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.


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