction in numbers was not, in and of itself, a shock. The new lineup, however, did not include any of what were considered to be Hu Jintao’s protégés. The new lineup was made up entirely of Xi protégés or individuals who were very likely Xi’s personal picks. The new lineup also omitted Hu Chunhua, who was thought of as a Hu Jintao protégé and who many believed was slated to replace Li Keqing, also a Hu Jintao protégé, as premier. In short, Xi made a clean sweep of Hu Jintao protégés and packed the leadership with his allies.
Although the reasons Hu Jintao exited the proceedings cannot be known for sure, it seems possible that while sitting next to Xi, Hu peeked at the list in the red folder and discovered that none of his protégés would be members of the new Politburo. It is possible, that Hu had been led to believe that even though Xi was going to pack the Politburo with his lieutenants, he would include Hu Junhua as number two and hence the candidate to succeed Li Keqing when the new 14th National People’s Congress it convened in March 2023.
Regardless of whether Hu Jintao’s exit was prompted by a bout of ill health or confusion brought on by what Hu might have seen as a double-cross by Xi, the outcome of the 20th Party Congress was clear. Xi will not only serve at least another five years as the supreme leader of China, but he will do so with a Politburo made up entirely of “Xi men” (no women were elected to the Politburo).
Ostensibly, that “changed everything.” Theretofore, “Sinologists” believed that the party’s leadership politics were structured by struggles between rival “factions.” These were not factions split over policy but rather they were split by their loyalties to various members of the leadership who had been their patrons while they were climbing the ladders of power. Over the years, we are told, Jiang Zemin’s “Shanghai Gang” struggled to wrest power from Premier Li Peng and his conservative allies. When Hu Jintao came to power, his “Communist Youth League Faction” vied with members of the Jiang’s Shanghai Gang. By the time Xi came to power, the Politburo was said to be split between Jiang and Hu allies, with some believing that Xi was aligned with the Jiang camp. At the 19th Party Congress, the number of Jiang protégés fell and were replaced by Xi protégés. Hu protégés, however, retained a respectable share of the seats. The evolution of the “factional balance” was in part simply a function of time. Over the years, as Jiang’s allies grew older and reached retirement age, younger cadres who had entered the senior ranks while Hu was general secretary replaced them. The same natural turnover process took its toll on Hu’s lieutenants after Xi took over. Nevertheless, Xi’s clean sweep of Hu’s protégés and apparent denial of even a “fig leaf” of respect for Hu by including Hu Chunhua as an ordinary member of the Politburo seemed a rather blunt nullification of Hu a distinguished party elder.
But does the clean sweep mean things have really changed? The change is likely an incremental or perhaps even merely a symbolic one. Over his first 10 years as General Secretary, Xi made sweeping personnel changes, not only at the paramount leadership level, but also at the much wider level of the second rank leadership – the ministers, provincial party secretaries, and governors who command the governing apparatus of China’s party-state. Xi has also remade the senior ranks of the People’s Liberation Army. In part, he did this through the mechanism of his ongoing crackdown on corruption which has “bagged” more than 300 “tigers” – officials holding ranks at the vice-ministerial, deputy provincial party secretary, and vice gubernatorial level, as well as the heads of major state-owned companies and the presidents of elite universities – since 2013. Xi’s long tenure in office, however, also afforded him ample opportunities to replace senior officials with his allies through regular channels as those promoted by Jiang and Hu reached retirement age and exited public life. Xi’s grip on power was thus presumably tight even before the 20th Party Congress. Although there have been rumors about opposition and unhappiness with Xi’s high-handed leadership style, there were few tangible signs of splits within the leadership. Nor was there credible evidence of tensions between team Hu and team Xi. It is also well worth remembering that in 2007, Xi had to have been selected as heir apparent through some sort of agreement between Hu and Jiang. It thus seems rather implausible that Xi was some sort of an anti-Hu or anti-Jiang “rebel.” It is quite possible – or perhaps even likely – that both Jiang and Hu underestimated Xi’s determination to take a total grip on power and shunt their protégés (and the protégés of those protégés) off to the political wilderness. Xi did not, therefore, cease to be an insecure leader and become a secure leader at the 20th Party Congress. Rather he moved from a position of strength to a position of greater strength. In doing so, he clearly signaled the days of collective leadership were over, and that henceforth he alone would be in charge. Even that change seem slight because well before the 20th Party Congress, Xi had made himself the “secretary of everything” and there was little evidence that he shared power with Li Keqiang or any the other members of the Politburo.
