China’s 20th National Party Congress: Debrief
The Future of China: Economic Liberalization or Ideological Rejuvenation?
In pursuit of maintaining power and achieving the China Dream, Xi must manage three levels of interconnected threats and navigate between two competing visions of China’s future.
China's newly-elected Premier Li Qiang (R) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Chairman Wang Huning at the Great Hall of the People, March 11, 2023. (Greg Baker/Pool via Reuters)
By: Michelle Wang
Date: March 24, 2023
Chinese President Xi Jinping has secured an unprecedented third term as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary and Chair of the Central Military Commission (CMC). For the past ten years, Xi has endeavored through extensive efforts to centralize decision-making authority, including undoing several informal but long-established Party norms.
Xi overturned the separation of Party and state convention by reintegrating Marxist-Leninist ideological frameworks into official decision making, including technical and managerial government agencies. In a speech at the Fourth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee, Xi claimed that scientific socialism and Marxism will guide China to realization of the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.
Xi’s ideological control permeates through all domains. Cadres are instructed to use “Xi Jinping’s Economic Thought” and “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” as a foundational theory to guide economics and foreign affairs policy. The increased significance and revival of ideology’s role in governance is expressed by the ideological tone of the 20th Party Congress report and the amendments to the constitution: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era is the Marxism of contemporary China and of the 21st century and embodies the best Chinese culture and ethos of the era.”
Xi has become the “core” of the Party, as declared by the 18th Central Committee, and has centralized power to an extent comparable to Mao Zedong. He currently chairs nine powerful Party commissions, including the Central Finance and Economic Affairs Commission, the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, and the Central Taiwan Affairs Leading Small Group. For comparison, Hu Jintao only chaired four commissions. Xi sometimes even bypasses government agencies, engaging in skip-echelon, with his own ad-hoc Party commissions. Xi’s authority has become increasingly synonymous with Party authority.
Xi has also widened the gap between himself and the Standing Committee of the Politburo by packing the body with loyalists. His marginalization and purging of any opposition has been another departure from the convention of factional compromise, which requires balancing policy interests within the Standing Committee. The sweeping anti-corruption campaign he launched in 2012 has also been a tool to neutralize opposition in high-level Party and military leadership.
The return of ideology as the foundation for policy and decision-making, the purposeful faction asymmetry within the Standing Committee, and the general restructuring of decision-making, military, and economic apparatuses have concentrated power at the highest levels, solidified a top-down government system, and consolidated Xi’s dominance over the Party and over China. However, there are still key challenges to his power.
Three Threats to Xi’s Power
Despite Xi’s successful centralization and personalization of political power, three interconnected levels of risks remain as pervasive threats to Xi Jinping’s regime. Somewhat paradoxically, the rigidity of the top-down system that Xi created through extensive institutional restructuring and his upending of Party norms might be the underlying force behind threats to Xi’s power.
First and perhaps the most evident source of political instability is the absence of a clear successor following the 20th Party Congress. Beginning with Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao enacted political reforms such as restricting China’s presidency to two five-year terms and setting term limits at ministerial levels. Xi has dramatically shifted away from promoting collective leadership and completely ignored the Seven Up, Eight Down convention by his third term appointment. Seven Up, Eight Down refers to the informal rule that members aged 68 or older are expected to retire, whereas members aged 67 or younger would remain in the committee and could still obtain promotions. Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, both 67, were unexpectedly omitted from the 20th Standing Committee at the same time Xi himself — age 69 — remained president.
Again deviating from historical norms, Xi has refused to promote any apparent successors and has even purged candidates for succession from the CCP, such as Sun Zhengcai. This absence of a clear successor will accumulate risk the longer Xi stays in power. Especially in a tumultuous and vulnerable time of post-COVID economic decline and inequality, heightened U.S.-China competition, and rising tensions with Taiwan, a lack of successor is a lack of predictability and assurance of the Party’s and China’s future. As a soon-to-be septuagenarian, China’s economic, political, and international problems will extend beyond Xi’s lifetime. Since China’s political structure and decision-making authority revolves around Xi, there is pervasive uncertainty about how Xi’s authority will be transferred or distributed when he inevitably retires or passes away. This uncertainty fuels political instability. Even during Xi’s regime, political supporters and opponents alike are likely experiencing infighting within their respective factions, scrambling to gain prominence over a post-Xi China.
