The 20th Party Congress and the Future of Elite Politics in China: An Interview with Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 17

It is widely perceived that President Xi Jinping sees China as enmeshed in a broader struggle between an axis of authoritarian powers on the one hand and the U.S. and its allies, a coalition of (largely) liberal democracies on the other. What is driving Xi to embrace geostrategic competition with the U.S. to a greater extent than his predecessors ? Do you think Xi will continue down the same path following the 20th Party Congress?

Xi Jinping’s most famous slogans, which call for the realization of “the Chinese dream” and the “great renaissance of the Chinese nation”, are underpinned by his conviction that “the East is rising while the West is declining.” This approach is much different from the ethos of Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of reform, who once said that “countries that get on well with the U.S. have all prospered” (, June 10, 2019; Phoenix TV, December 25, 2015). Largely due to the economic, technological and geopolitical contention between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the U.S.-led “democratic” alliance, however, a veritable new cold war has erupted between China, on the one hand, and the U.S. and its European and Asian allies, on the other (Project Syndicate, June 17; South China Morning Post [SCMP], April 20). Partly due to the Xi administration’s “no limits” support of Vladimir Putin’s Russia as well as Beijing’s pugilistic projection of hard power in the Taiwan Strait, the Sea of Japan, and the South China Sea, Beijing has become relatively isolated on the world stage. The country is also on the receiving end of debilitating sanctions levied on its exports, its efforts to attract investors and its access to key components that are integral to the technology sector.

In response to these challenges, Xi hopes to buttress China’s capacity to beat back the challenge posed by the U.S.-led alliance by forming a kind of axis of authoritarian states along with Russia and other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) including Pakistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states (The Diplomat, August 22;, July 30). Potential members of this axis also include Iran, North Korea and Myanmar. While meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Uzbekistan on September 15, Xi said “China is willing to make efforts with Russia to assume the role of great powers, and play a guiding role to inject stability and positive energy into a world rocked by social turmoil.” Despite Putin’s admission that China had “questions and concerns” over the Ukraine issue, the Russian leader said Moscow and Beijing would work together to form “a just, democratic and multipolar world” (The Moscow Times, September 15;, September 15).

The across-the-board struggle between the U.S.-led and the China-led blocs is expected to intensify after the 20th Party Congress. Both China and the U.S. view their all-out contest as an existential zero-sum game. And in view of the diminution of their symbiotic economic and climate-related cooperation – which used to provide some level of stability to the rivalry – the prospect of an amelioration of ties is low (Cn.nytimes, September 14; Foreign Policy, June 27).

China is presently dealing with several severe challenges, the continued threat of COVID-19 and a sputtering economy. Could these issues force Xi to change course in some policy areas during his third term?

In light of the CCP’s lack of ballot-box legitimacy, economic growth and overall public support or at least acquiescence are key elements of the party’s legitimacy. Apart from so-called hongwumao (红五毛, red 50 cents)—a commonly used term for Netizens paid to sing the party’s praises on social media—a substantial portion of citizens are frustrated by problems including pandemic-related quarantines, growing unemployment, declining spending power on consumer goods, as well as the real-estate and banking crises (VOAChinese, September 15;, September 14). After the 20th Party Congress, Xi is expected to sustain a substantial number of measures employed by Premier Li Keqiang and other State Council technocrats, in particular to continue to inject liquidity into the economy in order to aggressively promote growth, and to persuade investors from Western and Asian nations not to pull out of the “world’s factory” (China Brief, September 9).

However, the State Council’s preferred remedies consist mostly of the decades-old formula of boosting infrastructure spending, which has been responsible for the immense debt amassed at all levels of government as well as by state-owned enterprises and private conglomerates (, July 6; Xinhua, May 6). Xi has declared his preference for a “whole country systemic approach” (举国体制, juguotizhi) whereby resources must be used in a “concentrated and focused” manner by the party-state authorities in key areas such as technological innovation (People’s Daily, September 7;, June 10). He has also discussed the importance of “internal circulation,” which is shorthand for the semi-autarkist policy of relying on China’s vast domestic market to generate economic growth. These developments do not augur well for a return to the key tenets of Deng’s market-oriented, open-door policy.

Top leaders, including President Xi and Premier Li, have claimed that Beijing’s ability to control the number of COVID cases and prevent pandemic-caused deaths demonstrates the superiority of the Chinese versus the Western system of governance. Cadres have also been encouraged to demonstrate loyalty to supreme leader Xi by carrying out thorough and efficient quarantine operations (, September 7; Radio French International, June 28).

Draconian lockdowns have not only stymied the economy and alienated ordinary people but have also raised questions about the efficacy of PRC-made vaccines and large-scale corruption involved in the entire testing, vaccine manufacturing and quarantine mechanisms. As pandemic-related measures have dealt a frontal blow to the economy, the post-Congress leadership may make some pragmatic changes to the scope and execution of quarantine measures – but the main elements of the “dynamic zero-Covid policy” could remain well in place into 2023.

The Politburo held a study session on September 9 to review forthcoming amendments to the CCP Constitution that will be adopted at the 20th Party Congress. Both the PRC State Constitution and the Party Constitution have been revised several times since the early 1980s. What does this round of amendments seek to accomplish?

The CCP or Party Constitution, which is to be distinguished from the PRC or State Constitution, was already amended at the 19th Party Congress in 2017 to enshrine “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” as the guiding light of the party. The proposed revision might further elevate Xi’s status by inserting the “two establishes” (两个确立, liang ge queli) principle into the supreme charter: “establish the position of comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the dangzhongyang [central party authorities] and the core of the whole party; and establish the overriding status of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (China Daily, September 10; SCMP, September 10). The CCP Charter might also be revised to abolish term limits for the positions of the CCP General Secretary and the Chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission (Radio Free Asia, September 11; VOAChinese, September 10). In its current form, the Party Constitution does not have clear-cut stipulations on the length of the tenure of these two topmost slots. In 2018, however, the State Constitution was amended to abolish term limits for the post of State President, which had formerly been limited to two terms of five years each.

How is this 20th Party Congress similar and different from others in the post-Mao era? Are we in for any surprises?

Strongmen hate surprises—and will go the distance to ensure such events are carefully choreographed beforehand. This is why supreme leader Xi has repeatedly cautioned against “black swans” appearing in Chinese politics (Beijing Daily, August 20;, May 9). The putative Mao Zedong of the 21st century has solid confidence in the nation’s artificial intelligence (AI)-assisted mass surveillance apparatus; so he has not been daunted by the spate of demonstrations that have broken out in several provinces over bank and real-estate defaults and related scandals (China Brief, July 18). Instead, most of Xi’s energy has been consumed with finalizing personnel arrangements ahead of the 20th Party Congress that will consolidate the domination of his faction and at the same time generate enough leeway to pacify opposition factions as well as party elders, many of whom have been disturbed by Xi’s apparent Maoist restoration and his anti-U.S. and anti-Western stance (Deutsche Welle Chinese, September 9; Asia Society, August 4).

Even in the Era of Reform and Opening Up, the party leadership has always had penultimate control over the aspirations of the 2,300-odd Congress deputies as well as newly elected Central Committee members, although the latter often make use of the five-yearly conclave to voice their sometimes unorthodox views on public policy. Given that this congress is mostly about eulogizing the wisdom and achievements of one man, it is highly doubtful that new ideas will emerge to rekindle the economy, handle the pandemic, or improve relations with the U.S.

A decade ago, the top leadership position in the PRC was often described as a “primus inter pares” or “first among equals.” Is this model now obsolete given the power amassed by Xi, and if so, how should we conceive of elite politics and factional rivalry in the Xi era?

