Aug 16, 2022 - World

China's 20th Party Congress looms closer

Photo illustration of a framed photo of Xi Jinping hanging in the National People's Congress.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: How Hwee Young/Pool, Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

China's 20th Party Congress, when President Xi Jinping is expected to be selected for a highly unusual third term, will be held in Beijing within a few months.

Why it matters: The congress will likely consolidate Xi's hold on power, signaling at least another five years of the hardline domestic authoritarianism and aggressive foreign policy he ushered in during his first two terms.

Details: Party congresses are held once every five years, typically in October or November, but the dates aren't announced until shortly before the event commences.

  • The most important function of the congress is to choose who will fill top party leadership positions.
  • They include seats in the Politburo, the Party's top governing body, and the Politburo Standing Committee, a group currently composed of seven members who count as China's most powerful men. (There are currently no women on the committee.)
  • Deliberations are secretive, and there is no transparency regarding how selections are made. As a result, analysts inside and outside China pore over state media during the months leading up to the congress for hints at which party cadre's star is rising and whose may be falling.

The big picture: Recent party congresses have been key to peaceful transfers of power in China — which have only occurred a few times under party rule.

  • Party congresses have become "particularly important since reform and opening in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping sought to implement a rules-based succession and promotion process, rather than a personality-driven process under Mao Zedong," said Drew Thompson, visiting fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
  • "Previous successions had been fraught with imprisonment, assassinations and chaos," Thompson said.
  • In 1992, for example, Jiang Zemin was affirmed as China's top leader at the 14th Party Congress, following his predecessor Zhao Ziyang's house arrest for his role in the Tiananmen Square protests.

Truly peaceful successions only occurred at the 16th Party Congress in 2002, when Jiang Zemin gave up control to Hu Jintao, and at the 18th Party Congress in 2012, when Xi Jinping took over, Thompson said.

  • Xi's plan to disrupt this recent precedent by taking a third term makes the 20th Party Congress particularly sensitive, as it means prolonging his power, and that of his supporters, beyond the time frame that some other party elites may believe he should.

Between the lines: The looming meeting is likely influencing the decision-making of China's top leaders on crucial issues including the zero-COVID policy and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Taiwan visit.

  • The months leading up to the Party Congress are typically accompanied by extra domestic political and social restrictions. That's because political rivals of a top party cadre could use perceived policy failures against that person and their allies during the closed-door negotiations that determine future political sway.
  • "When periods of internal competition are heightened, the Party seeks to reduce outside factors that could influence or shape internal competition," Thompson said.

Foreign policy failures could also potentially open up a leader to challenge or criticism at the congress.

  • The fact that Pelosi's visit took place in the run-up to the Party Congress means China's response was carefully calibrated to be a "controlled show of force," Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at International Crisis Group, told Axios.
  • "It was necessary for domestic political factors for the leadership to show strength. But also that there was no desire for the situation to get out of control," Hsiao said.

Yes, but: "I doubt Xi's top concerns are related to foreign policy," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

  • As Xi is looking toward the Party Congress, "I think he is most concerned about putting his own people on the Politburo Standing Committee and the Politburo," Glaser said.
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