Twentieth National Congress ushers in Emperor Xi?

Normally a communist national party congress is a dull and boring event. The proceedings follow an agenda set in advance, all important appointments have effectively been decided ahead of the congress, speeches and reports are all stereotyped and contain nothing new. Reactions and comments from official sources after the congress are predictable claiming that it “has caught world-wide attention”, “has been enthusiastically greeted by the masses”, “has profound historical significance” and so on and so forth. These set phrases and empty words can be used with regard to any party congress. But there are also exceptions, for example the Twentieth National Congress of the Soviet Communist Party held in 1956. On that occasion, Khrushchev gave a secret speech denouncing Stalin, which caused shockwaves throughout the East and the West and opened a period of reform and thaw in the socialist camp.

Twentieth Party Congresses in China and Soviet Union

In a sense, the Twentieth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was recently held in Beijing, belongs to the same category as that Soviet Congress, although ideologically oriented in diametrically opposite directions. At both congresses, there occurred shocking incidents outside of the agenda, and they both caught people’s attention, giving rise to heated discussions. In fact, they marked turning points in the development of the two countries. The Soviet Twentieth Congress marked the opening up for reform, while the Chinese Twentieth Congress amounted to an official proclamation of retreat from decades of reform.

Shocking Scene on Congress Rostrum

On October 22, when the CCP’s Central Committee membership was announced, there occurred an entirely unanticipated and sensational scene, which was captured on film by foreign journalists and rapidly spread around the world.

No one could have imagined that the former General Secretary of the Party, Hu Jintao, would be forcibly removed from the meeting in front of more than 2,000 party delegates and a great number of Chinese and foreign journalists. Tens of millions of TV viewers saw the white haired and pale former General Secretary unwillingly ushered out. Xi Jinping was seated beside Hu, looking coldly at him as security personnel escorted him out. Seated on Hu’s other side was Li Zhanshu, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, who was sweating nervously. The other people seated on the rostrum all seemed to ignore what was happening with expressionless faces. All these people, whose faces we could see on the TV screen, must have realized that a ferocious and high-level internal power struggle was taking place before their eyes and for people all over the world to observe.

In effect, the current General Secretary of the Party forced his predecessor, who was also attending the congress, to leave the hall. This has probably never occurred before in the history of the Chinese Communist Party and reflects the deep internal political crisis going on in the party. This scene on the rostrum was an enormous scandal and given that such a ghastly scandal can occur, people are speculating what other horrendous events might take place in Chinese political life in the future.

Results 1: Extreme Concentration of Power and Personality Cult

One important result of this congress is Xi Jinping’s complete victory in the factional struggle within the Party. There is now no room whatsoever for challenging his absolute power. Originally people hoped that those in favor of reform and opening up (also known as the Youth League faction) headed by Premier Li Keqiang would gain the upper hand, or at least preserve some balance of power, in the power struggle with Xi Jinping’s group. But Li Keqiang’s faction no longer exists, and within the Party there is now no force that can curtail Xi Jinping’s power.

During the past 20 years, a practice had been established that party and state leaders would serve a maximum of two terms. According to this practice, after a second term even the highest leaders had to leave their posts, and the two General Secretaries and Presidents who preceded Xi Jinping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, both followed this rule and left their positions after two terms. By contrast, Xi Jinping will now stay on as General Secretary after the Twentieth Party Congress clearly breaking this rule. Based on this, some commentators argue that Xi Jinping has essentially orchestrated a coup to remain in power as General Secretary. The forceful removal of Hu Jintao from the congress hall seems to provide some evidence for this conclusion.

The highest organ that exercises power over the Chinese Communist Party is the Politburo Standing Committee. In the past, whether made up of seven or nine members, it was always possible to identify different political tendencies or factions within this committee. But now the situation is different. The six members serving alongside Xi Jinping on the standing committee are all uniformly his loyal followers, and their most characteristic feature is their absolute obedience to Xi.

In possession of absolute power, Xi’s arbitrary and high-handed rule has become even more blatant and his personality cult has intensified. During the congress, some high-ranking officials referred to him as “the worthy leader of the Chinese people”, and now it is no longer enough for party officials to express loyalty to the party, they must also do so to Xi.

