The 20th Party Congress: Xi Jinping Exerts Overwhelming Control Over Personnel, but Offers No Clues on Reviving the Economy

Xi and the other members of the PBSC in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sunday (source: Xinhua)

General Secretary Xi Jinping has scored an overwhelming victory at the recently concluded 20th Party Congress and the First Plenum of the new Central Committee. Xi’s picks for the Politburo and its Standing Committee consist of unalloyed supporters, but these officials are also largely apparatchiks with expertise in areas such as ideology, propaganda and “party construction,” with a near-total absence of pragmatically minded technocrats experienced in finance and economics among them. As a result, most of Xi’s conservative, quasi-Maoist policies, including the zero-COVID policy, appear set to endure into the foreseeable future.

A Clean Sweep for the Xi Jinping Faction

In the new Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC)—the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) inner sanctum of power—Xi remains General Secretary and Chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC). The other six PBSC members are considered members of the Xi Jinping Faction (XJPF). Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang (李强), who worked under Xi in Zhejiang Province from 2002 to 2007, will become premier. Other Xi allies in the supreme decision-making body include incumbent PBSC members: Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) Zhao Leji (赵乐际), who will become Chairman of the National People’s Congress; and chief ideologue Wang Huning (王沪宁), who will become Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. In addition to Li Qiang, three other key Xi protégés earned promotions: Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi (蔡奇), who likely become the new Head of the Central Committee Secretariat; Guangdong Party Secretary Li Xi (李希),who will become the next CCDI Secretary); and Director of the CCP General Office and Head of the Xi Jinping Office Ding Xuexiang (丁薛祥), who will likely become executive vice premier (Xinhuanet, October 23; Ming Pao, October 23; Nikkei Asia, October 23).

Among the 24 members of the incoming Politburo and the 205 full members of the new Central Committee, Xi loyalists also predominate (Xinhua Weibo, October 23). The departure of thirteen ordinary (non-PBSC) Politburo members provided Xi with openings to elevate XJPF affiliates into the powerful body. As 133 (or 65 percent) of the 205 full Central Committee members are newly installed, Xi had leeway to eject members from known opposition groups or factions (Xinhuanet, October 22). Almost all of the 24 seats on the new Politburo belong to bona fide XJPF members (Radio Free Asia, October 23). Several Politburo seats are now held by members of the recently ascendant military-aerospace clique, a subsect of the XJPF including the Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Ma Xingrui (马兴瑞), who is a former General Manager of  the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and Director of the China National Space Administration; Party Secretary of Liaoning Zhang Guoqing (张国清), who is a former vice-president of the China North Industries Group Corporation; Zhejiang Party Secretary Yuan Jiajun (袁家军), a former top executive at the CASC; and Shandong Party Secretary Li Ganjie (李干杰), a respected nuclear physicist (South China Morning Post (SCMP), October 23).

There are no representatives on the new Politburo from the two other former major factions within the CCP: the Communist Youth League Faction (CYLF) and the Shanghai Gang. Vice Premier Hu Chunhua (胡春华), a former Party Secretary of Guangdong and former First Secretary of the Communist Youth League, was generally expected to receive a seat on the PBSC and to serve as executive vice premier. However, Hu did not even make the ordinary Politburo, let alone the PBSC (Zaobao.com, October 23; United Daily News, October 23). This unusual phenomenon of only one party running the show “一党独大” (yidangduda) was apparently responsible for ex-General Secretary and CYLF leader Hu Jintao, who was sitting next to supreme leader Xi, being dragged unceremoniously about half-way through the closing ceremony of the 20th Party Congress on Saturday (SCMP, October 22). The official Xinhua News Agency reported it was because Hu suddenly became sick. But the consensus among observers was that Hu was openly expressing his dissatisfaction at the name lists for the new Central Committee and the Politburo Standing Committee, which testified to the sidelining of his long-cherished faction. The kind of public display of dissent that Hu mounted has been a rarity in major party meetings since the Cultural Revolution (Japan Times, October 23; Hong Kong Free Press, October 22).

