Ordinarily, it makes for unmatched political theatre in an otherwise grey and opaque system: the moment when China’s ruling Communist party unveils its new leadership at the close of its congress.
This time around, however, the ceremony at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People parading the newly selected inner sanctum of the Politburo had only one star, Xi Jinping.
The appearance of the seven men — and, yes, they are all men — marks the climax of months of intense bargaining, factional balancing and brutal purges that take place behind the scenes.
It was no surprise that Xi emerged at the front of the pack, confirming what has been an open secret since the last congress five years ago — that he would break with recent convention and take a third term as leader.
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Just as important were the senior officials who followed him onstage, as their elevation underlined Xi’s dominance of the congress, which proved even more decisive than experienced observers had forecast.
Xi’s rivals, potential and real, were forced out of the Politburo Standing Committee, with loyalists taking their place. No fewer than three of Xi’s aides from his previous positions in Beijing and other provinces were promoted to the top team.
This month’s congress has drawn a line in the sand in profound ways, both for Chinese domestic politics and the way in which its influence and assertiveness spills out into the rest of the world.
Internally, Xi has dispensed with the old factional system. He has crushed expectations that he would nurture a successor. He has ignored the informal age caps on officials serving in top positions.
As a result, in the words of Neil Thomas, a China specialist at the Eurasia Group, we are entering an era of “maximum Xi” — a world in which the old rules have been cast aside.
Reform, Xi style
In place of rules in domestic politics, Xi has substituted what he calls “political standards”, which in essence means absolute loyalty to him and his policy programme.
On foreign policy, Xi was unwavering in pressing China’s core interests: taking Taiwan and the South China Sea, and pressing claims over the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan.
Starry-eyed foreigners can no longer interact with Beijing on the pretence that there is a nascent group of influential friends at court, so-called reformers whom they could cultivate and rely on.
Xi has got his way and he exudes confidence about the road ahead. “Today, we are closer, more confident, and more capable than ever of reaching the goal of rejuvenating the Chinese nation,” he said in his opening speech to the congress on October 16. (At the core of this rejuvenation is taking Taiwan).
Foreigners who complain that China has given up on reform have it upside down. China is reforming but on the ruling party’s — or Xi’s — own terms. It just so happens that this looks nothing like the kinds of changes the west had hoped for.
In the lead-up to the congress, analysts speculated that Xi would balance the Politburo with officials from outside his own circle, choosing, for example, a “saviour premier” who could balance one-man rule.
But Xi has cast himself in the role of the saviour, to prevent the party from sliding, to quote from his speech, toward a “weak, hollow and watered-down Party leadership”.
The self-made political persona Xi put on display at the congress is a mix of fire and brimstone preacher, a pastor tending to his flock and an unrepentant autocrat willing to expunge anyone in the party’s way.
In his speech, he warned party members against “money worship, hedonism, egocentricity and historical nihilism”, the latter referring to the crime of contradicting the party’s official narratives.
Preparing for the storm
The drama that unfolded at the close of the congress, over who would follow Xi onstage and in what order, was important, and not just as political theatre.
Personnel choices are watched closely, both inside and outside China, as they are among the few transparent expressions of internal power balances in an otherwise closed system.
Li Keqiang, the premier, and Wang Yang, who was responsible for United Front work, were both dropped from the Politburo. Both are 67, below the nominal retirement cut-off age of 68, but their ties to the Communist Youth League, once a dominant faction, were their undoing.
Xi has relentlessly defenestrated members of the Youth League and other rival factional groups during his decade in office. Now empowered to demand their retirement, Xi did just that.
Just as telling were their replacements, Li Qiang and Cai Qi, the current party secretaries of Shanghai and Beijing, respectively. Any evident mistakes — in Li’s case, the damaging Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year — were overlooked for a more important quality: their loyalty to the leader.
The Xi loyalists who now fill the Politburo are not greenhorns. Like all top Chinese officials, they have decades of governing experience and a welter of technical qualifications, mainly in science and technology.
But Xi has chosen them not for their competence alone. In his eyes, he can rely on them to implement his policy vision for the country at what he sees as a dangerous inflection for China’s global ambitions.
For two decades in official statements and speeches, Chinese leaders have identified the geopolitical environment as one conducive to “peace and development” and as “a period of strategic opportunity”.
Xi ditched this language in his speech. Instead, he pronounced that the country must “prepare for the storm”.
“This is also a warning to the rest of the world,” said Kevin Rudd, head of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former prime minister of Australia. “Officially, China’s national security establishment has in effect been put on long-term alert.”
Xi has been skilled in exploiting the enormous powers of his office to do what a communist party does best — mobilise the state, the workforce, capital and technology in a singular effort to get his way in the world.
Put another way, the Chinese system, as such, is effectively on a war footing, which, of course, is not the same thing as saying it is about to go to war.
Rather, Xi is locking in absolute control at home to ensure he can project maximum strength abroad and gain whatever leverage he can in any showdown with the US, whenever it comes and whatever form it takes.
New era, old rivals
In truth, China is already locked into permanent struggles with the US in Asia, on trade, in geopolitics, over the projection of military power and in setting technological standards.
Perhaps most importantly of all, China sees the overall confrontation with the US and, by extension, with its allies, as a contest of political systems, which Beijing has long thought it is winning.
