China After the Party Congress: Welcome to Xi’s People’s Republic of Control
What the Chinese Communist Party’s conclave tells us about the last decade under Xi Jinping’s leadership and what it portends for the future.
Beijing has just played host to the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The gathering’s significance is considerable, witnessing not only the recoronation of Xi, but also a generational turnover of CCP leadership and a topline articulation of the party’s accomplishments to date and its priorities for the next five years.
Of course, the first and most high-profile outcome was the re-election of Xi as party general-secretary —a move that was widely anticipated following the 2018 amending of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) constitution to permit Xi to stand for an unprecedented third five-year term as head of state. Xi, like his two immediate predecessors, aspires to occupy concurrently the senior most leadership positions in all the three major constituent bureaucratic components of the party-military-state: the CCP, the PRC and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Having now secured the top party post, Xi is well on track to be re-elected PRC president at the 14th National People’s Congress, scheduled to convene in March 2023. As for the PLA, last week he was reappointed chair of the CCP Central Military Commission (CMC) and in March he will be formally reappointed to lead the PRC’s CMC. (Membership of the two CMCs is identical although the fiction of two separate commissions is maintained to preserve the party-state distinction.)
The Party Congress also heralded a major transition among senior CCP leaders. The outcome was a wave of retirements and corresponding promotions of senior party and military elites. The turnover on the Politburo Standing Committee was 57 percent (4 of 7), turnover on the Politburo was 54 percent (13 of 24), while turnover on the Central Committee was 64 percent (132 of 205). Meanwhile, on the Party CMC turnover was 43 percent (3 of 7).
Two key takeaways from this significant changeover of personnel are: first, those retiring include individuals believed to have strong reformist or market-oriented tendencies; second, the new slate of leaders are Xi loyalists who are likely to be staunch supporters of his agenda of centralized control and hardline policies.
High Ambition + Deep Insecurity = Tighter Controls
In a series of speeches and documents at the Party Congress, Xi and his colleagues claimed credit for an array of policy successes over the past 10 years and outlined a set of ambitious goals for the next five years. The initiatives launched over the past decade along with the rhetoric coming out of the congress underscore that Xi’s paramount priority has been and continues to be strengthening and centralizing the party’s control over the government, the military, the economy and society. While the world tends to perceive the PRC under Xi as confident, assertive, strong and bent on expanding China’s power and the CCP’s influence beyond the PRC’s borders and around the globe, party leaders see themselves as vulnerable and exposed.
Although Xi is the PRC’s most powerful and ambitious leader since Mao Zedong with regional and global designs, he remains insecure and inward focused. In the 20th Party Congress work report, Xi warned the 2,000 plus delegates: “[W]e must … be more mindful of potential dangers [and] be prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios … .” While Xi and his fellow Politburo colleagues are concerned about external threats, they are especially worried about internal threats — challenges emanating from societal problems, political dissent and unrest among China’s vast populace of 1.4 billion citizens.
Indeed, the ultimate irony of the People’s Republic is that China’s communist rulers are more fearful of their own people and domestic instability than they are about threats from outside their borders. Consequently, the CCP is focused on strengthening control over all sectors of society. This requires the maintenance of a sizeable and muscular coercive apparatus and a massive and pervasive propaganda machine. The overarching goal is to assure continued CCP rule through careful control and constant surveilling of the Chinese people as well as routine control and regular shaping of China’s national narrative giving credit for all successes to the party.
People’s Republic of Control Version 1.0: 2012-2017
Almost immediately after assuming power back in late 2012, Xi Jinping began to tighten his grip on the Party and the PLA. While the CCP had long sought to dominate the country and function as China’s all-powerful Leninist vanguard party, under Xi, the party had gone into overdrive to reassert control over all aspects of human activity in the PRC in ways not seen since the Mao era (1949-1976). As Xi stated in his work report to the 20th Party Congress, on his watch “the party’s organizational system” had been “strengthened” and “disciplined rules” have been “tightened.”
Xi began his first term in 2012 as party secretary with a concerted effort to centralize his control over the CCP and the PLA through extended anti-corruption drives, which amounted to thoroughgoing purges of civilian and military leaders whose allegiance to Xi was suspect. Moreover, Xi conducted the most comprehensive and thorough reorganization of China’s defense establishment in three decades. The result was a more streamlined and centralized armed forces with control and command functions gathered in the CMC as an organ and in the person of its chair — Xi. As Xi proclaimed in his work report on October 16, “we have upheld party leadership over the people’s armed forces” and “restructured the military system of leadership and command.”
There have also been external initiatives. In Xi’s first term, this was manifest on an ambitious large-scale artificial island building campaign in the South China Sea commencing in 2013. The scope of the effort was breathtaking as tons of earth and sand were dredged and deposited in the semi-enclosed sea to create 3,200 acres of new land. This increased the surface area of existing islands and/or raised the level of reefs and atolls that had previously been submerged at high tide. This effort included construction of docks, barracks, helipads, runways and assorted fortifications to permit military and paramilitary garrisons. The result was to increase Beijing’s control of significant portions of the South China Sea by changing the facts in the water. Xi proclaimed in this 20th Party Congress work report that “we have not yielded any ground on matters of principle, and we have resolutely safeguarded China’s sovereignty.”