Xi’s other major triumph is that the CCP Constitution has now been revised to incorporate the principle of the “two upholds” 两个维护 (liang ge weihu), which are to “uphold Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole”; and to “uphold the Central Committee’s authority and its centralized, unified leadership” (Gov.cn, October 26). This, of course, further confirms Xi’s Mao-like status However, the new leadership has not explained why the long-rumored addition of the “two establishes ” 两个确立 (liang ge queli), which are to establish Xi as the “core of the central party authorities and the core of the entire party” and to establish “Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” as the guiding principle for the party and state in the future, were not included in the updated constitution.  Moreover, both in the run-up to and during the week-long Congress, various officials had already started referring to Xi as “the people’s leader,” 人民领袖 (renmin lingxiu), a title formerly used only for Mao Zedong that was also omitted in the revised charter. Nevertheless, these developments in no way detract from the supreme authority now exercised by Xi.

Chinese-style Modernization

A key element of Xi Jinping Thought is so-called “Chinese-style modernization”- 中国式现代化  (zhongguoshi xiandaihua), which Xi first raised during his opening report to the Party Congress on October 16 (Xinhua. October 16). In effect, Chinese-style modernization means that only Marxist and socialist precepts that have been rendered suitable for Chinese conditions in the 21st century by supreme leader Xi will be followed in all policymaking. According to the definition laid down by Xi himself, “Chinese style modernization” is made up of elements such as stern party leadership; upholding Chinese-style socialist precepts; realizing “high-quality development”; enriching the “spiritual world” of the people; attaining common prosperity; seeking a balance between man and nature; and pushing forward global peace and the goal of a “common destiny for all mankind” (VOA Chinese, October 20; People’s Daily, October 19).

Although Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and open door policy” was mentioned four times in Xi’s Congress report, Xi has clearly prioritized national security and “waging struggles”- 斗争 (douzheng) against both domestic and foreign enemies ahead of economic development or opening up the country to the international marketplace. Future policy emphasis will be put on quasi-Maoist, autarkist values such as “internal circulation,” which means self-reliance, particularly in advanced sectors such as semiconductors and AI; party control of the economy, which includes keeping a tight grip on both public and private enterprises; advancing common prosperity; and preparing the people for a “complex and challenging global situation,” an apparent reference to meeting the challenge posed by the “anti-China” policies of the U.S. and its allies (BBC Chinese, October 16).

In terms of foreign policy, the Xi team will continue to ratchet up nationalism, particularly in relation to China’s reunification of Taiwan and its resumption of “Middle Kingdom” status as a global rule-setter. Another priority of the post-20th Congress party is that by the year 2049, the centenary of the establishment of the PRC, China will have closed the gap with the U.S. and become the most powerful country in the world. The revised CCP Constitution pointed out for the first time that Beijing would “resolutely oppose and stop Taiwan independence.” In contrast, the old charter simply states that the CCP has a responsibility to achieve national reunification (Chinanews.com, October 24; News Radio French International, October 23).

Foreign and Military Policy

Throughout the 20th Party Congress, including in Xi’s closing speech, there was no reference to the U.S. However, the rhetoric of  the supreme leader and senior officials seemed geared toward intensifying the PRC’s all-out competition with the U.S.-led “anti-China” coalition. Xi repeatedly called on Congress members and all Chinese to counter the “hegemonism and bullying” of other countries and urged the people to be “brave enough to wage struggle, and to be good at waging struggle” (NPC.gov.cn, October 24; News.cn, October 18). Even in the area of international business and normal people-to-people interaction between Chinese and Westerners, Xi has indicated the Chinese authorities would put national security well before economic considerations. As Xi and the new Politburo are likely to funnel more resources into military modernization, the chances of the potential outbreak of a “hot war” over Taiwan or in the South China Sea may increase (VOA Chinese, October 18; Deutsche Welle Chinese, October 16).