Results 2: More Struggle and Strengthened Control

In his report to the party congress, Xi Jinping called upon the Chinese people to prepare for struggle, using the word “struggle” (douzheng 斗争) altogether 17 times. This was no coincidence. Xi’s worldview was shaped in his youth during the Cultural Revolution, which was a period when Mao Zedong’s “struggle philosophy” was dominant. While most people who lived through the Cultural Revolution have been critical and condemned this disastrous period, Xi has never clearly condemned either the Cultural Revolution or Mao. 

During his 10 years in power, Xi Jinping discovered that the policies that he wanted to carry out met with various kinds of resistance from a majority within the party, with many holding on to the program of reform and opening up. Especially during the phase of preparing for the Twentieth Party Congress, he discovered that many people were not loyal to him. This he could not tolerate, and so the onslaught after the congress will be directed mainly at those whom he finds are not loyal and do not show proper deference to him.  The next phase is quite likely to include among its targets privileged and venerated party elders, since the Hu Jintao incident shows that these elders, by virtue of their special position, may challenge Xi Jinping. In fact, even before the congress, Xi issued a warning to party elders not to express dissent.

The struggle will also target intellectuals who hold on to independent thinking and the freedom of expression. According to news disseminated after the congress, many people’s accounts on the chat site WeChat have been permanently shut down. Informants recruited among university students are now even more shameless than before in reporting about “incorrect ideas” that their teachers express in the classrooms. Courageous people who dare speak up are either expelled or silenced.  

Strict control measures are now damaging the existence and development of the market economy. The state’s economic policies will become more favorable to state enterprises and less favorable to other enterprises. As a result, China’s economic growth will continue to slow down, and the myth of a flourishing economy will be upheld not on the basis of factual accomplishments but by means of fabricated statistical evidence.

The most immediate and tragic effect of the party congress is that the “dynamic COVID-zero” policy, which has caused so much resentment and hatred among people, will continue. This is an extremely cruel and mistaken policy that has caused many deaths and much pain, but since Xi Jinping has stubbornly held on to it, it has not been possible to correct. Many people in China hoped that the Twentieth Party Congress would bring an end to the “dynamic COVID-zero” policy, but they were deeply disillusioned. Why does Xi Jinping not give up this policy? Apart from ignorance and self-righteousness, the reason for this is that it serves to strengthen state control over Chinese society and also to restrict the freedom of Chinese people to act.

Results 3: An International Strategy on the Notion that “the East is rising and the West is declining”

Before the Twentieth Party Congress, Xi Jinping made an overall strategic assessment of the international situation saying that “the East is rising while the West is declining”. By this, he meant that in the confrontation between China and the West, headed by the United States, China is getting stronger and stronger, while the West is declining and becoming weaker day by day. From this, he concludes that China should adopt an increasingly assertive strategy. This makes us think of Mao Zedong’s assessment of the international situation during the Cold War, when China and the Soviet Union were allies and Mao said: “The east wind prevails over the west wind” and “The enemy rots with every passing day, while for us things are getting better daily”. It makes us remember that Mao was also proposing an assertive strategy with the ultimate aim to defeat the West. In his political report to the congress, Xi Jinping did not say anything new and did not publicly reveal his strategic intentions.

In Xi Jinping’s conceptual world, “the West” refers to universal values, the universally recognized norms that are taboo under his rule in China. “The East” on the other hand means rejection of universal values, violations of human rights, assault on democracy, among other things. In the eyes of Xi Jinping, “Western” and “Eastern” values and the norms of their political civilizations are fundamentally opposed to one another. He thinks that the West is constantly plotting to erode and dismantle China’s values and political system and that it is his historical mission to curtail the spread of Western values. We may foresee that after the party congress, China will move closer to countries with more or less similar values such as Russia, North Korea, and Iran, while friction and confrontation will intensify with the United States and most European countries.

The most dangerous flashpoint for a violent international conflict with China is Taiwan. Xi Jinping has never concealed that he is prepared to use military force to incorporate Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China. In order to realize what he calls “China’s great rejuvenation” and become “the great leader of the Chinese people”, comparable in stature to Mao Zedong, he may well during his time as the top leader use military force and invade Taiwan.

The Twentieth Party Congress was indeed an important turning point in China’s history. Before this congress, the Chinese Communist Party was the ruling political party, and the state and the military were subordinate to the party. After the congress, the party, the state apparatus and the military all belong to Xi Jinping. However, there is a Chinese saying, “When things reach an extreme, there will be a change in the opposite direction”. As Xi Jinping’s power reaches its zenith, the time when he loses his power is no longer far away.