Are Chinese Politics About to Shift? Tradition and Change at the 20th National Congress

DI MARCO ZECCHILLO

13/10/2022

October 16th, 2022 could mark a milestone for Chinese politics, both in a historical and in a more “down-to-earth” political connotation. During the traditional recurrence of the National Congress, held every 5 years since the days of the earliest embryonic cells of what would later become the Chinese Communist Party, over 2000 members belonging to the now well-established ruling political association gather at the Great Hall of the People, at the heart of Beijing. The event is set to last for about one week, as it usually happens.


Despite its historical aura, it is unlikely that October 2022 will mark a fault at the heart of Chinese politics, at least as far as its interpreters are concerned. However, the main tenets and priorities for China’s policymaking may be subject to change, albeit probably not abruptly. The media’s preparation for the event expresses a high degree of anticipation, and rumors spread rapidly, as it happen in this cases. For instance, the last days of September 2022 have been characterised by confused and false claims on China’s political climate, including an alleged coup d’état. 

Yet, the People’s Republic faces challenges. But the state’s reaction to them has always been cautious and gradual, at least after the end of the Mao Era. And it may be what we could expect also this time. 

The National Congress is generally summoned by the Standing Committee of the Politiburo. The latter consists of a smaller grouping (currently, 7 officials serve in it) of the Politburo of the Communist Party, headed by its top-ranked official, the President.

In the complex system of nominees and power distribution in China, in which the party structure’s boundaries tend to mix with those of the state, a National Congress surely allows external observers to get a glimpse into the obscure functioning of the giant Chinese machine.

Historically, the National Congress of the CCP constituted a key litmus test to assess potential upheavals in the continuum of the rule of the party. It often consisted as an occasion for formalising political thoughts. As an example, the 14th National Congress enshrined Deng Xiaoping’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” within the Constitution, after an apologetic speech by its successor Jiang Zemin, in 1992.

At the 18th Congress, on the other hand, Xi Jinping’s nominee was formalised and exposed to international media (while its “de facto” nomination could have occurred much earlier) and the election of now-leader was proclaimed to sit at the very top of the 18th Standing Committee’s structure.

In procedural terms, a key body which will most likely be renovated is the Central Committee of the Party, currently a 204-member apparatus traditionally elected via a typically Chinese “order of precedence” method during National Congresses.

It nominates the Politburo and the Standing Committee during its plenaries. However, the body meets on a very rare basis, leaving the actual daily operations to other institutions such as the previously cited ones.

Having seen the formal importance this event holds, it is reasonable to pay enhanced attention to potential leadership climbs which may, although unlikely, challenge the current Xi Administration, and, by reflection, the Xi-Li Administration on the state level.

China’s internal and external environment has, indeed, changed. The resulting tensions arising from the falling GDP growth rates, the Zero-Covid Policy, the relations with the USA and Russia, coupled with a debt problem could, hypothetically, amplify the occasions in which some top officials may disagree with Xi Jinping (whose policies may become more and more divisive).

It is highly unclear, however, where should this opposition arise from, given Xi’s cemented position and support throughout all the levels of governance, most importantly, at the Standing Committee.

Vice PM Hu Chunhua or Wang Yang (Political Consultative Conference’s chairmain) are two names attention is to be conveyed at, given their recent climbs and successes in the eyes of their colleagues (especially for Hu’s case, with its pivotal role in the recent Taiwan case). All of this occurs amidst Li Keqiang’s decision to retire from the premiership of China. Nevertheless, its full retirement from politics is unlikely and its permanence within the Standing Committee is almost certain. Thus, he will most probably continue to provide support for President Xi, who will have more chances to count on a majority in the 7-member body.

In a result-oriented system, in which planning and attainement of objectives are keys to hold power, the current administration may fail to justify potential underperformances, which would exert pressure on current top officials.

Previously exposed issues, such as the declining growth rate of GDP and mounting debt, might provoke some serious feelings of dissatisfaction towards the status quo.

Albeit existing trends, it is likely that the issue of the dissipation of growth will be addressed long-term and gradually, and surely not during a one-week event. And much more could be at stake than just the peaking of the growth curve.

Even if classified as an authoritarian regime by Freedom House, China’s leadership has always attempted to legitimise or to justify its permanence into office to the eyes of the public, in one way or another. Mounting dissatisfaction could make all of this much harder, presenting some potential challenges in terms of narrative, a crucial aspect in Chinese politics.

At this point, the elements to forecast China in 10 years seem to be lacking. Instead, all the problematic issues aside, key nominations are likely not to occur and Xi is set to keep the firm grip he has shown since the start of his mandates. This is symptomised by the fact that the 20th Congress occurs significantly earlier this year than traditionally, as most of these events took place in November.

This could imply that all parties agree and than no further discussion is required, thereby confirming Xi for a third mandate. And there is a very tiny likelihood, given all these elements, that this will not occur in the end.

To sum up, important challenges will most likely face the People’s Republic of China in the upcoming years. But those people expecting immediate major changes will most probably remain disappointed.

Given the importance of the National Congress, it is crucial to look at it into detail, as many historical shifts in Chinese politics emerged during this very event. Amidst Li’s retirement, it is fundamental to look who will be the next “right arm” of Xi Jinping.

Key shifts are unlikely. But it is anyways important, in order to understand the “next” China, to be aware of its rising challenges, and to see who will be the main characters for this new political season.

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