Factional competition and conflict within the CCP will intensify not only as Xi nears the end of his lifetime, but also alongside dissatisfaction and resentment with Xi’s policies and Xi himself. Factional tensions and dynamics have long seemed to constitute Chinese politics, but the old order intended to reduce and control internal competition is gone. The increasing disillusionment with Xi from both elitist and populist factions of the CCP, exacerbated by Xi’s disastrous zero-COVID policy, have already been expressed through passive resistance such as stalling and inaction. During the Shanghai lockdown, members of the residents’ committee in Salin collectively resigned. As pressure mounts on top Party leadership, even the unity of Xi loyalists might fracture. In many authoritarian political systems, leaders are emboldened to pursue more reckless policies in order to combat growing dissent. Similarly, some predict an action-reaction cycle in which Xi reacts to growing opposition by implementing more extreme policies in an attempt to rejuvenate support and muffle dissent.
However, these measures would likely generate significant pushback. Xi is already pursuing ambitious plans, especially towards Taiwan reunification. The rigidity and echo-chamber-esque nature of Xi’s government will lead to a lack of policy flexibility and inability to correct policy mistakes. As we have seen in Putin’s Russia, this increases the likelihood of miscalculations and policy failures. Ultimately, factional competition in conjunction with informal resistance could destabilize Chinese politics, threaten Xi’s power, and undermine the peace and prosperity of China.
Disillusionment with Xi within the CCP is a reflection of growing civilian discontent and backlash against COVID-19 restrictions, economic hardships and inequality, lack of freedom, and other pervasive social, political, and economic issues plaguing Chinese civilians. Dissatisfaction with the CCP has manifested in the form of civilian protests despite media suppression and brutal police repression, most notably with the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. Protests against the CCP have been sparse since the Tiananmen Massacre until late 2022 when people across China protested the zero-COVID policy and demanded greater respect for human rights. These protests were triggered and epitomized by Peng Lifa through protest banners on a Beijing bridge voicing opposition against Xi. These unprecedented movements exemplify the most pervasive threat to Xi’s power: that no matter the degree of constraints on civil engagement and political activities, the possibility of mass unrest due to civilian discontent remains an unavoidable fact. Xi may be losing legitimacy and support amongst the Chinese people, and his restrictive, widely unpopular zero-COVID policies have fueled significant grievances. There is no legal or peaceful mechanism to voice these grievances or compel changes in governance and policies, so civilian discontent may have no choice but to fester and spill out into the streets.
Li Qiang and Wang Huning: Two Differing Perspectives
Despite mounting domestic and international pressures working against Xi, a vicious action-reaction cycle and the precipitation of disastrous policies are not inevitable. China is not on a predetermined path towards political uncertainty and instability. Members of the CCP, if afforded certain levels of maneuverability under Xi, could help direct both the Party and China towards a more moderate, resilient, and productive path politically, economically, and ideologically. The newly elected premier of China, Li Qiang, epitomizes this possibility. However, Wang Huning, one of only two standing committee members retained by Xi, represents an ideologically-charged counterforce resisting and combatting liberalization.
Li Qiang was newly elected premier of China during the National People’s Congress. As a close confidant of Xi, Li Qiang previously served under Xi in Zhejiang Province from 2012 to 2016. Li was also Party Secretary of Shanghai from 2017 to 2022. Known as a pro-business pragmatist and a strong supporter of private sector entrepreneurialism, Li promoted “market-oriented, rule-of-law-based” policies during 14th National People’s Congress Press Conference. During his service in Zhejiang, he contended that innovation was “the most scarce and valuable resource in the world today”. When commenting on Wenzhou’s development, he maintained that the government should be a good “attendant”, “navigator”, and “umpire” in economic affairs.
