The biggest political event of the year is happening this weekend — and it’s not an election.
Beginning on October 16, some 2,300 delegates from around China will assemble in Tiananmen Square’s Great Hall of the People for the Chinese Communist Party’s week-long Party Congress. After much behind-the-scenes deliberations among party elites, the choices for China’s top leadership for the next five years will be presented to the country. The party will also review last term’s progress and set out its domestic and foreign policy goals for the next one. Decisions on both policy and personnel will be finalized officially in the spring.
The stakes of what happens during this Congress for China and the rest of the world will probably be the most momentous in decades. President Xi Jinping, who has more personal power over China than any leader since Mao Zedong, is expected to be confirmed to serve an unprecedented third term.
“The question is: How elevated will Xi Jinping be?” said Michael Swaine, the director of the East Asia program and an expert on Chinese defense and foreign policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “There’s going to be a lot of continuity with a probable strengthening of his position.”
China has changed dramatically under Xi’s now decade-long rule. Xi will likely laud his administration’s success on ending extreme poverty, tackling climate change, curbing corruption, and, at least until recently, growing the economy. Despite its initial missteps in containing the virus, China’s zero-Covid guidelines succeeded at limiting mortality from Covid-19 compared to many other countries, though that success has come with serious economic and political side effects. China also transformed its foreign policy and became the world’s largest creditor with the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive global infrastructure and development program.
During Xi’s time in power, however, China has also become more nationalist, authoritarian, and repressive. The government has engaged in what many critics, including the United States, have called genocide toward the Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minority groups in Western China and crushed any semblance of autonomy in Hong Kong. Abroad, China has become more assertive of territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, engaged in border skirmishes with India, and most notably, ratcheted up military action and threatening to use force to bring Taiwan under its control.
Given that all of the major policy and personnel decisions have already been made behind the scenes, the best way to think about the Party Congress is as a weather forecast for China and the world. Internally, China is dealing with significant economic issues, partly as a consequence of its strict zero-Covid policies and a real estate crisis. It’s also facing more climate catastrophes and a looming demographic collapse as its population appears to have begun to decline. Externally, China finds itself with frostier relations with the US and European Union — its largest trading partners — while the Global North’s public opinion of China has soured because of its pandemic response.
This year’s Party Congress will begin to make clear whether and how Xi and the Chinese government will reframe their approach to a world that has hugely changed since the last Party Congress five years ago. Xi “still recognizes that China must remain an international player in many, many different ways in order to succeed,” Swaine said. “He cannot isolate China and turn it into a sort of self-contained entity.”
To learn more about the future of China, I spoke with Swaine about what to expect and how Xi views the current geopolitical moment. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What does a third term for Xi Jinping mean? Why is it such a big deal?
Under normal circumstances, at least in recent decades, Xi Jinping would be stepping down, but of course, he will not. What this means is that Xi Jinping is truly a very powerful, dominant figure within the Chinese Communist Party. He will likely continue to exercise that dominance over the next five years, at least. He may even stay in power until 2035, which is one big milestone or benchmark that the party has put in its development plans. What that really does suggest is that he’s continuing to make and remake the party in some ways in his own image, but also put his supporters in positions of power. That’s really the critical other issue: to what extent will people seen as very loyal and beholden to him be put even more so in positions of power through the Party Congress?
This is not just a question of Xi Jinping having removed any possible opponents to himself and put in his own supporters. Large numbers of the party leadership support the general thrust of Xi Jinping’s direction and his governance. His whole role has been to strengthen party leadership and party control within China to correct the corruption, the backsliding, and the confusion that emerged over recent decades as to what the party’s role is in society, the economy, in politics, and foreign policy. His whole tenure has really been focused on strengthening the party and leading China into the 21st century.
So it sounds pretty much like we know what’s going to happen — at least the top line. Can we expect any surprises? Is there anything we should be watching out for?
There aren’t really any individuals in the leadership who you can say are opposing factions. He has essentially eliminated those kinds of potential leaders, like Bo Xilai and other people from the past, who might have been able to challenge him in any really significant way.