People’s Republic of Control Version 2.0: 2017-2022
In Xi’s second term, he targeted restructuring the economy through reasserting central control over most sectors and re-emphasized the importance of state-owned enterprises. This is slated to continue. At the 20th Party Congress, Xi told assembled delegates that the party would “work to see state-owned capital and enterprises get stronger, do better, and grow bigger.”
Xi also cracked down on civil society — requiring all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register with the authorities, provide detailed information about their activities, and often insisting that NGOs establish some kind of dependency relationship with party or state entity. Moreover, the CCP under Xi moved to build upon earlier crackdowns in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region over the ethnic minority Uyghur population who were disloyal because of their Turkic ethnicity and Islamic traditions by establishing draconian controls over Uyghur neighborhoods and arbitrarily interning tens of thousands of politically suspect Uyghurs into detention camps.
Xi also harshly suppressed dissent in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region making a farce of the one country, two systems policy that was ostensibly intended to permit the residents of the former British colony a high degree of autonomy from Beijing. As a result of the CCP’s actions, Hong Kong came to be treated very much like another mainland jurisdiction rather than a city with its own mini-constitution, greater personal and political freedoms, and a more unfettered economy with its own currency and monetary authority. Xi noted in his 20th Party Congress work report that “we have effectively contained ethnic separatists, religious extremists and violent terrorists.”
Perhaps the most visible manifestation of Xi’ “People’s Republic of Control” has been the draconian measures imposed on cities across China to combat a resurgence of COVID. The CCP’s “zero COVID” policy is nothing short of remarkable. That the communist party-military-state was able to lockdown the sprawling metropolis of Shanghai with more than 20 million inhabitants in early 2022 highlighted that Beijing is able to enforce its will upon society the way that few other national authorities can elsewhere in world (North Korea may be the sole exception). This is possible because the central party-military-state apparatus exercises considerable control over subnational level authorities at the regional, local and grassroots levels and also because Beijing has been able to count on widespread popular support and compliance. As Xi proclaimed in his work report, the CCP “launched an all-out people’s war” and “tenaciously pursued a dynamic zero-COVID policy.”
Also in Xi’s second term, Beijing has been slowly but surely strengthening and expanding its hold on and control over the PRC’s extensive and disputed frontier with India. Much of this contested territory is located in remote high-altitude locations in the Himalayas. Beijing has not only been increasing the size and number of its forward deployed armed forces along the so-called Line of Actual Control, but also building infrastructure — roads, barrack and storage facilities — in strategic locales across this rugged and inhospitable terrain. This greater activity has elevated tensions and led to bloody clashes between Chinese and Indian border troops, most notably lethal hand-to-hand fighting in mid-2020.
Most recently, at Xi’s direction, PRC armed forces have engaged in a ramped-up pattern of provocations in and around the Taiwan Strait. Beijing has expanded the scope and scale and advanced the locations of these operations far closer to the island of Taiwan than ever before. In recent years, this involves increasing the frequency of ships and aircraft crossing the long observed median line in the Taiwan Strait. The number of PLA air sorties more than doubled between 2020 and 2021 to reach an average of more than 2.6 per day. Moreover, PRC naval, coast guard and militia vessels have been increasingly active in the vicinity of Taiwan. The goal of these hostile actions is not simply to intimidate Taipei but to normalize PLA operations and establish de facto Beijing control over the ocean separating the mainland from Taiwan. The ultimate objective appears to be to claim and control the entire Taiwan Strait as PRC territorial waters.
The culmination of these hostile activities was the massive show of force in close proximity to Taiwan in early August 2022 immediately following the departure from Taipei of U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi. These exercises conducted in multiple locations around the island seemed designed to signal that China possessed the capability to blockade Taiwan and control access to the island at will. In his work report, Xi insisted “we have maintained the initiative and the ability to steer in cross-strait relations.”
Welcome to the People’s Republic of Control 3.0: 2022-2027
The conclusion of the 20th Party Congress signifies the launch of Xi’s third term as leader of the CCP. The heavily scripted and carefully manipulated optics at the conclave highlight a key characteristic of China under Xi: the high priority assigned to ensure centralized control of all aspects of internal and external party-military-state activity. Xi boldly insisted in his work report that “[t]he wheels of history are rolling on towards China’s reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Xi’s first five-year term as CCP leader witnessed him consolidate his hold over the political apparatus and centralize and streamline his control of the military. Xi’s second five-year term saw Xi reassert party-military-state control over the economy as well as tighten Beijing’s control over multiple peripheral — ostensibly autonomous — regions such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Moreover, Xi launched ambitious initiatives to firmly assert greater control over a range of maritime and continental territories claimed by the PRC.
With Xi’s re-election as CCP general secretary, we are now witnessing the roll out of the People’s Republic of Control 3.0. While one might expect Xi to be girded by greater confidence and reassurance following his triumphs at the Party conclave, this is unlikely because of the range of knotty challenges he continues to face. Among them are anticipated fierce economic headwinds which will strain the system and put pressure on Xi’s statist policies in coming years. Moreover, Xi can also expect foreign policy complexities, notably with the United States, considered China’s most potent and threatening competitor, and with Russia, ostensibly China’s staunchest and weightiest strategic partner, that has recently demonstrated truculence and shocking frailties over Ukraine.
The citizens of China can expect a continuation of current hardline policies and greater centralization of power; other countries should anticipate an assertive and combative PRC led by an activist dictator and an energetic party-military-state obsessed with seeking to control all aspects of human activity and to dominate all arenas both inside and outside its borders.