The Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress
Updated: Jan 12
Looking back at one of the most significant political events of 2022, third-year International Relations and History student Amy Lin reflects on the Chinese Communist Party´s 20th National Congress and its implications for China´s future. For this Briefing we thank Professor William Callahan of LSE´s IR Department, who kindly provided input on the topic. This briefing was edited by Rahini Takalkar (Co-Editor), it was written prior to the lifting of China´s Zero-Covid policy.
From 16 to 22 October 2022, China’s ruling political party, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), held their 20th Party Congress with over 2,000 party delegates in Beijing. Traditionally, the CCP convenes a party congress every five years to unveil the new batch of top-level leadership and any amendments to the Party’s Constitution. The event is arguably the ‘most important date in China’s political calendar’. It sets the tone and direction for the world’s second largest economy in the next five years amidst, according to President Xi Jinping’s assessment, ‘profound changes unseen in a century’.
Against the backdrop of China’s rising political and economic influence globally, this year’s Congress was widely anticipated by international onlookers. Political watchers almost unanimously predicted Xi’s assumption of a third term as CCP General Secretary and President, following China’s scrapping of the presidential term limit in 2018. Speculations also abounded about expulsions and additions to the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the highest-level, most powerful central leadership of the CCP. Beyond the routine speeches and leadership transitions, a completely unexpected incident also occurred at the 2022 Congress — former President Hu Jintao was physically removed from his seat on the last day, giving rise to wild speculation online.
The Party Congress commenced on 16th October with an opening speech by President Xi Jinping, lasting nearly two hours. Xi recounted China’s progress in the past five years, assessed China’s social, political and economic situation at present and spoke of what the nation could expect in the future. His speech took on a markedly confident and optimistic character, as he spoke of China’s achievements and rising strength. At the same time, he also issued grave warnings about the growing number of threats that China is facing, particularly in its international foreign policy environment.
‘The Supremacy of Life’: China’s Zero Covid Quest
Since the start of the pandemic, China has been pursuing a ‘Zero Covid’ policy, resulting in tight national borders, compulsory mass testing, mandatory quarantines and snap lockdowns in an ‘all-out people’s war to stop the spread of the virus’. In his speech, Xi extolled the successes of the ‘dynamic zero-Covid policy’, stressing that it has enabled China to ‘protec[t] the people’s health and safety to the greatest extent possible and ma[ke] tremendously encouraging achievements in both epidemic response and economic and social development’. Consequently, he announced that China would continue on this path — likely to the frustration and disappointment of many international onlookers and business interests keen to see the country open up.
Even within China, some may be unhappy with this announcement. Just three days before the Congress, two protest banner denouncing the President and his strict Covid-19 policies were spotted on an overpass in Beijing — a rare sight of overt political expression in the country. Though the banners were removed on the same day, several posts emerged on Chinese social media site Weibo in support of the protest, hinting at brewing domestic discontent with the government’s pandemic policies.
‘Common Prosperity’: China’s Economic Challenges
In the past decade, China has enjoyed very high levels of growth, which Xi praised as a ‘historic rise’ in China’s economic strength and noted that China ‘has remained the world’s second largest economy’. However, today, China’s domestic economy faces serious challenges. Since the closure of its borders in 2020, China’s economic growth, which had already been on the wane prior to the pandemic, has arguably been poor. In 2020, China saw a GDP growth rate of less than 2% — the lowest since the 1970s. Among the populace, there are also growing concerns that the country would fall into the ‘middle-income trap’ whereby growth and wages stagnate at the present level.
Consequently, in his speech, Xi proclaimed the achievement of ‘common prosperity for all’ as one of the Party’s key missions in the New Era. Amidst China’s economic slowdown in the past year, Xi and the Chinese leadership has consistently been emphasising the political slogan ‘common prosperity’, which refers to more equal economic growth in China. The goal, he states, is to ‘increase the incomes of low-income earners, and expand the size of the middle-income group’. In line with this, the government has been firmly cracking down on the real estate, technology and after-school tutoring sectors since 2021, imposing stricter rules on or even completely banning private practices. It has initiated a drive away from private companies and the free markets and towards more state-owned enterprises in a bid to reduce income inequality. Xi’s opening speech confirms that this will continue in full swing in the next few years. This has caused concern amongst economic watchers. As University of Oxford economist Linda Yueh points out, ‘China[‘s economy] traditionally has never actually been top-down’. The new economic centralisation at the national level is ‘worrying’, as it removes the ability to ‘experiment’ and ‘correct [mistakes]’ at the provincial level — as China has previously done.
‘Black Swans and Grey Rhinos’: China’s Dangerous External Environment
Firstly, Xi stressed the urgency of achieving ‘national reunification’ with regards to Taiwan, a neuralgic issue for the Party since the founding of the PRC. The CCP considers Taiwan, where its civil war rivals, the Kuomintang, retreated to in 1949, an indispensable part of China and Xi is determined to realise ‘peaceful reunification’ with the island. In Xi’s words, ‘resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is, for the Party, a historic mission and an unshakable commitment’. He criticised the ‘few separatists seeking “Taiwan independence”’, arguing that ‘blood runs thicker than water’. This comes right on the heel of U.S. Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi’s widely reported visit to Taiwan in August 2022 and comment that the U.S. will not ‘allow China to isolate Taiwan’. Xi’s unbending determination on Taiwan against American warnings appeared to be widely supported by his audience — the biggest applause of the session erupted when Xi triumphantly declared: ‘The wheels of history are rolling on toward China's reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Complete reunification of our country must be realised, and it can, without doubt, be realised’. As for Hong Kong and Macao, China’s two Special Administrative Regions (SARs), Xi reaffirmed the CCP’s commitment to ‘fully, faithfully, and resolutely implement’ the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ approach.
