Editor’s Introduction—Special Issue on the 20th Party Congress: The Xi Era Enters its Second Decade

Xi waves during celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC on October 1, 2019 (Source: Xinhua)

On August 31, state media announced a determination reached at a Politburo meeting the previous day that the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), henceforth the 20th Party Congress, will commence in Beijing on October 16 (People’s Daily, August 31). During the week-long conclave, delegates will select the next Central Committee, the CCP’s de jure highest official body, which includes slightly over 200 full members and around 170 alternate members (Xinhua, October 24, 2017). The Central Committee will then determine the members of the Party’s de facto top leadership bodies: the (most likely) seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and the 25-member Politburo.

On September 9, the Politburo held another meeting, which included reviewing proposed amendments to the Party Constitution (not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China [PRC] state constitution, which was amended at the 2018 National People’s Congress to eliminate presidential term limits). According to the meeting readout, the amendments will update the constitution to fully “reflect the latest achievements in the modernization of Marxism in China and the new governance of the country proposed by the Central Committee” since the 19th Party Congress in October 2017 (People’s Daily, September 10). At the sixth Plenum in November 2021, the Central Committee passed a historical resolution lionizing Xi Jinping’s achievements in governance and ideology, which stated that “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” embodies “the best of the Chinese culture and ethos in our times and represents a new breakthrough in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context” (China Brief, November 12, 2021). In this context, the Politburo’s determination to revise the constitution indicates that the forthcoming amendments will further entrench the centrality of Xi Jinping Thought in contemporary CCP ideology. This and other signs, such as the recent full-throated revival of the personality cult surrounding Xi in state media and mass culture, as well as the comparatively early scheduling of the Party Congress during the traditional October-November time window, support the hypothesis that Xi is in a commanding political position, despite the panoply of international and domestic challenges facing the PRC (China Brief, September 9).

As there is little suspense around the prospects of Xi retaining the paramount positions as CCP General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), most of the uncertainty heading into the 20th Party Congress surrounds turnover (promotions and retirements) of the other members of the top party and military leadership bodies. These are the members of the PBSC; the members of the Politburo; the First Secretary and the six other members of the Secretariat—the executive body responsible for implementing the Politburo’s directives; the Chairman, Vice Chairmen and Members of the CMC; and the Secretary, deputy secretary and members of the Standing Committee of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) (for an official list of the members of the top leadership bodies appointed at the 19th Party Congress, see Xinhua, October 25, 2017).

The myriad questions about who will work under Xi to lead the party-state’s key organs for the next half-decade will be answered when the Congress concludes (China Brief, August 12). Further clarity will be provided when the top government leaders who sit on the State Council are announced at the closure of the National People’s Congress in March 2023 (China Daily, March 19, 2018). In the long-term however, Xi’s inability or unwillingness to address the succession issue that plagues all non-monarchical, one-party states fosters immense uncertainty in the PRC system. Xi has rolled back the very modest progress made in the 1990s and 2000s to institutionalize the succession processes for the top-leadership posts. Moreover, the lack of a clear successor as Xi begins his second decade in power is likely to intensify the political maneuvering among sixth and seventh generation cadres as the General Secretary enters old age. Even if Xi self-selects a successor, as Mao Zedong attempted to do several times, there is no guarantee that such an anointed future leader would have the political clout to take the reins, particularly if the prevailing sentiment among other party elites is to move in an ideological or strategic direction that is at odds with Xi’s vision for China.

Despite the great deal of over-the-horizon uncertainty, Xi remaining in position as core leader portends general continuity for his policies, strategic approach and ideological priorities in the short to medium term. Nevertheless, questions remain as to whether Xi will change course on policy to address the burgeoning array of challenges that threaten the goals he has established for the PRC of achieving full “socialist modernization” by 2035 and national rejuvenation by mid-century (Qiushi, February 7). Will he undertake market-oriented reforms to moderate the enormous inefficiencies produced by state dominance of the economic and financial systems? Will he eventually opt to roll back, or at least moderate, the strict zero-COVID epidemic prevention measures that have engendered mass frustration and been a millstone dragging down the economy? Finally, will Xi take to heart the lessons of the war in Ukraine and recalibrate a foreign policy that is geared toward confrontation with the U.S.?

Against this backdrop, China Brief has asked five leading experts to lay out briefly what to expect in five key areas during the second decade of Xi’s tenure.

Elite Politics

The issue begins with a special interview with Willy Wo-Lap Lam, who has been a leading chronicler of elite politics in China since the Deng Xiaoping era. Dr. Lam discusses the significance of the 20th Party Congress and considers its implications for the political trajectory of China over the next decade and beyond.

Economics

In “The Economic Outlook for Xi’s Third Term: Mounting Challenges, Dwindling Fiscal and Monetary Options,” Alicia García-Herrero breaks down Beijing’s narrowing range of options for dealing with a difficult economic situation coming out of the 20th Party Congress.

Military

In “Will PLA Modernization Continue Apace in Xi’s Second Decade?,” Joel Wuthnow examines the outlook during Xi’s third term for sustaining the rapid pace of military modernization that the PRC has undertaken during Xi’s first two terms.

Taiwan Policy

In “Beijing Signals a Harder Line Policy on Taiwan Through the 20th Party Congress and Beyond,” John Dotson analyzes the PRC’s official response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit and assesses the outlook for Taiwan policy in Xi’s third term.

Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Campaign

In “All the President’s Men – Corruption in the Xi Jinping Era,” Martin Purbrick examines the enduring role of corruption and efforts to eradicate it in PRC politics, observing that these dynamics will continue to shape China’s political landscape in the era of Xi.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].