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China party congress: World watching for leadership changes

William Yang Taipei
October 14, 2022

At China's party congress, President Xi Jinping is set to secure a precedent-busting third term and surround himself with more loyalists as part of a major leadership reshuffle.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, top center, and Premier Li Keqiang, top center right, with other delegates during a session of the National People's Congress (NPC), at the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing
There will be a major reshuffle at the upper echelons of the Chinese leadership during the conclaveImage: Roman Pilipey/AP/picture alliance

Chinese President Xi Jinping is widely expected to secure a precedent-defying third term at the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which kicks off on Sunday.   

Getting a third term would cement Xi's position as arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

Despite a slowing economy and rising geopolitical tensions with the West, there appears no strong discontent over Xi's policies within the party.

At a final meeting of top leaders before the congress — known as the seventh plenum — the party's Central Committee praised the "unusual and extraordinary" accomplishments made over the past five years, reflecting Xi's strong grip over the CCP.

It also approved the policy report Xi will deliver at the start of the conclave, which will set out the party's policy priorities in all key areas for the next five years. 

In a rare display of disapproval, however, earlier this week a banner was unfurled on Sitong Bridge in the Chinese capital's Haidian district, brandishing the words: "We need food, not COVID tests. We want freedom, not lockdowns," in reference to China's strict zero-COVID policy.

"We want dignity, not lies. We need reform, no cultural revolution," the white banner continued in red letters. "We want to vote, not a leader. Don't be slaves, be citizens."

Teng Biao, a Chinese legal scholar based in the United States, described it as "a very brave move."

"On the eve of the 20th Party Congress, it was particularly shocking to see slogans against Xi Jinping's dictatorship. Although this will not change the political situation in China, it is a very symbolic move."

A destabilizing effect on the party?

Wu-Ueh Chang, professor at the Graduate Institute of China Studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan, believes Xi will certainly secure a third term.

"The reason why Xi will definitely get his third term is that he removed the presidential term limit in 2018 and he has not designated a successor who fits the criteria as the next general secretary of the CCP," Chang said.

There are, however, concerns that Xi's efforts to extend his term or remain in power indefinitely could have a destabilizing effect on the party.

It could jeopardize the established procedure of transfer of power and aggravate the risk of intraparty power struggles.

"Previously, I argued that if the CCP can have an orderly succession, in which every leader serves two terms and a successor is designated in advance, they could reduce the risk of power struggles," said Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University in the US.

"As Xi is about to take a third term, this destabilizes the succession system. If something happens while he is in office, there is the risk of an irregular succession which would be a power struggle." 

Apart from abolishing longstanding traditions, Xi has also been centralizing power around himself over the last decade.

Patricia Thornton, an associate professor of Chinese politics at Oxford University, said that when Xi first came to power in 2012 there was a consensus within the CCP that it needed to be much more assertive to "correct the less disciplined and corruption-ridden party."

"From the very beginning, he embarked on a trajectory with the consensus of the top party leadership," she said.

"But Xi has managed to use a crisis and the framing of the crisis in order to advance a leadership agenda that has really managed to centralize quite a bit of power in his own hands."

People ride scooters at an intersection near a bridge where social media videos earlier appeared to show smoke and protest banners
Internet censors quickly scrubbed social media posts after reports of critical banners being hung from the Sitong BridgeImage: Dake Kang/AP/picture alliance

Overconcentration of power around Xi

Thornton pointed to the anti-corruption campaign Xi launched after taking power in 2012. The yearslong crackdown, which has ensnared more than 4.7 million party officials, allowed the Chinese leader to remake the party leadership and place those loyal to him in key positions.

"Many people who studied the anti-corruption campaign have concluded that half of his targets appear to be politically motivated," she said.

Xi also implemented a series of ideological, institutional and organizational changes that led to the concentration of even more power around him. 

"One of the real dangers that we are beginning to see is the over-centralization of power. By consolidating so much power and control at the top of the Chinese Communist Party, there has been a chilling effect within the party," said Thornton.

Teng, the Chinese legal scholar, echoed this view. "Xi has turned the party from a collective dictatorship to a personalist dictatorship," he said.

What else to expect during the party congress?

There will be a major leadership reshuffle at the congress, with several members of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee — the CCP's most powerful organ — expected to step down. 

As Premier Li Keqiang is set to retire in March 2023, the decision on who will replace him as the nation's second-highest-ranking official will be keenly watched.

Potential successors include current Vice Premier Hu Chunhua and Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee, currently the party's fourth-highest ranking official.

China's zero COVID policy fatiguing people

Wang Hsin-Hsien, an expert on Chinese politics at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, believes the final decision will be dictated by Xi, with the key criteria being his preference as well as the political loyalty of these individuals.

"From that perspective, Wang Yang may be more suitable than Hu Chunhua as he has worked well with Xi over the last five years, successfully handling issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and the United Front Work Department," he said, referring to the division which works in overseas Chinese communities to promote China's political agenda.

Andrew Nathan from Columbia University said Xi will likely surround himself with more loyalists who don't have an independent power base to challenge him.

Will there be major policy changes?

Even though his hold on political power seems unchallenged, Xi is facing mounting pressure over other issues, including a rapidly slowing economy, the government's crackdown on tech giants and the economic impact of the strict zero-COVID strategy.

In a report published by the Jamestown Foundation last month, Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief economist for the Asia Pacific at the investment bank Natixis, predicted that China wouldn't be able to achieve the target of 5.5% economic growth for 2022.

As China signals its intention to stick to its contentious zero-COVID strategy, Garcia-Herrero said growth prospects will likely remain underwhelming in 2023.

"Because of a terrible 2022, China doesn't need to do much to grow faster in 2023, but the problems we are seeing will remain and probably get more acute in terms of the economic cost," she told DW.

Nathan said he doesn't expect big changes to China's domestic and foreign policies under Xi's third term. "I think it's pretty much continuing the mission, which is the 'China Dream' and that's what he is trying to do," he said.

"Some people say he will try to attack Taiwan within the next five years, but I don't think so. Will he change his COVID policy? I don't think he will."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru