Making Xi Jinping now even more powerful, the Chinese Communist Party Congress re-elected him last week to a third term as its general secretary. That makes Xi the first leader to serve three terms since Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The Party Congress also assures Xi’s re-election as China’s president next year to an unprecedented third, five-year term. His allies have been given all the spots in the party’s Standing Committee, the highest-ranking party organ, and nearly all analysis of the congress concludes that Xi has dramatically concentrated and centralized power in himself and the CCP leadership. But China is an enormous country, of some 1.4 billion people, with the world’s second-largest economy and thousands of companies trading around the world—along with a rapidly growing military that’s continually increasing its operations throughout the Asia-Pacific. So what will Xi’s consolidating power in Beijing mean?
Scott Kennedy is a senior adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and the author or editor of several books on China. In Kennedy’s view, Xi’s increasing dominance will lead to critical changes and a measure of resistance. More power will shift to the party, at expense of all the country’s other institutions—even the government. For the outside world, Xi’s entrenched control will mean even more of his more aggressive and confrontational approach in the Asia-Pacific region and to Western countries—an approach that breaks with the policies of his predecessors. But it remains an open question, Kennedy says, how well Xi’s concentration of power will succeed. Institutions in the enormous state bureaucracy—and outside of the government—have accumulated their own power over decades now, and they will continue to pursue their own goals. And it’s not clear that the party has the capability to manage or perform all the tasks and functions other institutions have been carrying out. The most pressing questions, to Kennedy, are when and how—and how well—the party will be able to move the country’s sprawling public-health system out of its zero-Covid policy, which has shut down even China’s largest cities over a few coronavirus cases and caused massive economic losses.
Michael Bluhm: What do you expect to be the biggest changes coming out of the Party Congress?
Scott Kennedy: Xi Jinping solidified his hold on power for a very long time. And he signaled that the policy trajectory that he has moved China along since he took power is going to continue—even if that rubs certain groups in China, the U.S., and the West the wrong way. He’s set on a path to maintain the Communist Party’s hold on power—which is job number one—and to continue moving toward what he sees as China’s inevitable economic success and the recovery of its international influence.
Xi knows that a lot of people disagree with what he’s doing—and he’s decided that they’re all wrong. The speech he gave at the beginning of the party congress included not a single change in substance or tone. The new leadership lineup announced on Sunday is full of his political allies. There is no balancing faction or ideology in the Politburo or the Standing Committee—the party’s most powerful organs.
We should expect China to try to move in the direction Xi says he wants to move in, whatever the consequences for the rest of the world. But there’s often a gap between what leaders want and what actually occurs. And that doesn’t mean that the U.S. and the rest of the world are powerless and just need to sit and watch or prepare for war or decoupling the United States from China. A lot of commercial and political diplomacy can still be done.
Bluhm: How important do these changes at the Party Congress seem to you?
Kennedy: The most interesting change in this Party Congress is that it’s the third one where Xi Jinping was elected general secretary of the party. That breaks a precedent since Mao Zedong in the 1970s; no other leader had served more than two terms. In many ways, Xi Jinping has broken the norms that were established since then.
Now there’s no term limit for the top leader. The previous expectation was that members of the Politburo who were 68 and older would retire; that’s been thrown out the window. The idea that the incoming premier would have previously been a vice-premier in charge of some national policy area is likely going to be overturned; the most likely new premier, Li Qiang, has only held positions in the provinces. He’s currently Shanghai party secretary, but he’s never been a vice-premier. The political applecart has been overturned in many ways, to try to achieve this larger continuity in Xi’s hold on power and the direction he wants to take the country in.
Chinese politics is now much more top-down and centralized in one man’s hands than in half a century. If you think Xi is taking the country in the right direction, then you’d be happy with the outcome of this Party Congress. But if you think no one person should have so much power in a complex world—because concentrating power so heavily in a single office and person makes it less likely that people in that system will raise concerns and doubts or challenge policies—then you’re going to be worried; you’re going to expect a variety of mistakes—and difficulties changing course when those mistakes are realized.
If you think no one person should have so much power in a complex world—because concentrating power so heavily in a single office and person makes it less likely that people in that system will raise concerns and doubts or challenge policies—then you’re going to be worried.