So, what does the outcome of the 20th Party Congress signal? Predicting the future of Chinese politics is, frankly, at best a guessing game. When Xi came to power in 2012, many thought he was going to be a soft-liner who would further relax daily life and allow individuals greater personal freedom, deepen market reforms, continue the trend toward political moderation, and seek to make China a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. He proved otherwise.
In the days immediately after the Congress, it seemed that we could expect “more of the same.” At that time, the key questions seemed to be whether Xi would continue the crackdown on corruption, hold the line on COVID Zero and its draconian system of lockdowns, continue to respond harshly to what he and Chinese nationalists see as provocations by the United States and Taiwan that would gut the One China Policy and move the island toward independence, continue to enforce the political crackdown in Hong Kong and among China’s dissident circles, continue the harsh assimilationist policies in Xinjiang and Tibet, and continue to press China’s claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
Whatever he may have gained at the 20th Party Congress, Xi nevertheless faced headwinds. The economy was slowing, in part because of the trade war and the downturn in global economic activity resulting from the pandemic. The Chinese economy, however, also has been badly disrupted by the Xi’s anti-pandemic “People’s War” with its COVID Zero policy and system of rolling lockdowns of major cities including Shanghai, Wuhan, Zhengzhou, Xian, and Guangdong, as well as many other second- and third-tier cities, for prolonged periods and hence a near-constant disruption of manufacturing and the supply chain.
The near-term outlook was, however, soon thrown into confusion. Popular discontent over the lockdowns and the often heavy-handed enforcement by local cadres unexpectedly boiled over in late November 2022 as protests broke out in multiple cities. Although mostly small, these protests – dubbed the “blank page protests” because demonstrators have held up blank paper as a symbol of protest against censorship and the regime’s lack of transparency – were noteworthy. That’s because in a number of cases, protesters — many of whom appeared to be members of the middle and professional classes, as well as university students — chanted “down with the Communist Party” and “down with Xi Jinping,” slogans that are rarely heard in China today.
The protests quickly fizzled, and a number of protesters were reportedly “invited to drink tea” by police. But then, the regime suddenly began relaxing core features of the COVID Zero policy. However, the abrupt – and thus far confused and chaotic – relaxation generated a quick backlash. Although some welcome the change in policy, others fear that the relaxation will trigger a new wave of infections. Some are going further to predict it could lead to more than half-a-million deaths because the population is not fully immunized and COVID Zero has blocked the development of some level of “herd immunity” similar to that which has developed in societies that dropped the most draconian lockdown policies in 2021. As a result, Xi now finds himself confronting conflicting demands. On the one hand, he is under pressure to continue backing off from his signature COVID Zero policy and reopen the economy. At the same time, he also faces the possibility that if he does so, a surge in cases will trigger panic and force him to beat a hasty – and potentially politically humiliating – retreat to some sort of COVID Zero 2.0 policy and a wave of new lockdowns.
The short-term challenges generated by uncertainty about the public health outlook come, moreover, on top of the broader challenges of high youth unemployment, deepening pessimism about the future, the high cost of housing, concerns about environmental quality and food and drug safety, and fears of a potential bursting of a property bubble. These combine to put Xi in a less than enviable position, one that is certainly not as rosy as that of his two predecessors as general secretary. Xi cannot, at this juncture, turn to the Chinese people, ask the “Ronald Reagan Question:” “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” and expect to get a heartfelt “yes.” Moreover, given the complicated results of the 2022 midterm elections in the United States and the announcement that Donald Trump will seek election again as president in 2024, Xi faces a potentially weak and embattled Biden Administration, one that would likely not be positioned to make any decisive moves to reconfigure Sino-American relations, particularly if House Republicans are hammering his son Hunter Biden with allegations of potentially shady dealings with Chinese interests. Movement toward some sort of “ceasefire” in the Sino-American trade war, a move that would presumably help reinvigorate the Chinese economy, thus seems unlikely.
On balance, therefore, Xi has clearly emerged from the 20th Party Congress with a firm grip on power. It is not clear, however, that having such a strong grip will enable him to weather storms at home and abroad.