China Party Congress: A decade under Xi marked by strongman rule, a yen to become a global power

Published on Oct 14, 2022 06:25 PM IST

The 69-year-old is set to be reconfirmed as the party’s general-secretary by the end of the once-in-five-years meeting, cementing his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China

Visitors wearing face masks stand watch in front of a screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibition highlighting Xi and China's achievements under his leadership at the Beijing Exhibition Hall in the capital city where the 20th Party Congress will be held in Beijing. (AP)
Visitors wearing face masks stand watch in front of a screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibition highlighting Xi and China's achievements under his leadership at the Beijing Exhibition Hall in the capital city where the 20th Party Congress will be held in Beijing. (AP)

Beijing: China’s 20th Communist party Congress, which begins on Sunday, is expected to give President Xi Jinping -- whose real power comes mainly from his post as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) -- an unprecedented third term in control of the country.

If everything goes as planned, the 69-year-old will be reconfirmed as the party’s general-secretary by the end of the once-in-five-years meeting, cementing his position as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China.

Xi’s presidency itself is expected to be renewed in March 2023, during the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp Parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), which happens every year.

The last decade under Xi has seen remarkable changes not only in domestic and foreign policy, but also within the party itself. Under him, the party has emerged as paramount: it is now present in every nook and cranny of China’s society -- one of the most surveilled in the world -- and in the lives of its citizens.

“More than anything else, Xi’s two terms meant a reassertion of party control across political, economic, and social realms,” says Adam Ni, co-founder and publisher at China Neican, a Chinese current affairs website.

Nothing highlights this more that the party’s move to scrap term limits for the presidency and ease age restrictions, setting the stage for Xi to be reappointed for a third term.

DOMESTIC ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Under Xi’s leadership, China has strengthened state-owned enterprises and reigned in private enterprises, including China’s famed tech and online retail sectors as well as the education sector.

“The country has changed a great deal under his decade long rule. For one, there is much less apparent official corruption which is good. The military is much more under the command of the party and the command of Xi himself,” according to Victor Shih, Associate Professor, School of Global Policy and Strategy, UC San Diego, expert on Chinese elite politics.

But, among all his accomplishments from the past decade, poverty alleviation usually gets prime time in the official Chinese narrative. In February 2021, Xi announced that China had secured a “complete victory” in its fight against poverty.

“Over the past eight years, the final 98.99 million impoverished rural residents living under the current poverty line have all been lifted out of poverty,” official news agency Xinhua said in a report.

Ian Johnson, Senior fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the poverty alleviation programme was an “accomplishment” because it “helped millions of people, even if the effort is flawed and exaggerates the successes”.

One question that is under endless speculation is whether China will open up after the national congress: Will Xi put an end to the “zero-Covid” policy, frequently described as draconian and an anathema to the economy?

The government is said to have mishandled the first Covid outbreak in late 2019 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, but done well to control it since, keeping infections and deaths at remarkably low levels.

Three years later, however, while the rest of the world has moved on to living with the virus, China hasn’t. Xi himself has endorsed the “zero-Covid” policy despite its impact on the economy and people’s growing frustration. Even a handful of cases attract snap lockdowns, quarantines and mass testing, severely disrupting normal life.

His aim – Xi presided celebrations that marked 100 years of the CPC in July 2021 – is to maintain the party’s absolute monopoly over control internally and project China as the world’s top global power, an alternative to the Western world order, in the years ahead.

“Xi’s two terms have seen China continue its path towards fulfilling two major tasks - one is for the Communist Party to enjoy a continuous monopoly on political power in China, and the other is for the country to continue its path to being a powerful rich and strong one,” says Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Studies, King’s College London.

But many of his agendas, while lauded at home, have been criticised abroad.

“The replacement of collective leadership with the benefits of collective wisdom by strongman rule where one man’s mistake goes unchallenged and brings mostly negative results. Many positives for Xi but not so many for the Chinese or the world,” says Steve Tsang, director at the SOAS China Institute, SOAS University of London.

His rule has also coincided with increasing censorship, crackdown on dissidents, human rights and lawyers, as well as large-scale allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet.