I tend to be more in the latter camp, though Xi is extremely popular in many circles in China. I’m more concerned than I was before the Party Congress about the trajectory that China is on—and what that trajectory is going to mean for the world as a whole.
Bluhm: Let’s talk about Xi’s goals and priorities coming out of the Congress. What could these changes mean domestically?
Kennedy: There are three areas I’d focus on. The first is governance. Under Xi Jinping, there’s been a shift away from the approach China took in its first 30 years of reform and opening, which was to strengthen institutions of government as well as to enable the rise of non-government sources of authority and accountability. That means civil-society institutions, nongovernmental organizations, lawyers, journalists, credit-rating companies—institutions that are supposed to check unrestrained government power and to provide public goods.
Xi is turning away from that and saying, All authority begins and ends in the Communist Party. He’s reduced the independent power of government institutions and non-state sources of authority and public goods. Does the party have the ability to provide that type of complex governance, in a country of China’s size, with all kinds of industries, connected to the rest of the world? Xi’s bet is that it can. One of the biggest bets they’re making is that the party can do it all alone, with almost no support from these alternative institutions.
The second area presents the biggest question for the next couple of years: Can Beijing find a pathway out of the pandemic? The current strategy, which is summed up in the term zero-Covid, is about eliminating transmission of the virus—and everything else be damned. You can die of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and so on in China; but you can’t die of Covid.
Most of the world has already moved on to a different strategy: ameliorating the negative health effects of contracting the virus through vaccinations and therapeutics. China is going to need to make this transition. Can the party engineer that? They’ve taken a lot of credit for keeping the number of fatalities from Covid very low. But they’ve also incurred lots of other costs, economic and otherwise.
We don’t know when they’re going to make this transition or how effective they’ll be at it. To me, that overlays every other policy issue—economic policy, climate, relations with the United States, Taiwan. Everything is secondary to what they’re going to do about zero-Covid.
The third area is the Chinese economy. It will be interesting to see the extent to which technocrats will still have some say in economic policy. Will they be able to maintain a system that collects, reports, and shares economic data? Will they be able to argue for policy choices based on the economic consequences of their choices on growth, productivity, and employment, or will they have to take a back seat to a much more politicized system in which these standard kinds of goals aren’t as valued?
In March, the government will pick its new leadership lineup. There’s a group of mid-tier technocrats in the Central Bank, the financial bureaucracy, economic planning, and provincial governments—and if these positions are filled by Xi Jinping’s allies who don’t have the necessary training and experience, then that’d really worry me.
What’s the party’s role going to be? Are they going to come up with a strategy to get to a post-pandemic era? And who is going to be managing the economy? Those are the three big questions I’d be looking at domestically.
You can die of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and so on in China; but you can’t die of Covid.
Bluhm: What do you see Xi’s increased power meaning for China’s foreign policy, particularly in the Asia-Pacific?
Kennedy: China is wealthier, more powerful, safer, and healthier than it’s ever been. Yet the leadership in Beijing feels that the country is under siege—domestically and internationally. They feel that the lack of unification with Taiwan is of pre-eminent importance. They feel that the glass is half-empty.
That sense of victimization and unaccomplished goals puts them in a difficult relationship with their neighbors. They’ve set up the Asia-Pacific region as a contest between themselves and the Western powers, instead of looking to share the benefits of their success and help the region grow. Countries there are being forced to choose between China and the West, and their commercial and security interests don’t always converge. For many Asia-Pacific countries, China is their number-one trade and investment partner, but the U.S. is the guarantor of their security. Nobody wants the U.S. to leave the region militarily, apart from China and North Korea—and you could add Russia to that group.
These countries feel that the U.S.-China conflict has made things very uncomfortable for them, and they’re not sure how to navigate it. Some have done a very good job—Japan in particular. Taiwan has done a relatively good job. But others are really struggling, and China is missing a huge opportunity to provide the type of reassurance that the region and the rest of the world would benefit from—to let its neighbors know that a much more powerful China isn’t a threat.
They’re not doing this. They haven’t resolved any of the disputes in the South China Sea. They have significant disagreements with India. Mongolia feels stuck between China and Russia, potentially only a target of exploitation for natural resources. The Japanese and South Koreans are deeply worried about China’s direction. Taiwan is the world’s biggest potential hotspot.
