The most important date in China’s political calendar – the National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party – arrived once more in Beijing this week for its 20th iteration at Tiananmen Square’s Great Hall of the People.
Proceedings began on Sunday with President Xi Jinping’s work report, outlining the progress of the previous five years and setting the goals for the five to come.
Delegates then disappeared into a few days of closed-door gatherings before they’ll re-emerge this weekend for a ceremonial vote on the work report and to approve changes in the 25-person Politburo and its Standing Committee (currently just seven people at the apex of political power under Xi, who is also the Party’s General Secretary).
These are carefully choreographed occasions and there were no real surprises in Xi’s address, which returned to familiar themes around the rejuvenation of the nation, self-reliance in technology and the focus on creating a modern, socialist economy.
Analysts still spent time looking for the nuance in his remarks, however, including his 89 mentions of “security” or “safety”, an increase on 55 in 2017 Reuters reckoned, while references to “reform” declined to 48 mentions from 68 five years ago.
Others were more intrigued by what Xi didn’t say, including the absence of the phrase that “housing is for living, not for speculation”, noted Jing Liu, HSBC’s chief economist for Greater China. But there were references to encouraging housing purchases and rentals, Liu said, which implied that a centrally coordinated plan to stabilise the property sector could be imminent.
Xi avoided direct mention of the United States but the subtext was clear enough in his rebuke of “external blackmail, containment, blockade and extreme pressure”. The language was more direct on Taiwan, where he earned long and loud applause for promising to “strive for peaceful reunification” but warned that “we will never promise to renounce the use of force and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary”.
There was also a commitment to staying the course with ‘zero-Covid’, which will disappoint those hoping for indications that virus controls could soon be relaxed. Instead Xi celebrated the “all-out people’s war” against the virus, saying that the approach would always “put people and lives above all else”.
Critics of Beijing’s policy on Covid, who claim that it is doing too much economic damage, were unimpressed, noting that the government had also cancelled the announcement of the third-quarter GDP figures on Tuesday, presumably because they show that growth was well below the official target.
A lead story in the China Daily on the same day reported that the economy had “rebounded notably in the third quarter”. But messaging on the front page of the newspaper’s business section made an effort to move the narrative forward to the remainder of the year under the headline of “Steady Q4 anticipated on healthy GDP growth”.
Back at the Party Congress, commentators also thought it significant that Xi’s speech had taken less than two hours, which was much briefer than previous efforts of the same type. For some this was an act of kindness to the elderly in attendance (Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, looked frail at 79, although that’s spritely compared to Song Ping, the oldest delegate in the hall at 105). But others saw the brevity as a signal that Xi didn’t need to pander to a broader range of interest groups. “A shorter report speech would seem to suggest smaller factional gaps in reaching consensus,” explained Yu Jie, a research fellow at British think-tank Chatham House, to the South China Morning Post.
In fact much of the international coverage of this week’s events has tried to pick up on signals of Xi’s personal ascendancy. There have been predictions of amendments to the Party’s constitution in which his ideological contributions get greater emphasis, for instance, and even speculation that Xi is set to be retitled as ‘Party Chairman’, a ranking formerly enjoyed by Mao Zedong.
Neither prediction had come to fruition as WiC went to press, although the better evidence of Xi’s primacy is more likely to come at the end of the gathering.
Traditionally there’s a fair bit of horse-trading in the run-up to Congress, where delegates are then presented with a shortlist of candidates for the Party’s top spots, although there have been suggestions that the process hasn’t been as frenetic this year, with selections steered carefully towards allies of Xi’s, especially at the most senior levels (for more on the final choices for the Politburo, see next week’s issue).
In fact, very few outside the Party elite have the inside track on the top picks for the standing committee and the world has to wait on the final selections until they are paraded on stage – normally the day after Congress formally closes.
“Chinese politics have always been opaque but it seems as if absolutely no light whatsoever is escaping from this black box,” complained Scott Kennedy, senior advisor and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, reckoning that there has been a lot less speculation about the leadership transition this year than in previous handovers of power. “The irony of this mystery is that Chinese officials regularly lecture foreigners about how little they understand China,” he added, in comments to CNBC. “Part of the problem is how little information is actually made available to us.”
And yet for all the talk this week of the continuity in policy at the heart of the ruling party, there will be at least one major break with convention. Since 2002 Standing Committee members of the Politburo would retire if they are older than 68 by the time the Party Congress convenes. Such an unofficial succession rule may not apply this time for Xi, who is 69.
No obvious successor was picked for the current Standing Committee in 2017 and an absence of younger appointments (those under 60) in the new Politburo could signal that Xi isn’t overly focused on succession issues this year either. Congress is also expected to reconfirm Xi as chairman of the Central Military Commission, while his position as Chinese president is up for renewal at the next session of the country’s parliament in March.
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