Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to secure an unprecedented third term at the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which begins on Sunday.
With that, Xi would consolidate his position as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Despite the slowing economy and rising geopolitical tensions with the West, there does not appear to be strong discontent with Xi’s policies within the party.
At a final meeting of top leaders ahead of the congress known as the Seventh Plenum, the party’s Central Committee praised the “unusual and extraordinary” achievements achieved over the past five years, reflecting Xi’s strong grip on the CCP.
It also approved the political report that Xi will present at the start of the conclave, setting out the party’s political priorities in all key areas for the next five years.
In a rare show of disapproval, however, earlier this week a banner was unfurled on the Sitong viaduct in the Chinese capital’s Haidian district, with the words: “We need food, not Covid tests. We want freedom, not lockdowns”, in reference to China’s strict zero covid policy. “We want dignity, not lies. We need reform, no cultural revolution,” read the white banner in red letters. “We want to vote, not a leader. Not be slaves, be citizens.”
US-based Chinese jurist Teng Biao described the protest as “a very courageous action”. “On the eve of the 20th Party Congress, it was particularly shocking to see slogans against Xi Jinping’s dictatorship. While this does not change the political situation in China, it is a very symbolic move.”
Protest banner on Beijing viaduct was quickly removed by Chinese authorities (Photo: AP)
Wu-Ueh Chang, a professor of Chinese studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan, is certain that Xi will secure a third term, and the reason “is that he removed the presidential term limit in 2018 and did not designate a successor who fits the criteria to become the next CCP general secretary”.
There is, however, apprehension that Xi’s efforts to extend his term or even stay in power indefinitely could have a destabilizing effect on the party, potentially compromising the established procedure for transferring power and exacerbating the risk of intra-party power struggles.
“If the CCP can have an orderly succession, where each leader serves two terms and a successor is designated in advance, they could reduce the risk of power struggles,” believes Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University in the US. “As Xi is about to take on a third term, this destabilizes the succession system. If something happens while he is in office, there is a risk of irregular succession, which would be a power struggle.”
In addition to abolishing longstanding traditions, Xi has also centered power around him over the past decade. Patricia Thornton, an associate professor of Chinese politics at the University of Oxford, points out that when Xi came to power in 2012 there was a consensus within the CCP that the party needed to be much more assertive to “correct the less disciplined and corruption-ridden part”.
“From the beginning, he embarked on a trajectory with the consensus of the party leadership. But Xi was able to use a crisis and the framing of the crisis to advance a leadership agenda that was actually able to centralize a lot of power in his own hands.”
Super-concentration of power around Xi
Thornton points to the anti-corruption campaign that Xi launched after taking power in 2012. The year-long crackdown that arrested more than 4.7 million officials allowed the Chinese leader to remake his party leadership and put his loyalists at risk. key positions. “Many who have studied the anti-corruption campaign have concluded that half of its targets may have been politically motivated.”
Xi also implemented a series of ideological, institutional and organizational changes that led to the concentration of even more power around him. “One of the real dangers that we are starting to see is the over-centralization of power. By consolidating so much power and control at the top, there has been a destabilizing effect within the Chinese Communist Party,” the Oxford professor points out.
Chinese jurist Teng agrees with this assessment: “Xi transformed the party from a collective dictatorship into a personalist dictatorship.”
No-go area in Shanghai: zero covid policy generates dissatisfaction with the Chinese government – Photo: Aly Song/REUTERS
What else to expect from the congress?
There will be a major reshuffle of leadership at the congress, with the expectation that several members of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee – the CCP’s most powerful body – will step down.
As Prime Minister Li Keqiang is due to retire in March 2023, the decision on who will replace him as the country’s second-highest official must be watched carefully.
Possible successors include current vice premier Hu Chunhua and Wang Yang, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, currently the party’s fourth-highest official.
Wang Hsin-Hsien, an expert on Chinese politics at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, believes that the final decision will be dictated by Xi, and his preference, as well as the political loyalty of these individuals, will be the main criteria.
“From this perspective, Wang Yang may be more suitable than Hu Chunhua as he has worked well with Xi over the past five years, successfully dealing with issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and the United Front Labor Department,” he said. , referring to the division that works in overseas Chinese communities to advance Beijing’s political agenda
Andrew Nathan of Columbia University believes Xi is likely to surround himself with more loyal officials, who do not have an independent power base to challenge him.
Big political changes?
While his political power seems undeniable, Xi has faced mounting pressure on other issues, including a rapidly slowing economy, government crackdowns on tech giants and the economic impact of a strict zero-covid strategy.
In a report published by the Jamestown Foundation in September, Alicia García-Herrero, chief Asia-Pacific economist at investment bank Natixis, predicted that China would not be able to meet its 5.5% economic growth target for 2022.
As Beijing signals its intention to maintain its controversial zero-covid strategy, García-Herrero considers that growth prospects will likely remain below expectations in 2023. 2023, but the problems we are seeing will remain and will likely become more acute in terms of economic cost.”
Nathan does not expect major changes in China’s domestic and foreign policies under Xi’s third term. “I think the tone will be to continue the mission, which is the ‘dream of China’, and that’s what he’s trying to do”, emphasizes the expert. “Some say he will try to attack Taiwan in the next five years, but I don’t think so. Will he change his covid policy? I don’t think so.”