Largely to prevent the phenomena of personality cults and over-concentration of powers in the hands of just one strongman, Deng Xiaoping began the Era of Reform with a number of important institutional reforms. One major liberalization measure was the substitution of one-man rule with collective leadership, with  power largely shared among the respective members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) with the General Secretary merely the “first among equals.” Chinese cadres referred to this model as “nine dragons [sharing responsibility] for taming the rivers” (九龙治水, Jiulong zhishui;, August 11, 2019; Yazhou Zhoukan, July 15, 2019). However, Xi Jinping has, since the beginning of his ascendency to power in late 2012, successfully concentrated all powers of decision-making into his own hands. Nonetheless, remnants of two powerful party factions, the Communist Youth League Faction led by Premier Li Keqiang and the Shanghai Faction previously led by former President Jiang Zemin, have remained as minority members in the Politburo and the PBSC (China Brief, October 14, 2021). The hold of Xi—and the Xi Jinping faction—over power in areas ranging from ideology and personnel to finance and foreign policy will be enhanced after the 20th Party Congress (China Brief, August 12). This will mark a partial return to the Mao Zedong era of the 1960s and 1970s, when the “Great Helmsman” ruled with near-absolutist authority.

Is competition underway in the CCP to be Xi’s successor? What if Xi suddenly died tomorrow? Would the system be thrown into chaos?

If Xi rules until the 22nd Party Congress in 2032, he will have ten years to find a successor. The succession issue—as well as whether the CCP can cope with an unexpected event such as the sudden incapacitation of the supreme leader—is a taboo for the official media and heavily censored social media. Due to the longstanding rule of qishangbaxia (七上八下; retirement at 68, possibly one more term for cadres aged 67 or under), Sixth-Generation (6G) rising stars—officials born in the 1960s who would become PBSC members at the 20th or 21st Party Congress in 2027—might end up being only transitional figures (China Brief, November 12, 2021). The top prospects to fill this role include Xi’s protégé and principal adviser, Ding Xuexiang (born 1962) and the Party Secretary of Chongqing, Chen Min’er (1960). Ding, however, will be 70 years old, and Chen 72 at the 22nd Party Congress (, April 7; Cn.nytimes, February 14). As only members of the Seventh Generation (7G) or officials born in the 1970s can satisfy the age requirement, potential successors to Xi have not yet projected a strong image on the political stage (China Brief, April 9, 2019). None of these cadres have reached beyond vice-ministerial status or its equivalent. Moreover, the neophytes only have several years to make a nationally significant achievement so as to earn promotion to the very top (SCMP, August 29;, December 6, 2021).

There is no popular vote for CCP General Secretary, but what is Xi’s case as a “leader for life” to ordinary people, rank-and-file party members, and his fellow elites? Basically, what is Xi’s “stump speech”?

Most Chinese were either born or started working in the three to four decades after Deng Xiaoping initiated the Era of Reform in late 1978. Xi has reversed most of Deng’s teachings, ranging from “thought liberation” and collective leadership to empowering private firms and attracting Western capital. The CCP has successfully depoliticized the population, shifting the focus and energy of most people from politics to purely economic pursuits. However, Xi has never won genuine support from the majority of citizens and cadres for his anti-reformist measures, above all reviving a cult personality, which includes lifelong tenure for himself. Rising unemployment and the middle class’s big losses in the stock and property markets will make it doubly difficult for Xi to justify high-sounding but vacuous slogans such as “the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.” The “Chinese dream” – which includes the reunification of Taiwan and the emergence of China as the new Middle Kingdom – is the basis of Xi’s bid to become “ruler for life” (, November 16, 2021;, October 21, 2021). Yet the still formidable gap between Chinese and American economic, technological and military power could mean that the East will not necessarily supplant the West – and Xi’s perceived inability to attain this epochal goal could detract from the legitimacy of his claim to be China’s “Second Mao Zedong.”

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor in the History Department and Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of six books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (2015). His latest book, The Fight for China’s Future, was released by Routledge Publishing in 2020.