This article by Jenny Clegg, author of China’s Global Strategy: towards a multipolar world, addresses the question of China’s putative ‘authoritarianism’, and in particular the issue of Xi Jinping’s election for a third five-year term as General Secretary of the CPC, which marks a break with the two-term limit introduced in the 1980s.
The author opines that China is opting for continuity and stability, in the face of “complex, unpredictable and fast changing international currents” – in particular the escalating US-led New Cold War – and a crucial shift in the emphasis of China’s economic strategy towards common prosperity and sustainable development.
Jenny writes that Xi’s supposed ‘authoritarian turn’ is “keeping China on a steady course, united in purpose”, whilst continuing to encourage vibrant inner-party democracy and exhaustive debate on key policies. “At a time of growing political chaos as the world’s dominant ruling classes flail about amidst multiple crises, the 20th CPC Congress stands out as an example of orderliness and clarity of direction.”
The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) has made headlines in the mainstream media, but hardly because China’s future is of great consequence for the future of the world – rather, all eyes are on Xi Jinping’s continuing into a third 5-year term as Party General Secretary. What an opportunity, so the pundits think, to hype up the New Cold War by contrasting China’s ‘autocratic’ methods of leadership succession against the virtues of the West’s democratic ways.
Xi is being ‘anointed,’ we are told, or ‘crowned’, as China’s leader.
When, from the 1990s, the CPC introduced collective leadership, two-term limits on key posts, and other mechanisms institutionalising leadership selection in order to guard against the re-emergence of personality cults and political upheaval, this was widely welcomed both within China and beyond as a step forward in modernising and democratising the Party. In 2018 however, under Xi’s leadership, the two-term limit was abolished – a major factor in causing Western political elites to give up hope of integrating China into the existing global system under their dominance.
Of course, China’s centralised system has cultural and historical roots going back millennia. However, these traditions were profoundly transformed after 1949 by the CPC’s practice of democratic centralism – of ‘top-down, ‘bottom up’ processes of decision-making. Throughout its history the CPC has nevertheless gone through phases of relative tightening and relaxing of central control.
It is important then to understand why the CPC is once again strengthening its leadership, seeking to consolidate authority under a single leadership figure, at this time. A number of factors are at play.
In the first place there are the external conditions to consider. Since 2011 when Obama announced his Asian pivot, the US has increasingly squeezed China using both military and economic pressure not only to block China’s growing global influence – which has extended peacefully through for example the Belt and Road Initiative – but also, going beyond containment, to aggressively enforce technological and economic decoupling. The US has now effectively pledged to do all it can to obstruct China’s further development whilst mobilising all possible global forces and resources in preparation for a war, with Taiwan as the most likely pretext.
Amidst complex, unpredictable and fast changing international currents, the CPC must stay both firm and flexible in order to respond effectively at a time when China is also undergoing huge structural changes.
China’s economy and society are currently in the midst of a huge transformation in the mode of development, moving from a low-wage, labour-intensive, export-driven, high-energy consumption economy to one that is innovation-led, green, and with a greater emphasis on domestic consumption.
The shift from quantitative to qualitative, extensive to intensive, development centres on a transition to new pillars of growth – from the traditional energy-intensive iron, steel, coal, and cement industries to new strategic industries at the world’s technological frontiers as well as to services, looking not least to a low carbon future. Priorities are shifting: scientific and technological breakthroughs are crucial to the success of this structural transition; the disorderly expansion of capital must be checked, whilst an entirely new type of capital market serving socialism is developed. The task of upgrading and restructuring the economy is a massive undertaking, carrying risks of social instability: there is much room for mistakes and crises and it requires close management to maintain stability and stay on course.
In the face of both external and internal risks and challenges, what counts above all is the internal political strength to maintain strategic resolve.
Applying the lessons from Gorbachev’s failure
There is much to be learned here from Gorbachev’s failure as he pursued ‘perestroika’ (economic change), ‘glasnost’ (political and academic liberalisation) and ‘new thinking’ in foreign policy seeking to ease the Cold War arms race – all at the same time.
Believing economic reform depended also on political reforms, Gorbachev opened the Soviet Union to liberal democratic influence at a time of change in the economy’s structure. His efforts saw the political and economic environment begin to deteriorate and peoples’ standard of living declined. The Soviet Union was not defeated militarily but was effectively dismantled through ideological subversion from within and without.
Gorbachev’s loss of overall military as well as political control is not a mistake the CPC intends to make, hence the consolidation of power with Xi maintaining both his political and military leadership positions. The renewed emphasis on Marxism and socialist principles further denes the US any space to interfere.
