A lone or small group of protesters, however, had rained on Xi Jinping’s parade
The 20th national congress of the Communist Party of China began at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sunday, but the 2,300 delegates came not to question or freely elect the next politburo. The names of its new members and those of the next standing committee, which now number seven, must have been pre-approved.
President Xi Jinping presented his report on the achievements and challenges of the past five years. The 104-minute speech was shorter than earlier ones. He guided China, he said, through “a grim and complex international situation”. But the tone overall was much less strident than feared or heard five years ago. With the developed world slamming all its doors shut, there appears to be a realisation that the path forward will be bumpy.
China has been vigorously preparing for this congress, with thousands of volunteers deployed to monitor potential troublemakers. With civil society wiped out, human rights lawyers interned and state surveillance rampant, the warlike precautions appeared to be overkill. Propaganda slogans were splattered across flyovers and on massive hoardings. One of them read: “Unite More Closely Around the Party’s Central Committee That Has Comrade Xi Jinping As Its Core”. Deification and hero-worship were on full display to create a public mood for making a third term for the incumbent inevitable.
A lone or small group of protesters, however, had rained on Xi Jinping’s parade. Banners were found on Sitong bridge seeking the end of the Covid-zero related lockdowns, and worse, President Xi’s ouster. The pictures went viral on social media platforms like Weibo, demonstrating that in today’s world countering dissent is impossible, even in China. The security agencies reacted in panic to eliminate any trace of the episode. Apparently, even searching for “Beijing” on Weibo was restricted. Foreign journalists found Chinese on the street clamming up when approached or simply detached from the huge function.
Even an exhibition named “Bravely Advancing Toward a New Era” had its doors barred to casual visitors. Clearly, the message in the banners had resonated with the people. President Xi’s report omitted the real challenges facing China like high debt, faltering exports, lacklustre consumer spending and an economic slowdown caused by the Ukraine war and periodic Covid-19 lockdowns. One issue though that was obliquely flagged was China’s ageing population. Ten days before the congress the United States announced sweeping restrictions on export of advanced technologies for production of chips, covering software and machine tools that facilitate Artificial Intelligence development. The US also belatedly released the Biden administration’s national security policy. China was classified as the main competitor, with Russia as an adjunct.
The implications of America’s chip-related action became clear given that China imports chips worth $400 billion annually.
Two important issues flagged by President Xi were Taiwan and China’s aspiration to be a global leader in scientific and technological fields. Xi asserted that “resolving the Taiwan issue is the Chinese people’s own matter”. Peaceful unification was the preferred option, but China would not discard the use of military force, especially if provoked. The last amounts to a subjective assessment by China of its redlines. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ingwen immediately retorted that her island nation “was a sovereign and independent country”. Further, that Taiwanese public opinion finds the “one country, two systems” concept unacceptable.
Interestingly, there was no mention of the Ukraine war or the danger of a nuclear conflagration. But Chinese commitment to climate change was reiterated. China promised to use clean-coal technologies while tiding over the international energy crisis created by the Ukraine war and then exacerbated by OPEC Plus’ two million barrels per day production cut.
President Xi Jinping will certainly get another term. The two-term rule mandated by reformist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was annulled in 2018. But does Xi want an open-ended extension or just one more term to shepherd China during a particularly crucial period for China. Both internal and external factors are creating uncertainties that will test the Chinese model of governance and their global aspirations. Xi may or may not reveal his preferred successor. He heads the three top positions — President, general secretary of the party and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Could there be internal lobbying, in exchange for the third term, to wrest some control from him. Alternatively, if his supreme authority is rubber-stamped, then the world stares at a long innings by an assertive and nationalistic leader determined to propel China to a dominant regional and global status. One of the banners posted by the New York Times read: “Pageantry in the halls of power but silence on the streets”. President Xi lauded the success of China’s zero-Covid policy resting on lockdowns and testing, despite it causing socio-economic disruption. China as the pandemic’s source was more successful in its first year. But the global approach of herd immunity and vaccination has fared much better as the virus began to evolve and became more transmissible but less fatal for those vaccinated or immune. China is finding the Covid-19 variants more difficult to control by its “Zero-Covid” approach.
The Chinese leadership is ignoring the public’s fatigue with lockdowns and periodic economic disruptions. As the Northern Hemisphere enters another winter, the virus is lurking and mutating. It will test the resilience of countries like China where herd immunity is low. Parts of Shanghai (and also Beijing) were again locked down after the citywide shutdown six months ago.
The New York Times noted that since 2002 each Chinese leader at the five-yearly party congresses referred to a “period of strategic opportunity”. That sanguine chant is missing from Xi’s more sombre assessment. Even domestically the “common prosperity” policy is still a mere slogan as the rural-urban and rich-poor inequalities persist.
Xi also promised to “present a China that is credible, appealing and respectable”, recognising perhaps the damage to China’s image globally due to its aggressive nationalism.
Xi’s words would be carefully parsed in India. His continuing in power will keep New Delhi alert as he has proved to be deceptive and a risk-taker. Mr Xi has undoubtedly diminished corruption and reformed the Communist Party. But the word “national security” figured 26 times in his speech, compared to four times in his predecessor Hu Jintao’s address a decade ago. Yuha Wang in The Rise and Fall of Imperial Power argues that China over 2,000 years was weakest under the strongest leaders. Farah Stockman adds in the New York Times: “The tale of an authoritarian leader who hangs onto power while promising greatness is a cautionary, if familiar, one for people everywhere, not just in China”.