What people look for in terms of changes are individuals who are perhaps not so closely tied to Xi Jinping, who are more in the realm of technocrats or reformers, who are interested in [the question of]: “How do we really try to maintain market incentives and China’s role in the global trading system while we’re sort of increasing party control?”
Today, it’s really all about your stance toward specific policy questions, issues of economic reform, how much success you’re having in your policies at home and overseas. So Xi Jinping’s future rests more with his policy failure or success than it does with his power relationships with other factions.
How has Xi maintained his support in the CCP in spite of the domestic crises that have come about? I’m thinking about the economic problems, real estate bubble, and fallout from the zero-Covid policies.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everybody moves in lockstep, and nobody’s unhappy and there’s no grumbling going on in the ranks or among some fairly high leaders. China is encountering increasing numbers of both domestic and foreign problems, in part because of Xi Jinping’s policies. Over time, if these continue and they worsen — say, zero-Covid, which I think the Party Congress will continue to back, continues to grate a lot of people in the country, and it expands in nature — these things could rebound against Xi Jinping over time. But I would not say that at this point in time, that there is a movement afoot, let’s say, to sort of challenge Xi Jinping on policy issues.
It’s a qualified leadership. His leadership is strong, and is likely to get stronger in many ways if the policies don’t fall apart. And there’s all sorts of arguments as to whether the economy is going to tank or whether relations with the West are becoming so strained that it creates problems for China domestically. But if that doesn’t happen, you’re still probably going to get Xi Jinping ruling, but the policy questions will remain.
Why does what happens at this Party Congress matter to China’s broader population? What will tell us about China’s domestic trajectory under Xi?
There are several issues. The first one is that Xi Jinping is connected to very specific types of policies and visions for China’s future. Like the grand rejuvenation of China, which he hopes to achieve by 2049, the elimination of inequality so that you have a more just society, corruption, etc. All of those things are going to be continued under Xi Jinping. And those have important consequences for Chinese society.
It also involves a very strong role for the party. There’s greater effort to try to control the activities of interest groups in China and the activities of institutions. All of this is something that does grate up against what some people regard as the importance of some level of free communication and some level of market-based activity.
What does this mean for China’s relationship with the United States and the world more broadly?
You’ll see continuity with what’s been established under Xi Jinping already, which is that China is fully committed to engaging the world, and pursuing “win-win” outcomes. It wants to invest more in the world and be a part of the world community. At the same time, it wants to see changes in some of the norms and standards that have governed in certain areas in the direction of greater justice as defined by the Chinese, which means justice for developing societies and developing countries, and justice for China’s own influence — in other words, giving China greater say at the seat of the table.
Alongside that, you’ll have the desire to preserve and protect China against what is seen now as efforts by the United States to contain the development of the People’s Republic of China. The Communist Party will define US policy as not just anti-party but anti-China.
So the Chinese government under Xi Jinping will continue to try to guard against greater levels of US pressure because they see the US struggling with its own problems internally, and in other ways, China’s leadership sees the United States as potentially more dangerous. Which is exactly the same kind of argument that people [in the US] project against China’s leadership. I think both of those arguments are overblown, but they do get some traction within the leaderships of both of these governments. And so the competition between the US and China will deepen and the danger of continuing down this route is that it really does pose some serious dangers, particularly over Taiwan.
What do you think the media gets wrong about the 20th Party Congress and political succession in China?
The media often tends to take a very sort of one-dimensional and simplistic look at the way the party exists and how it operates in China. Yes, the Party Congress is kind of a showcase more than it is a deliberative body. But the party in China is nearly 100 million people. This is not a small elite group of power-hungry people at the top of the system who are keeping everybody down; it is deeply infused in Chinese society in many ways that are in some respects seen by ordinary Chinese as good and beneficial. This is no doubt a one-party dictatorship — there’s no question about it. They do not tolerate dissent, either in words or inactions.
However, the policies of the party, that representation at local levels, how they interact with this Chinese society at the root level, is much more complex than that simple narrative of a dictatorial one-party, top-down system. The media needs to appreciate that complexity more and understand that the party is, in many ways, serving the interests of Chinese society, while at the same time in some ways threatening the future of China because of this heavy-handedness that is exercised under Xi Jinping.