In a reflection of Xi’s heavy dependence on a state-of-the-art military to carry out his foreign policies, he has broken with the usual “retire at 68” rule to retain CMC Vice-Chairman Zhang Youxia (张又侠) for one more five-year term. General Zhang, who was born in 1950, had long been expected to retire this year. However, given the intimate friendship between the fathers of Zhang and Xi, the former enjoys the total trust of the Commander in Chief. Two other newly promoted generals on the seven-member CMC, Vice-Chairman He Weidong (何卫东; born 1957) and ordinary CMC member General Miao Hua (苗华; born 1955) have experience serving in the Fujian Province-based 31st Field Army as well as the now-defunct Nanjing Military Region, which covered Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. A high possibility exists that Xi first became acquainted with the two generals while serving in various positions in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces from 1985 to 2007. General He is a former commander of the Eastern Theatre Command, which includes Taiwan in its jurisdiction. General Miao is a veteran political commissar who is Director of the CMC’s Department of Political Work (Businesstoday.com.tw, October 23; SCMP, October 23).

The other three new members of the CMC are General Zhang Shengmin (张胜民; born 1958), who oversees military discipline and anti-corruption work; former Commander of the Ground Forces General Liu Zhenli (刘振立; born 1964), who is a candidate for promotion to Chief of the Joint Staff Department; and General Li Shangfu (李尚福; born 1958), an accomplished aerospace engineer who is the incumbent Head of the Equipment Development of the CMC (Headline News.HK, October 24; Breakingdefense.com, October 17).

Conclusion

Despite the fact that many major congresses and conventions in socialist countries feature a plethora of grandiloquent speeches and pledges rather than solid pathways to concrete goals, the 20th Party Congress —including Xi’s and other leaders’ reports —focused almost entirely on theoretical concepts such as “Chinese-style modernization,” “the great renaissance of the Chinese nation,” and “daring to wage struggles.” Although the State Statistical Bureau just announced that GDP growth in the third quarter of 2022 was 3.9 percent, most independent researchers and think tanks, including the World Bank, forecast an annual growth rate for the Chinese economy of around 2.8 percent or lower (Scio.gov.cn, October 24; CNBC.com, August 18). Outgoing Premier Li Keqiang, who has taken charge of the economy in the past four months, has gone against the precepts of President Xi by calling for more foreign investment and a streamlined anti-pandemic regime (China Brief, July 18). Yet the sole “trump card” that Li and other technocrats on the State Council have recommended is boosting stimulus for infrastructure projects to jack up economic growth (Rthk.hk, August 30; English.gov.cn, July 29). However, government investment is an old tool that is liable to lead to overleverage, waste and diminishing returns on outlays. While Xi and his cronies are celebrating their stunning victory at this Congress, they have to convince the nation and the international community that the economy can be fixed, particularly given the harsh sanctions and boycotts recently imposed on the PRC by the U.S. and its allies.

One disturbing factor affecting personnel changes at the Congress is that a host of Western-educated and market-oriented officials have retired. One of retiring Premier Li Keqiang’s last remarks was that “the waters of the Yellow and Yangtze River won’t flow backwards.” This was seen as a rebuke of the Maoist restoration undertaken by Xi. Other officials with backgrounds in working with and in the West include outgoing Vice Premier Liu He (刘鹤) a Harvard-educated economist, who was once a close adviser to Xi; Governor of the People’s Bank of China Yi Gang (易纲), who is a former economics professor at a U.S. university; and top-ranked banking regulator Guo Shuqing (郭树清).

Based on the new Central Committee membership list, the Director of the National Development and Reform Commission, He Lifeng (何立峰) is a clear candidate to replace Liu He as the Vice Premier in charge of economics (Xinhuanet, October 22). He, however, gained Xi’s trust mainly because the two worked together in Fujian Province for many years. He Lifeng has very little reformist credentials. Xi’s overall preference for professional party apparatchiks over number-crunching technocrats has also led to a paucity of specialists in economic or financial matters on the Central Committee and the Politburo. Unless this situation is remedied, and Xi agrees to make more than token concessions on rigid ideological dogmas ranging from the zero-COVID regime to stringent party-state control over the economy, both Chinese and foreign observers will remain unconvinced that China can realize its dream of attaining superpower status by 2049.

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.

Editor’s Note: This article was revised on October 28, 2022 to include additional information from the full text of the revised CCP constitution.