The ringmaster and his charmed circle
Richard Gregson reports on the CPC’s 20th Party Congress in Beijing, focusing on Xi’s ambitions for a third term and international implications, particularly for Asian countries
Each time a communist leader is proclaimed ‘supreme leader’, one destined to ‘rule’ in the name of Marxism – an ‘ism’ dogmatically and arbitrarily attributed to the ideas of Karl Marx – the great philosophermust be turning in his grave atLondon’s Highgate Cemetery. But the thousands paying floral tribute to him hardly ever bemoan the gross misinterpretation of Marx’s revolutionary ideas by former and present communist party leaders, a new ruthless elite who have systematically held the masses in a bloody stranglehold, denying all types of freedoms and human rights. All that in the name of establishing a ‘socialist society’, as postulated by Marx.
The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), held from October 16 to 22, was yet another grandiose circus organised at the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing. Xi Jinping, hailed as the ‘people’s leader’, got a near unprecedented third five-year term, amid thunderous applause from the attendees. (Only Mao, the leader of the Chinese revolution, had previously enjoyed a third term, until his death in 1976.) The 2000-plus delegates attending the Congress meekly seconded Xi’s name and ‘elected’ his loyalists to the all-powerful central committee, the politburo and its standing committee.
Elections under one-party communist rule are always a farce. The party is all-powerful and omnipresent. It is not accountable to anyone except the party bosses, small and big. And worse, there is almost no democracy within the party itself. Intrigues, purges and vicious power struggles are always afoot among the various factions led by different leaders.
Post-Mao, however, the various faction leaders agreed to coexist in what was described as ‘collective leadership’, a euphemism for a power-sharing arrangement among the factions. The factions wielded power in a top-down fashion. Decisions and nominations were made at the top, and the echelons below fell into line in a hierarchical manner. This brought about an equilibrium among competing factions, and China enjoyed stability and very fast growth during the post-Mao decades.
Xi, a leader who had generally kept a low profile as the party’s second tier leader, was a beneficiary of this rapprochement between CPC factions when he became the party general secretary in 2012. A retirement age of 68 and a cap of two terms for the general secretary also helped Xi climb to the top. The Shanghai faction led by Jiang Zemin picked Xi in 2007. He later became a compromise candidate of the Shanghai faction and Chinese Youth League faction of the then general secretary Hu Jintao, and was elected to the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee. The elders thought he would be amenable and would remain under their influence when they elevated him to the position of general secretary in 2012. Once in power, Xi was faced with widespread corruption across different organs of the government, the party, state enterprises, the internal security apparatus and even the People’s Liberation Army.
He used corruption as an excuse to systematically purge his rivals, often pitting one faction against the other, and placed his loyalists in important positions. With China becoming an economic behemoth, his popularity grew and he was able consolidate his position and tame or purge those challenging his leadership as the sole helmsman of the CPC.
The CPC is a massive autocracy that rules the country with an iron grip on the people. The party uses the most modern means of surveillance and suppression. Its power structure is like an inverted pyramid, with the general secretary wielding unimaginable powers. The CPC factions that had a moderating influence on the top boss were largely dismantled by Xi during his first two terms in power.
The 20th Congress gave 69-year Xi an opportunity to deal a final blow to the factions and his detractors. The 204-member Central Committee, the 24-member Politburo and the 7-member Standing Committee of the Politburo are packed with Xi’s men. This is the first time in 25 years that there is no woman in the Politburo. But that is of little concern for Xi as his loyalists now hold the reins of power. And he has absolute power.
Li Keqiang, premier and leader of the Communist Youth League faction, has been replaced by Li Qiang in the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). The latter was Xi’s chief of staff in Zhejiang province in the early 2000s. He was the one responsible for the draconian Covid-19 lockdown in Shanghai early this year that led to popular protests. Wang Yang, who was in line to be the next premier, and Han Zheng, affiliated to former president Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai faction, have also been dropped. Cai Qi from Fujian province, Ding Xuexiang, Xi’s chief of staff for the past five years, and Li Xi are the new inductees. All are known loyalists of the general secretary. Wang Huning, the party’s chief ideologue, continues in the PSC. He is sort of an ideology tsar and the main architect of the political ideologies flaunted by supreme leaders who ruled China since the 1990s. He was the brains behind ‘Three Represents’ of Jiang Zemin, the Scientific Development Concept of Hu Jintao, and now the Chinese Dream and Xi Jinping Thought. These political slogans, often hollow and meaningless, are propagated as catchphrases among the party cadre to boost the image of the top boss.