China has a lot to do to reassure the rest of the region that its rise can be aligned with the prosperity of democratic, market-economy countries in its neighborhood. It’s worrying that Beijing can’t see the glass is half-full.
Bluhm: What could the new power dynamic mean for relations with the United States?
Kennedy: Having just spent seven weeks in China, I was struck by the deep parallels between the conversations in Beijing and Washington. The two countries disagree on almost everything. What do we want the international system to look like? What are the basic rules of the game about trade, security, and human rights? What do we think the role of the state should be in the economy? What about Taiwan? Or Ukraine?
The U.S. and China disagree on every single one of those things—and on the role of states in protecting human rights, forced labor of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and so on.
At the same time, Beijing and Washington are echo chambers. Both sides feel estranged from the other. They’ve almost thrown in the towel on the relationship and given up hope of finding common ground. The Chinese assume the U.S. is out to bring them down; the U.S. assumes that the Chinese want to totally change the international order and push the U.S. out of Asia. Washington blames China 100 percent for the problems in the relationship, and Beijing blames Washington 100 percent. Both sides defend their actions by saying, I have no choice but to do X, because they’ve done Y.
China is wealthier, more powerful, safer, and healthier than it’s ever been. Yet the leadership in Beijing feels that the country is under siege—domestically and internationally.
Both sides see the other as having no political space to move. U.S. leaders think Xi Jinping is a crazy lefty bent on world domination. Chinese leaders think Joe Biden is so weakened by opposition from Republicans and progressives in his own party that he couldn’t possibly make any compromise with China. Both sides see the other as unable to enforce a deal.
That leads to a sense of fatalism in both places, which is dangerous. The world needs to be prepared for things getting worse rather than stabilizing or getting better. I’m deeply concerned about the trajectory we’re on, particularly because people don’t think there’s any way to change it.
Bluhm: Media coverage of the Party Congress almost unanimously concluded that the main outcome was an unprecedented and extreme concentration of power in Xi’s hands. Yet China is a country of 1.4 billion, and not everyone is happy with the system. This summer, people were in the streets protesting the closure of regional banks and refusing to pay mortgages for apartments that weren’t built. The government has cracked down on major tech firms in the past two years, partly because political leaders worried that giant tech firms were becoming a competing power center. How strong is Xi Jinping’s position in China, even with the greater authority given to him at the Congress?
Kennedy: It’s a great question. Obviously, Xi is much more powerful than his predecessors; the party is much more powerful than the government has been; and that means a lot for the direction that China’s likely to go in. You can’t underestimate Xi Jinping’s ability to make decisions and have them carried out. We’re in a new day in China as a result of this concentration of power.
On the other hand, China is a very big place. It has millions of bureaucrats at the national and local levels. And the further from Beijing you get, the more local circumstances matter. There’s a famous phrase in Chinese: The sky is high and the emperor far away. Now, the sky may not be quite as high and the emperor not quite as far away as before; but China is still a damn big place, and a lot happens beyond Xi’s gaze—and the gaze of cameras connected to his leadership. As important as Xi is, the national and local bureaucracies aren’t going to be irrelevant. There will continue to be bureaucratic politics and pushback.
Meanwhile, even though civil-society institutions and NGOs are weakened, they’re also trying to find ways to survive in this new era—and ways to have an effect on how the party and the system operate. They don’t get a lot of attention, but the folks who run nonprofit institutions in China know how the system works and how to work within it.
Overall, 40 years of opening and reform have had a fundamental, transformative effect on the Chinese population. It’s a population that’s been exposed to the world in a way you can’t undo with a single Party Congress—or even years of Xi Jinping’s leadership.
There are ways to get around China’s control of the internet. You have a reasonably informed, educated population that’s not just going to accept everything they’re fed. That doesn’t mean they’re going to try to overturn the party. They’re going to try to figure out how to continue to press their interests within the system or exit—meaning, exit physically by moving or exit psychologically by turning off politics and focusing on other interests.
Late in Mao’s rule, he said in an interview that even after ruling since 1949, he was able to change only a little bit in Beijing, while the rest of the country was still unchanged. He was projecting humility and minimizing the consequences of his rule; but in the same way, we shouldn’t overstate how transformative Xi Jinping is going to be. These are consequential changes we’re seeing. Still, there are 1.4 billion other people in China whose voices matter, regardless of what we may see in the headlines.