The 20th congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) not only consolidated Xi Jinping’s position in the party and state, but also completely changed the reality in China. There is no collective rule anymore, the “Emperor syndrome” returned, ruling alone. China is entering a “New Era”. They departed – a symbol of which was the significant departure of the previous leader, Hu Jintao – from the pragmatic, sober and common-sense rule of Deng Xiaoping. They are replaced by a new ideology based on discipline (Leninism), hierarchy (Confucianism) and nationalism, and in the economy on Marxism, i.e. aversion to the market and its laws. All of this is dressed up in Xi’s bold visions. The question is: will they be fulfilled and will the promised “renaissance of the Chinese nation” take place? These are the most important exams that Xi Jinping will face in the near future.
The deliberations of the congress and the composition of the new ruling team in the 2022-27 term unequivocally confirmed that Xi consolidated his sovereignty and surrounded himself with acolytes. According to the Confucian tradition and the assumptions of Chinese strategists, starting from Sun Zi, in times of trial society, including CCP members, are to unite around the Leader. If he wins, he will be glorified; if he loses, he will be condemned.
The ten years of Xi’s rule so far and the current practice prove that China has entered a new reality. They set themselves very ambitious goals. Meanwhile, the situation both internally and externally became very complicated. In the inner arena, everything was going well. Even with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020. Thanks to hard lockdowns, the end of the fight against the virus was solemnly announced in September 2020. The country has re-entered the path of high growth. For 2021, GDP grew by 8.1% while the outside world plunged into trouble and even recession.
However, the joy turned out to be premature. Two Chinese vaccines failed the new mutation of the virus, the omicron. As a result, from early spring this year, long hard lockdowns had to be introduced again, including in Shanghai (26 million inhabitants) and Chengdu (21 million). Even on the day the congress began, nearly 250 million Chinese were locked up or in quarantine.
Unfortunately, the “chairman of everything” (as he is maliciously called abroad) – Xi Jinping firmly sticks to his “zero tolerance for Covid” strategy, which he confirmed once again in the program paper at the congress. Why is he doing this? For one basic reason – China recorded a relatively small number of deaths from the pandemic, while there were millions of them around the world. This argument is fed to its own citizens all the time, prompting them to understand: we are better, we do it better.
This worked, but only until the plague returned. It is now plain to see that the costs – social, economic and otherwise – of this strategy are huge. Thus, a ferment was born in the society and even in the ranks of the CCP, which, of course, did not appear during the congress (except for the aforementioned incident with Hu Jintao). However, the problems remain. Structural obstacles such as an aging and shrinking population have emerged. The current unwritten but obvious social contract will become increasingly difficult to maintain: we, the CCP, rule and give you the society increased prosperity, and in return you are to obey. And since not everyone agrees with this approach, the level of social control and surveillance is increasing, even more reinforced during the pandemic.
The external situation became even more complicated. Vladimir Putin in Ukraine apparently did not live up to the expectations of the CCP leadership. Meanwhile, the Americans have changed their strategy towards China in recent years. The previous engagement policy has been turned into “strategic competition”. Despite the change of the team in Washington, it is constantly growing. In addition to the trade and customs war from March 2018, during the pandemic there was a media (ideological) war and a contest over high technologies (Huawei, 5G, TikTok, etc.), and even rivalry in space.
As a result, China’s external image has been severely damaged. Despite this, Xi Jinping continues to announce “a great renaissance of the Chinese nation.” However, it will not be achieved, of course, if there are two organisms with China in the name on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. In other words, the “renaissance” means the connection of mainland China with Taiwan, which Xi does not hide and also emphasized at the congress.
The basic problem is that this issue, treated by the authorities in Beijing as an “internal matter”, is seen and accepted in a completely different way in the outside world, starting from Washington and Tokyo. On the other hand, the inhabitants of Taiwan gained their own identity over the years of isolation (since 1949). They are also satisfied with the democracy introduced since 1988. Today, support for reunification there is in the single digits, and recently it has fallen even more after Beijing subdued demonstrating Hong Kong.
- The two largest organisms on the globe found themselves in a clash, so far escalating and not being calmed down. Unfortunately, this US – Chinese rivalry is escalating;
- Xi Jinping’s sovereignty, his words and program visions and goals lead to the conclusion that the Chinese really believe in their constantly repeated mantras: “we are not afraid of war” and “if there is a war, everyone will lose”;
- At least since the high-profile visit of Mrs. Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August this year, if not earlier, next to the fronts in Ukraine, we also have another one – around Taiwan, where the situation has become very inflamed;
- This “Taiwan issue” will be a kind of litmus test for further developments. Xi Jinping’s determination on this particular issue seems unyielding. He clearly wants to complete the works of Mao Zedong’s revolution and close the last “open question” after the – poorly remembered in China – period of the “century of national humiliation” (1839-1949).
- We do not know whether the Chinese sovereign will succeed and overcome the serious structural barriers that both he and China have faced. Moreover, we do not know whether unification with Taiwan is possible without the use of force. There are many serious challenges facing China and its leadership. Hence, the words about “winds and storms” in the program paper of the 20th Congress are not even surprising. Entering the New Era (xin shidai), which is so loud in the Chinese media, will not be easy. That’s for sure. However, the current situation, both in and around China, raises more questions than certainties about the future.
Author: Professor Bogdan J. Góralczyk, Senior Fellow in International Policy Program of Pulaski Foundation