In Hong Kong, Beijing imposed a national security legislation in 2020, severely criticised as draconian by rights groups and Western countries for systematically dismantling the city’s freedoms, an intrinsic feature of its “one country, two systems” mechanism.

China under Xi also came under international censure -- including by the UN -- for its treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang where more than a million from the Uighur community were sent to, what officials call, “re-education” camps to curb extremism.

“In the 10 years since Xi came to power in late 2012, the authorities have decimated Chinese civil society, imprisoned numerous government critics, severely restricted freedom of speech, and deployed mass surveillance technology to monitor and control citizens,” New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement this month.

“The last time we saw China with a leader of comparable ambition, unchecked personal power, and dictatorial tendencies was Mao (modern China’s founder, Mao Zedong) and we all knew the devastating human suffering during his reign. Just the Great Famine alone killed an estimated 45 million Chinese people. We already see, during China’s draconian Covid-19 lockdowns, how similar dynamics are plaguing the Xi government,” said HRW’s Maya Wang.

FOREIGN POLICY

Instead of former leader Deng Xiaoping’s “Hide your strength, bide your time” dictum in foreign policy, China under Xi is known for “wolf warrior” diplomacy – a strand of diplomacy marked by aggressive statements and posturing, especially against the US-led western bloc and Japan.

Domestically there’s been a rise in nationalism with Japan and, to a certain extent, South Korea bearing the brunt of it in Xi’s first term in the temporary boycotting of their goods and businesses.Taiwan is at the centre of it now.

In his July 2021 speech to mark CPC’s 100 years, Xi pledged to complete the “reunification” of the mainland with self-governed Taiwan and vowed to “smash” any attempts at formal independence. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit in August triggered PLA to launch its biggest military drill around the island, though it was evident that Chinese armed forces were carrying out a drill planned in advance.

It’s impossible to predict if – or when – China will launch a military invasion on Taiwan, but there is no doubt that the PLA aircraft and ships will be seen more frequently in and over the Taiwan Strait.

Against this backdrop of human rights issues and Washington’s growing ties with democratic Taiwan, China’s fraught relationship with the US has further deteriorated. During a late July phone call with US President Joe Biden, Xi warned him against playing with fire over Taiwan

“Those who play with fire will perish by it,” China’s foreign ministry quoted Xi as telling Biden in their fifth call as leaders. “It is hoped that the US will be clear-eyed about this.”

Another sticking point between the two has been China’s growing ties with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“Friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation,” the two countries said in a joint statement when Putin visited Beijing for the Winter Olympics opening in February.

Since then, China has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, declined to call it an invasion, and provided diplomatic cover for Russia by strongly criticising Western sanctions and arms sales to Kyiv. In return, Putin has been critical of Western “provocation” in the Taiwan Strait.

Russia is likely the only common, if tenuous, foreign policy thread that currently binds India and China: New Delhi and Beijing have remained broadly on Moscow’s side by calling for negotiations to end the war in Ukraine, showing concern over the situation in Ukraine, and buying cheap Russian oil when possible.

The rest of Sino-India ties are buried in a deep chill since border troops from both countries bludgeoned each other to death in June 2020, in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, along the unmarked and disputed border. Xi and Modi did not have a bilateral meeting at the SCO summit despite standing next to each other for the official photo-op. That’s a long bitter way from the two informal summits Modi and Xi had in 2018 and 2019. There are no direct flights between the two countries, and exchanges are at a minimum.

Given Xi’s legacy since 2012, the next five years is not looking optimistic to Wu Guoguang, Senior Research Scholar, Stanford Centre on China’s Economy and Institutions, Stanford University.

“Xi transformed the CPC oligarchic dictatorship (meaning: the dictatorship by a tiny group of persons) to his personal tyranny of dictatorship,” Wu, a former CPC insider, said.

“For the world, the positive thing is that Xi reveals the true face of the CCP regime, which is the combination of political repression, economic predation, and ‘adventurist’ ambition in dominating the entire world. If Xi’s two terms have not been sufficient to ‘educate the world’, here comes his third one.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Sutirtho Patranobis has been in Beijing since 2012, as Hindustan Times’ China correspondent. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath. Patranobis covered several beats including health and national politics in Delhi before being posted abroad.

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