China’s 20th Party Congress has come and gone. Despite all the fanfare and media hype, it was a hollow event. It revealed little we didn’t already know about China – an autocracy that maintains grandiose ambitions and ideological bluster to match but is woefully unprepared for an uncertain future filled with risks largely of its own making. That much is evident when the results of the Congress are examined from three perspectives: leadership, strategy, and conflict.
The leadership reveal of the so-called First Plenum – the formal meeting of the Party’s newly “elected” 205-member Central Committee that immediately follows the conclusion of the National Congress – was completely in line with the power consolidation that has been underway since Xi Jinping was first appointed general secretary ten years ago. Confirmation of Xi’s third five-year term as leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was never in doubt, nor was his selection of loyalists to surround him at the top in the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo.
There will undoubtedly be some jockeying for positions such as premier and the chairs of the two legislative bodies – the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress. But the outcomes matter little. In Xi’s China, these positions, once central to the model of consensus leadership that Deng Xiaoping wisely put in place following the death of Mao Zedong, have been marginalized.
Curiously, Xi seems to have a preference for premiers with the surname of Li. Li Qiang, currently the Shanghai party chief and the very public face of China’s draconian zero-COVID lockdowns, is the strong favorite to replace the retiring incumbent, Li Keqiang.
Wang Huning is worth mentioning as the only other noteworthy leadership appointment. Apart from Xi, he is one of two holdovers from the previous Standing Committee and appears to be in line for one of the ceremonial legislative chairs.
Xi’s ideological alter ego: Wang Huning
But Wang’s role is far more important than that. He is not only Xi’s ideological alter ego, responsible for crafting Xi’s signature “Chinese Dream” as well as “Xi Jinping Thought”; he also has been a prominent proponent of the view that America is in decline. Wang’s 1991 book, America Against America, written after a three-month visit to the United States, paints a grim picture of a country beset by mounting social and political turmoil, ripe for crisis.
When that crisis occurred – the 2008-09 made-in-America global financial crisis – Wang’s view became ascendant within CPC leadership circles, leading Xi to conclude that a rising China was well positioned to challenge a waning America. Wang’s promotion adds worrisome fuel to the US-China conflict, a point I hint at in my new book, Accidental Conflict.
In terms of strategy, the main message of the 20th Party Congress is that China will stay the course of the past five years. This means one thing: national security takes precedence over economic growth.
While the Congress stressed that modernization remains “the central task of the Party,” this statement is all but meaningless. The CPC has lost itself in endless praise of Xi as China’s core leader, the ideological virtues of Xi Jinping Thought, and the all-encompassing need to “pursue a holistic approach to national security and promote national security in all areas and stages of the work of the Party and the country.” In other words, modernization and growth are fine, but only on Xi’s terms.
Development with Xi Jinping features
So, what do those terms look like? An important hint is provided by the Congress’s emphasis on another of Xi’s signature initiatives, the Common Prosperity campaign, which features a variety of efforts aimed at tempering wealth and income disparities. Common Prosperity was also associated with the 2021 regulatory assault on the private sector, especially the once-dynamic internet-platform companies that have since been all but decimated by the purging of “bad habits” associated with online gaming, live-streaming, music, and private tutoring.
While Beijing’s subsequent spin has attempted to soften this regulatory clampdown, the targeted companies have been crushed in the equity market, as have the animal spirits and potential for indigenous innovation their spectacular growth once promised. The outcome of the 20th Party Congress underscores an important distinction between economic growth “with Chinese characteristics,” as it has long been described, and a very different strain of development with Xi Jinping characteristics. The latter unfortunately throws cold water on the Chinese dynamism that many, including me, have long emphasized.
Perhaps the most noteworthy implications of the Congress pertain to conflict. The Congress emphasized the “unparalleled complexity,” “graveness,” and “difficulty” that China faces at home and abroad. While hardly an Earth-shattering admission, it exposes Xi’s willingness to accept the growth sacrifice as a steep price to pay for national security.
The opaque ideological dogma of the Congress only hinted at what to expect from China in meeting those challenges. That was more evident in Xi’s July 2021 speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of the CPC’s founding. “We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us,” he said then. “Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
China does not shy away from conflicts
In view of this warning and the challenges that Xi stressed at the 20th Party Congress, the collision with the US championed by Wang takes on new meaning. The clash concerns not only Taiwan, frictions in the South China Sea, and Western pressure concerning human-rights abuses in Xinjiang. At its root, it’s about the containment strategy that the US has pursued toward China – a strategy President Joe Biden’s administration recently turbocharged with new export sanctions aimed at China’s advanced technologies. It’s also about China’s “unlimited partnership” with Russia and the risk of guilt by association with Vladimir Putin’s unconscionable war on Ukraine.
As Xi stressed at the Congress, these are obviously complex challenges. But in celebrating the CPC centennial, he left little doubt of what those challenges might portend: “Having the courage to fight and the fortitude to win is what has made our party invincible.” A modernized and expanded military puts teeth into that threat and underscores the risks posed by Xi’s conflict-prone China.
Stephen S. Roach was Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia. He is a professor at Yale University and the author of the forthcoming book Accidental Conflict: America, China, and the Clash of False Narratives (Yale University Press, November 2022).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.