With regard to China’s wider international environment, Xi issued the gravest warnings. While noting that ‘China’s international influence, appeal, and power to shape have risen markedly’, Xi solemnly warned of serious ‘external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China’. Although no specific actors are named, it is likely that Xi is speaking of the West. His gloomy assessment reflects China’s growing concerns over Western pressure, amidst a backdrop of worsening US-China relations in the last five years. Xi also cautioned of ‘black swans’ (unanticipated events with high impact) and ‘grey rhinos’ (obvious threats with high impact that tend to be ignored) that may confront China anytime. Xi’s deep suspicion of the external is not new. It has manifested in China’s ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ in the last few years, which sees Chinese diplomats behaving more stridently and aggressively to assert their interests abroad.
The Congress also saw a leadership transition for the CCP. In line with the predictions of many, Xi assumed an unprecedented third term in office, breaking the norm of retiring after two terms. He also unveiled his new leadership team, which was notably filled entirely with loyalists who are likely to be ‘staunch supporters of his agenda of centralised control’. At the same time, none of the new Politburo included figures with strong reformist or market-oriented inclinations, whose retirements were announced at the event. Interestingly, the more ‘liberal reformist’ Premier Li Keqiang was not included in the new Politburo Standing Committee, a highly significant development as he is currently the ‘No. 2’ man in the Party behind Xi. Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Wang Yang, Li’s ally whom many had expected to take over his position as Premier, was also dropped. Instead, Li Qiang, Shanghai Party Secretary and Xi’s loyal supporter, was Xi’s chosen successor — much to the surprise of many. Political watchers had cast doubts on Li’s candidacy, given his poor handling of the pandemic situation in Shanghai which incited a furore on social media in early 2022. Li will also be the first premier since 1976 to not have previously assumed vice-premiership, perhaps implying how unwavering loyalty to Xi can trump established Party convention. All these leadership reshuffles reflect Xi’s strong determination to consolidate his power to firmly steer the nation towards ‘national rejuvenation’ in the upcoming years.
Arguably, the incident that caused the biggest uproar was Hu Jintao, former President of China and Xi’s predecessor, being unexpectedly escorted out of his seat by officials just before the closing session. A clip of the visibly confused elderly man leaving his seat circulated rapidly online, garnering over 12.5 million views to date on Twitter. On official news broadcasts in China, the scene was edited out. Amidst speculation, Xinhua, the government’s official news agency, clarified that Hu ‘was not feeling well during the session’ and was escorted out ‘for his health’.
Experts have differed on whether Hu’s dramatic scene was pre-planned by the Party or not. On one hand, some have claimed that his removal was tantamount to a political purging, or at least a public humiliation. On the other hand, others believe it was impromptu. Lucy Hornby, visiting fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, deduces that ‘the body language of Li Zhanshu speaking to Hu Jintao was the body language of a person who’s trying to placate an elderly person who may be a bit confused’. Nonetheless, Hornby believes that the message is clear: ‘[N]ot only has this old guy shuffled off the stage, but so have his followers’. Indeed, not a single one of Hu’s tuanpai protégés — leaders whose careers had advanced through the Communist Youth League — are among the new leadership.
Overall, the CCP’s 20th Party Congress was characterised by triumphalism overlaid with stark warnings of turbulence ahead. Policy direction was largely consistent with the last ten years under Xi with no major deviations. International onlookers can expect China to continue assuming or even doubling down on its aggressive posture externally in continuation of its ‘wolf warrior’ tactics; indeed, Xi notes and praises China’s ‘fighting spirit’ several times in his opening speech. In fact, on the opening day of the Congress, one of the protestors for Hong Kong independence outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester, UK was beaten up by several consulate staff. Senior Chinese diplomat Zheng Xiyuan, who was seen pulling the man’s hair, defended his actions as his ‘duty’ as a diplomat, augmenting the rising trend of ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’.
On the new leadership, Xi’s further centralisation of power is notable but not surprising. Given his emphasis on serious external threats, it can be interpreted as Xi preparing for the nation ‘to batten down the hatches and trust in his leadership’ as he steers it through ‘high winds, choppy waters, and dangerous storms’. However, despite the tough rhetoric, Professor William Callahan at the LSE notes that China is unlikely to invade Taiwan anytime soon. To do so would be ‘a huge gamble’ on Xi’s part, as it does not have sufficient military capability at present to be assured of a victory. Instead, Professor Callahan perceives Xi’s repeated emphases on the dangers of the external environment as a reflection of Xi and the administration’s ‘insecurity’. It is perhaps an inner insecurity, despite an outward position of strength, that compels Xi to emphasise threats and further centralise his power in the 20th National Congress, in line with the reading of China as a ‘pessoptimist nation’.