China's New/Old Masters
Final updated of coverage of the Communist Party Congress. UPDATED 10/23/23
Xi Jinping is the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, China’s most prominent political leader since 2012.
Guess who stayed up late to deliver the latest on the party congress? China watcher Michael Cunningham.
What’s the latest? The new Politburo Standing Committee was just announced, and they are all Xi allies (literally every single one of them, with the only possible exception being Wang Huning, who isn’t a protégé of Xi, but has been a key aid to Xi and his two most recent predecessors—he’s an ally of whoever is in power, and that is currently Xi).
Xi has managed to consolidate his power and force his priorities with little opposition over the last 10 years without having a majority in this body, so one can imagine what he will be able to “accomplish” with essentially no checks remaining on his power.
Xi also seriously broke precedent—the next premier is not a current vice premier. But I expect he will be appointed vice premier in the coming days, as he will not take the premier job from Li Keqiang until the legislative session next spring (probably in March), when the state (as opposed to Party) positions change hands.
Besides Xi, only Zhao Leji and Wang Huning are carryovers from the last Standing Committee. This is also a breach of precedent that shows Xi’s power. Standing Committee members usually stay until the Party Congress after they turn 68. The two Hu Jintao proteges who are being retired (Li Keqiang and Wang Yang) are both 67 and should have stayed in the Standing Committee.
None of the new Standing Committee members is young enough to be considered a possible successor to Xi. This is as expected; he does not plan to step down in 2017, and he doesn’t want any alternative circle of power to develop, even if it is around one of his key allies.
So who has power? Here is the list of the new Standing Committee members, in order of seniority:
Xi Jinping (General Secretary)
Li Qiang (most likely premier, though he could be National People’s Congress chairman)—one of Xi’s closest allies, also current Party Secretary of Shanghai, who (based on precedent) should have been thoroughly disgraced due to the Shanghai COVID fiasco this year. The fact that he got into the #2 spot speaks to Xi’s incredible power.
Zhao Leji (probably NPC chairman, though he could be premier)—Xi ally
Wang Huning—not a Xi protégé, but the key theorist behind his philosophies and those of his two successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. He embraces whoever happens to be in power, so is a Xi ally for all intents and purposes.
Cai Qi—Xi protege
Ding Xuexiang—Xi’s right-hand man, has been Xi’s aid since I believe 2007, has no provincial leadership experience
Li Xi (Director of Central Commission for Discipline Inspection)—widely considered a Xi ally, though his ties are not as clear as most of the others)
Xi’s consolidation of power was expected, just not quite to this extent. So, despite tonight’s shock and awe[ful], my assessment of the takeaways from this Party Congress doesn’t change. We can expect the trajectory of the past 10 years to remain the same. That means ideology over pragmatism, increasing Party involvement in all aspects of society, a focus on indigenous technological innovation and decreasing reliance on the US, wolf warrior diplomacy and challenging the U.S. for international leadership, seeking to court developing countries and weaken international norms, etc.
What’s next? I don’t expect Xi’s further consolidation of authority to cause any drastic changes in policy, as he was already getting his way in just about everything. Also, in the immediate term, dealing with economic challenges will probably be one of the most important tasks. They put a lot of that off in the leadup to the Party Congress, but now with the most politically sensitive period behind them, they will likely be willing to make bolder moves. Whatever they do, we should not misunderstand them as policy shifts, but rather as tactics to get growth going again so the economy will be in good enough shape to continue carrying out difficult illiberal “reforms”.
With that said, Xi will be more confident and bold than he has been in the past, so definitely expect more turbulence ahead and expect the U.S.-China
You can read our original post below—and see we called this one pretty well. Here is an update with expert China watcher Michael Cunningham.
What’s the latest? The list of members of the new Central Committee was announced last night during the last day of the party congress. They'll meet tonight to "select" (read: formalize the preselected) Politburo and standing committee.
Premier Li Keqiang and Wang Yang (another current Standing Committee member many-not including me-had expected to be the next premier) were left off the list. Given the fact that there is only one remaining ally of former CCP leader Hu Jintao who is eligible for promotion to the standing committee, Xi will almost certainly place protégés in a commanding majority of standing committee seats (this is a more complete consolidation of power than I expected).
Meanwhile, videos show Hu Jintao was apparently forced to leave the last session of the party congress halfway through. I have no idea what happened there, it didn't make sense.
What else are you picking up? Here are a couple other takeaways/predictions based on the central committee list:
Foreign Minister Wang Yi is on the list, which makes me even more certain that he's talking Yang Jiechi's role as top diplomat (despite having hit the retirement age) and will be probably appointed to the Politburo. I've been saying this would likely happen for the last month or so. Though I never thought this was in question, it shows the abrasive wolf warrior diplomacy style will remain.
Hu Chunhua (a factional rival of Xi ally of Hu Jintao) still looks like the most likely premier, as I've been saying all year. People way over-use the term "unprecedented" (e.g. Xi's third term is not at all unprecedented), but if the premier is not Hu Chunhua, it will truly be unprecedented. The other vice premiers aren't on the list, and it has always been a current vice premier who takes over as premier, for good reasons (even in the Xi era, premier is a very important job). Assuming it's him, he won't be much of a check on Xi, and having a rival as premier (technically responsible for the economy) during a period of significant economic risk can play to Xi's advantage--he has a scapegoat to take the blame.
Original Post-Welcome to the Party!
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is preparing to hold the annual Party Congress. Party Congresses occur every 5 years in China and are the most important events in China's political calendar. Party Congresses are the setting in which the Chinese Communist Party unveils news leadership, outlines its key policy priorities for the next five years, and makes amendments to the CCP's Party constitution (different from the People Republic of China’s national constitution).
Thanks for reading War and More ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
We asked an ace China watcher, Michael Cunningham, to make book on the outcome.
What is going to happen? Xi Jinping is almost certain to be appointed to a precedent-breaking third term at the Party's head and to further consolidate his power. The messaging in official propaganda, as well as recent personnel appointments and political purges in China have all been beneficial to Xi and show the Party is firmly behind him as its leader. The Party Congress isn't likely to result in any major shifts in China's domestic or foreign policy. A party firmly under Xi's control is unlikely to change course from his preferences, which he has been pursuing for the past several years. So if he fares as well as we expect, he will have a strong mandate (from the CCP leadership) to pursue his policy agenda.
What will be the significance of the congress? Xi isn't the only person who matters in China. Watch to see who else is appointed to other key positions (especially the premier, the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee), as they will have an impact both on policy and on how powerful Xi is (his ability to push forward his policy preferences grows when his political proteges occupy these positions).
How will this affect China’s policies? Xi is likely to dominate the Politburo. Xi will continue to position the Party at the center of everything in China and himself as the key decisionmaker in the Party. He will continue to crack down on civil society. He will also continue to de-emphasize economic growth in favor of evening out development.
What’s Next? Expect China to continue to be aggressive and its diplomatic style to remain just as abrasive as it has been. This will continue to cause strains in the US-China relationship, as well as in relation to Taiwan, but we have to stand our ground and make sure the balance of power is always in our favor. China will increasingly resemble an echo chamber where political expediency and fear of disappointing Xi drive a lot of the policymaking, resulting in a lot of poor decisions. There will also be longer-term questions about political stability. Xi is only going to get older as the years pass--what happens if he eventually dies while in office with no one in line to take his place? Still, don’t expect a different China in the near-term.
Here is the bottom line for you before the party even gets started. If the West wants China to be less of a threat, the free world is going to have to do things to protect its interests and diminish China’s power and global influence.
Thanks for reading War and More ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.