Since 2018, the US has had to come to terms with the fact that the CPC cannot easily be overturned. But if regime change is not an option, what of the possibility of replacing Xi with a more pro-market, less ‘authoritarian’, less ‘nationalistic’ leadership, one more prepared to accept US leadership of the international order? US strategists appear to work on the assumption that Xi’s statist approach to the economy is alienating the ‘liberal wing’ of the Party which feels China is forfeiting opportunities to take part in the international system. US strategists are therefore banking on opportunities to foment factionalism within the Party.
By applying maximum pressure whilst consolidating a military and economic bloc of allies, it is thought that China will come to realise that the direction of the world is stacked against it and that there is no way its global ambitions can be achieved. At the same time, if Xi can be provoked to overplay his hand and take unnecessary risks, this would reinforce international disopprobrium and alienate the substantial and growing Chinese middle income group.
Whilst it is true that the West’s China watchers tend to misconstrue and exaggerate differences within the CPC, as any significant political organisation, it does encompass different opinions, interest groups and trends. These may, for example, be drawn together by school ties, regional identities, bureaucratic affiliations or family ties. If left unchecked and allowed free rein, this can lead to the emergence of factions or cliques, a problem which began to grow from the 1990s as made clear in the CPC’s 2021 3rd Resolution on Party History.
Whilst informal arrangements kept the lid on the situation to a great extent, a serious crisis erupted in 2012, just before the 18th Party Congress, which was to elect Xi as leader for the first time, with what amounted to an attempted coup by Bo Xilai, Communist Party Secretary for the major city of Chongqing. Bo struck a populist note conducting campaigns in the style of the Cultural Revolution’s red culture but he and his family were exposed for their corrupt and criminal behaviour. This exposure, and the later imprisonment of Bo and his wife, prevented the situation from spiraling out of control and helped enhance stability.
Xi was appointed to the leadership position but this incident was a profound shock and wake-up call. Xi was subsequently to criticise his predecessors for ‘lax and weak governance’ which he considered ‘enabled inaction and corruption to spread within the Party and led to serious problems in its political environment.’ Launching an extensive and protracted anti-corruption campaign shortly after gaining the leadership, Xi achieved considerable success in breaking up Party cliques and factionalism.
As a result, the risks of divisions in the leadership have been considerably lessened. Xi himself rose through the Party ranks without any factional affiliation and the general success of his campaigns in promoting appointments based on political merit have contributed to the strengthening of cohesion within the Party and its prestige among the people.
Managing leadership succession
What made the 2012 Congress leadership succession particularly challenging was that it saw the transition from Hu Jintao’s fourth generation to the fifth generation. What was notable also was the scale and scope of leadership renewal with some 70 per cent of the principal figures responsible for the country’s political, economic, foreign policy and military affairs at the time due for retirement. Questions then were raised as to whether the new institutional mechanisms to manage leadership transitions were sufficiently robust should other disruptive incidents occur again. It is with this in mind that the rules covering the two-term period of office for the General Secretary were subsequently revised.
The 20th Party Congress similarly was set to see a generation change with power passing now from the fifth to the sixth generation, born in the 1960s; at the same time potentially half the 25 (now 24)-person Politburo and its 7-person Standing Committee were to be replaced by newcomers. The succession transition is now being managed in stages with 3 new appointees, 2 from the sixth generation, joining the new Politburo.
China’s socialist advance
China is clearly advancing along its journey to develop into a modern socialist country by 2049. The US knows this. Biden waited until the CPC’s 20th Congress to publish his National Security Strategy, now squarely focused on China as the ‘most consequential geopolitical challenge’ and spelling out how the US intends to ‘win’. Meanwhile the Pentagon has been granted new powers to throw billions more dollars into weapons procurement. At the same time, Biden has chosen this moment launch a full-blown economic war, doing everything possible to isolate China’s entire hi-tech sector so as to thwart the country’s development goals. The gloves of the US engagement policy are finally off.
But as the US edges closer to the brink of actual war, it comes face to face with a 96 million strong column of Party members determined to resist. Under the intense pressure, the CPC Congress has struck a confident note. Xi’s ‘authoritarian turn’ is keeping China on a steady course, united in purpose whilst remaining committed, in Xi’s words, to the principle of ‘letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend’ so as to keep its responses flexible.
At a time of growing political chaos as the world’s dominant ruling classes flail about amidst multiple crises, the 20th CPC Congress stands out as an example of orderliness and clarity of direction. China’s journey maintains the continuity of socialist revolution reaching back to 1917; its success is vital for the future of socialism in the world as a whole.
Jenny Clegg is a writer and researcher specialising on China; her book China’s Global Strategy: towards a multipolar world was published in 2009.