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The 20th Party Congress: A Roundup

The much-anticipated 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ended on October 24 in Beijing. While every Party Congress is something of a big deal, this one was billed as a really big deal, and in many ways lived up to that billing. Under rules set out by the Party constitution following the death of Chairman Mao, those holding the top post of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party are to be eligible for two five-year terms. This was a reform instituted by the Party after the death of Chairman Mao in an effort to prevent the dominance of one man and the revival of a personality cult.

Party Secretary Jiang Zemin served for two terms, then stepped down.

Party Secretary Hu Jintao served for two terms, then stepped down.

This new rules-based order didn’t last beyond Hu, though. In his second term, Xi began making moves to remove the rule, setting himself up for a third term at the helm. At this past Congress, Xi was given approval (I hate to use the term “voted in” here) to serve a third time. Many have referred to it as his coronation.

This event truly marks the beginning of a “New Era” (a phrase I am coming to loathe) in China. Perhaps it’s better to say the end of the beginning, though, because this New Era actually started in earnest at the end of Xi’s first term. It is now, as they say, set in stone.

The past few weeks have seen a flood of stories and analysis on the Congress, Xi Jinping, and the meaning of it all. What follows are some of my top recommendations for reading and for listening that you may have missed.

It’s always good to start with something written by Ian Johnson, one of the most clear-eyed analysts in the business. On October 23, he penned a piece for Asia Unbound, a blog of the Council on Foreign Relations, titled “Xi Jinping Exposed.” He highlights some of the things that Xi achieved at the Congress, as he took his undisputed place at the apex of the CCP. He then reminds us that in achieving all of the power, he now has all of the responsibility, something that can actually be quite dangerous.

Xi’s biggest risk—and his greatest weakness as a strategist—is that he has put himself on the firing line. When things went badly for Mao or Deng, they could jettison underlings who were nominally in charge of various issues. Xi, however, has constructed a system that makes him look strong in the short run but leaves him no place to hide.

As always, the Congress opened with a long speech given by Chairman Xi. David Bandurski of the China Media Project wrote a piece titled “Puzzling Through Xi’s Political Report,” to help us understand the report—how it’s structured, what it means, and the nature of the language used:

Xi Jinping’s political report, delivered at the opening of the 20th National Congress of the CCP last Sunday, is a monster of a text to grapple with. You might think of it as an edifice of little snap-together blocks, all specialized terms and slogans molded within a century-long history of CCP political discourse, much of it drawing also on Marxist, Leninist, and Stalinist prose.

Many, if not most, of these specialized formulations, or tifa (提法), come loaded with meanings and associations that demand historical as well as contextual readings to really understand what they are meant to signal.

I’m so glad there are others, with stronger fortitude than I, who are willing and able to slog their way through such speeches.

In what was otherwise a highly scripted event, there was one thing that took place that was off-script—former Party Secretary Hu Jintao being unceremoniously escorted from the dais on the final day of the meeting. The speculation machine went into overdrive. Was this a ruthless gesture designed to show that the old leaders are done, and the old days are gone for good? Was it an old man having a “senior moment” or medical emergency? As they say, “Hu knows?”

At first there were only clips online of his departure. But a few days later, extended footage was released that included more of what led up to it. The BBC took a closer look at the footage in a piece titled, “Hu Jintao: Fresh China Congress Footage Deepens Mystery over Exit.” Take a look, and decide for yourself.

Finally, the Swiss website The Market NZZ published a hard-hitting interview with Joerg Wuttke, one of the most experienced and most outspoken foreign business persons in China. Wuttke also has unique perspectives as the chairman of the EU Chamber of Commerce and head of BASF for China. In addition, his wife is the daughter of the former Russian ambassador to China. Asked what he thought were the most important findings from the Congress, he replied:

The most important fact is the president’s absolute, unrestricted power. Xi Jinping has managed to de facto lock out the entire Party faction of the Youth League. This was not to be expected on this scale. He has practically tailored the Politburo to himself and filled it with loyalists. A man may now become prime minister who previously had no national job at all and who has not grown into the office as vice premier. This is a break with the previous model: Premier Wen Jiabao had learned from his predecessor Zhu Rongji, and Li Keqiang had learned from Wen Jiabao. We have to state clearly today: Ideology is once again taking precedence over the interests of the economy in China.

To paraphrase and edit a famous American political slogan, “It’s the ideology, stupid.”

Since we are in the era of podcasts, here a few that I have found to be very interesting and helpful.

Prior to the Congress, Ian Johnson took to the Council on Foreign Relations podcast, The President’s Inbox, to discuss the implications of the Congress on China and the world.

Pacific Century, a podcast produced by the Hoover Institution, has an episode titled “Xi’s the One”. Hosts Michael Auslin and Cindy Yu talk with Sinologists Rana Mitter and Jude Blanchette. They discuss Xi’s ability to put his own men in place on the Politburo Standing Committee, as well as how to interpret Hu Jintao’s shocking departure from the meeting hall.

The National Committee on US-China Relations has posted a recorded webinar, titled “Beyond Surprises: Evaluating China’s Post-20th Party Congress Leadership Lineup,” which takes a closer look at the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee and what their presence on the committee might mean for the future.

Finally The Economist has produced a riveting eight-episode podcast about Xi Jinping, titled The Prince. Here’s how it’s described:

Xi Jinping is the most powerful person in the world. But the real story of China’s leader remains a mystery. The Economist’s Sue-Lin Wong finds out how he rose to the top, and what it will mean for China—and the rest of the world—when he breaks convention to begin a third term in October.

There are two bonus episodes, one analyzing the outcome of the Party Congress.

In our next issue of the ChinaSource Quarterly, we will be focusing on the New Era and its implications for religious life and foreign workers. Consider subscribing to the ChinaSource Quarterly to get this important issue delivered straight to your inbox. 

Editor’s note: This post was updated on November 4, 2022 to correct the spelling of the name of China Media Project Director David Bandurski.

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Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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