Li Qiang’s loyalty to Xi precedes his lack of experience; Li has never served as Vice Premier or worked outside of the Yangtze Delta region. Additionally, Li’s role in the chaotic and unpopular Shanghai COVID-19 lockdown regulations further weakened the image of his competency. Li originally favored a restrained and targeted lockdown system in response to COVID-19 in order to minimize economic disruptions, but was nevertheless steadfast in carrying out Xi’s zero-COVID orders. However, Li was instrumental in pushing for the loosening of zero-COVID regulation. He helped companies restart production after the financially devastating lockdowns, including the opening of the first wholly foreign-owned car company in China, Tesla Inc. Li also pushed for importing the more effective foreign vaccines but was denied by the central government.
Li, as a market liberal, could steer China’s economic policy towards a more liberalized and private market oriented approach, but ultimately the level of economic or political autonomy he has is dependent on Xi. The Premier role that Li Qiang inherited from Li Keqiang has been diminished in power and prestige; the distance between the General Secretary and the Premier has significantly widened. Li may be unable to resist Xi in terms of power and policy, as demonstrated by Xi’s overriding orders during zero-COVID. Conversely, due to the subordinate nature of Li, if Xi encounters economic problems it will be difficult for him to subvert blame and responsibility onto Li, as he did with Li Keqiang. Whether Li Qiang becomes a complacent consigliere to Xi or a moderating market-oriented force depends on the level of maneuverability he affords Li. How Xi utilizes and delegates Li will determine the extent to which Li can implement economic policies and governance decisions.
Wang Huning, unlike Li Qaing, is a leading opponent of Western liberalism. Known as the Grey Eminence, Wang serves as Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and was one of two members of the Politburo Standing Committee who retained their seats, excluding Xi Jinping. Unlike Li Qiang, Wang is not a long-standing Xi career loyalist. As “Chaplain of Three Dynasties”, Wang’s political career is marked by longevity and continued ascendancy by serving under and closely aligning himself with Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and now Xi Jinping. Wang is the architect of CCP foundational ideologies, the chief political strategist, and theoretician. Ideas such as “China Dream”, “Chinese-style modernization” and “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” as well as other governing philosophies such as Jiang’s “Three Represents” and Hu’s “Harmonious Society” are attributed to him. Wang Huning is an undeniable far-reaching authority in the ideology and politics of the CCP that transcends regime and complex Party dynamics.
In a 1988 essay “The Structure of China’s Changing Political Culture,” he concluded that China “must combine the flexibility of [China’s] traditional values with the modern spirit [both Western and Marxist]” in order to fill the missing holes of “core values” in China’s modernization. In his 1991 book “America against America,” he attributes America’s internal division and social issues to individualism and capitalism, underpinning the case for China’s resistance to global liberal influence. Wang’s Marxist and Confucian influenced “Neo-Authoritarian” ideology has manifested in actual policy, including Xi’s “Common Prosperity” campaign. The campaign was designed to combat nihilistic individualism and commodification by cracking down on monopolies and implementing bans on various social and cultural phenomena from LGBT groups to video games. Wang’s reputation across regimes and alignment with Xi secures his influence in the Chinese political sphere.
Wang plays an instrumental role in articulating and integrating ideology into the foundations of Chinese goals and policy-making. Wang’s ideology is inherently anti-liberalization and anti-globalization, representing a strong counterforce to the economically liberal Li Qiang. The dichotomy of Wang and Li is reminiscent of Mao and Deng in their opposing ideological and economic approaches to the pursuit of Chinese prosperity, stability, and preeminence. Although ideology has always driven the direction of Chinese policy, China’s economic prowess is ultimately the source of China’s power. Xi must navigate between these influences and decide from which playbook he will draw from to propel China forwards while performing a careful political balancing act of mitigating domestic threats. Whether Xi will be swayed by economic liberalization or ideological rejuvenation remains to be seen.