A lengthy article in September in the People’s Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece, called on all officials to “strengthen national defence” throughout society — in skills, education, theory, science and law, and just about any other field you can name.
With the party congress now over, Xi will work through a series of diplomatic priorities aimed at buttressing China’s international position, a number of which have been complicated by the war in Ukraine.
In the words of one US government official, Beijing will first tend to relations with what he called “aggrieved” nations, like Russia, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, which are all close to China and at odds with the US.
As it has for more than a decade, Beijing will continue to forge closer ties with the so-called Global South — developing and low-income countries — in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
Beijing has long cultivated ties with these nations’ governments, for multiple reasons — winning votes at the United Nations, embedding its technological standards into their economies, building alternative trade and political blocs to ones dominated by the west, and encouraging development with Chinese assistance.
With both the “aggrieved” nations and the Global South, Beijing is pushing at an open door after years of effort in parts of the world where developed countries have underperformed or been absent altogether.
Global swing states in Europe and Latin America, and perhaps also India, present a different challenge. Beijing has alienated European nations with its support for Russia in Ukraine. India has not forgiven Beijing over recent military clashes on their shared border.
But while Beijing might not be able to fully restore ties with these nations, it has a secondary aim: to prevent them from moving closer to Washington.
Ukraine, however, is complicating Xi’s ambitions. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine weeks after sealing a “no limits” partnership with Xi in Beijing in February.
Instead of winning a quick victory, Russia has become bogged down.
Largely as a result of the war, global energy and food prices are soaring, hurting an already weak Chinese economy, which remains Xi’s Achilles heel. Economic policy is the arena in which his statist policy prescriptions are most contested, and in which his potential critics have the most room to move.
Xi’s absolute insistence, thus far, on sticking with his strict zero-Covid policy is crushing the economy, with no visible way out. On October 24, China announced that its third quarter year-on-year growth was 3.9 per cent, below the 2022 target of 5.5 per cent.
On another front, Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons in the war is anathema to Beijing.
In early October, a lucid, 99-year-old Henry Kissinger, speaking in New York, was critical of Xi’s deal with Putin. “Xi Jinping gave a rather blank cheque to Putin — he must have thought the invasion would succeed,” said Kissinger, who was US secretary of state in the mid-1970s. “He might need to recalibrate.”
Kissinger has long been inclined to explain China’s rise rather than examine it critically, which is perhaps why he is still welcomed with open arms in Beijing and feted as a far-sighted statesman. If Kissinger, a friend at court in Beijing, thinks Xi has made a mistake, it might be time to take notice.
What next for Taiwan?
Chinese foreign policy is global in its ambitions and about much more than Xi’s relationship with Putin. But the unfolding disaster of the Ukraine invasion is reverberating beyond Sino-Russo ties.
With the US, Taiwan remains the most divisive and dangerous issue.
Washington is attempting to bolster Taipei’s defences against a possible future Chinese invasion, however far-off and improbable that may be, with the aim of giving the self-governed island the ability to hold off the People’s Liberation Army until reinforcements arrive.
Washington also wants to build Taiwan’s resilience against a more likely course of action, a Chinese blockade of the island aimed at forcing Taipei’s leaders to the negotiating table to begin talks over unification.
Beijing regards all such initiatives as breaching Sino-US agreements struck in the 1970s. Washington maintains it is consistent with its longstanding policy of preventing unification by force.
Xi’s language on Taiwan during his speech was unexceptional. But while the Ukraine invasion might prompt Xi and the PLA to rethink their strategy to take the island, it will not change their objective.
The first major meeting of Xi’s third term is expected to be with Biden at the Group of 20 summit in Bali in mid-November. Although the climate will be tropical, the atmosphere will be very much like the Cold War.
For years during the Cold War, US and Soviet leaders nearly always met in other countries because neither had the political capital, nor the desire, to host the other at home.
The same applies at the moment to the US and China. Do not expect to see Biden in Beijing or Xi in Washington anytime soon.
“A clutch of wooden men”
The congress, normally a tightly scripted affair, was not without its unscripted moments, most notably when former party leader Hu Jintao was escorted out of the hall during the closing ceremony.
Hu, who was seated next to Xi, appeared to visibly resist being taken from the hall by two attendants, who pulled him by the arm. The entire, uncomfortable incident was televised.
A potential explanation, and the one later offered by state media, was that Hu, who is 79, was feeling ill and so was taken out to allow him to recuperate. “Now, he is much better,” Xinhua News Agency reported.
The apparent cold and studied indifference of the top leaders sitting near Hu as he was escorted out in a distressed state was striking. Xi himself has been harshly critical of Hu’s lax rule in office, without naming him directly.
Wu Guoguang, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, speaking on a podcast with Li Yuan, a New York Times journalist, called the lack of “rudimentary courtesy” to Hu “truly extraordinary”.
“What we saw was all those men who had been elevated to power by Hu Jintao . . . as well as many others, sitting there nervously,” Wu said. “No expressions on their faces, no sign of understanding for Hu or sympathy. [They were] a clutch of wooden men, frozen and dumbfounded, witnessing it all in stony silence.”
It was, in many ways, an all too fitting end to the congress.
Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia.
A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on October 26 2022. ©2022 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.