The 24-member Politburo, too, has been packed with Xi men. Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, a popular leader of the Youth League faction, was dropped, although he is just 59. But 72-year Zhang Youxia, Xi’s close friend, has been retained. Many others close to Xi have got a berth in the Politburo. These include technocrats handpicked by Xi.
The main work of the party Congress is to elect a new leadership and chalk out the course and policy of the party for the next five years. Mao’s days and the Soviet example showthat leaders remained in power for life. Hence, leadership changes took place at the lower levels only as per the will of the supreme leader. This is exactly what was witnessed during the 20thCongress. That Xi has not named his successor means he intends to rule still further terms, or perhaps for life.
Another task for the Congress is to thoroughly discuss the general secretary’s work report, propose amendments and adopt either the amended report, or the original, as it was presented. As the proceedings are so secretive, it is difficult to obtain details about the discussions on the report. But the communist party has a method to ensure that the general secretary’s report is unanimously accepted. In fact, Xi’s report has already been discussed over the last year or so. The final report, therefore, is generally adopted unanimously. So is the case with the elections, because the delegates actually vote on a list already drawn out by the outgoing Central Committee, Politburo and the PSC. The vote is merely a formality.
Xi’s marathon ‘work report’ presented on behalf of the 19th Central Committee broadly indicates the policies that the party and the state will pursue in the coming days. Xi patted himself on the back for all good work done in the past five years, notwithstanding the ‘severe and complex international situation’ which the party faced while pursuing the goal of ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. China, he said, saw ‘historic victories’ as it became a ‘moderately prosperous society’ in 2021, the CPC’s centenary year, and had eliminated extreme poverty.
He said the ‘central task’ was to achieve the ‘second centenary goal of building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects and to advance the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on all fronts through a Chinese path to modernisation’. By the second centenary he meant 100 years of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, but cleverly rescheduled the date to 2035, instead of 2049. Probably, he foresees clinging to power till then.
Praising his zero-Covid policy, he said that the country had to make sacrifices to fight the disease and had successfully contained the infection. ‘Dual circulation’ and ‘supply-side structural reforms’ were emphasised: that China needs to reduce its dependence on exports and increase domestic consumption and produce higher value-added products.
His oft parroted slogan of ‘common prosperity’ was mentioned in relation to growing inequalities. But he went on to warn that a ‘happy life is earned through hard work, while common prosperity is created through wisdom and diligence’. People should be facilitated to climb ‘up the social ladder, create more opportunities for people to get wealthy, and hence form an environment where everyone can participate in its development, avoiding “involution” and “lying flat”’. He even cautioned local governmentsnot to fall prey to ‘welfarism’, a term used in China to refer to tolerance of the ‘lazy’. The Chinese rulers believe that people in the West don’t work because of the social welfare support they are entitled to.
Security is another buzzword which finds mention 91 times in the report. Xi says it is a national security imperative to develop high technology and reduce dependence on the West. On Taiwan he was unambiguous: ‘We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.’
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was touted in the report as China’s great accomplishment over the past five years. But Xi’s stress was on the new Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative that were a part of the section on China’s foreign policy. The BRI appears to have been pushed to a secondary position in China’s foreign policy initiatives. Possibly, the BRI, which has earned a bad name as China as ‘debt diplomacy’, is now being offered in new packaging.
Xi went on to warn his comrades that China was entering a time of ‘uncertainty’ when ‘unpredictable factors’ and ‘all types of “black swan” and “grey rhino” incidents can occur at any time’. China, he stressed, should ‘be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms’. He also called for strengthening and modernisation of the armed forces.
Clearly, Xi‘s China is bracing itself for an uncertain future, where it is directly in confrontation with the US and its allies in the economic as well the strategic arena. The oft repeated chauvinist rhetoric of Socialism with ‘Chinese characteristics’ and ‘making China great’ betrays the ultra-nationalist zeal of the CPC. This indeed is a far cry from the internationalist ideology of Marx. Moreover, the communist parties have effectively replaced the proletariat as the ruling class. In China, as was the case in Soviet Union, it is the Communist Party that rules over the working class. Or better said, it is the rule of the Central Committee over the CPC. It can be further described as the rule of thePolitburo over the Central Committee, which can now be refined as the rule of the General Secretary over the Politburo, Central Committee, the entire party and the people of the PRC.
The ugly incident of the forcible removal of the 70-year old former party general secretary Hu Jintao, the de facto leader of the Youth League faction, from the presidium at an open meeting of the Congress, for some unexplained reason, only proves that Xi is the ultimate boss and his writ runs riot in China.
Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada