Back to the Future at China’s 20th Party Congress

Three Fairbank Center affiliates present their views on the recent 20th Party Congress

Removing the Reformers

Dorinda Elliott, Executive Director of the Fairbank Center

The China-watching community reacted with astonishment to the 20th Communist Party Congress, which concluded this weekend with a stunning power play by President Xi Jinping. He not only successfully wiped away any potential opponents from the top echelons of the Party and secured his third term in office. The moment of highest drama came just after the foreign media had been allowed into the Great Hall of the People to film the final moments of the conclave. An aide leaned over the clearly startled former Party Chief, Hu Jintao, forcibly lifted him from his chair as he fumbled for his papers, and escorted him out of the hall. The rest of the participants, including Xi and several other purported allies of Hu, sat stonily staring forward as the public humiliation unfolded.

It’s still unclear what the whole thing meant. But for anyone who has been rooting for China to become a more open, modern society, it was a sickening moment. I covered the 13th Party Congress as Newsweek bureau chief in 1987, when conservative Old Guard revolutionaries were wiped from the Standing Committee, leaving a younger generation of reformers to form consensus and manage the opening up of China to the outside world. Meeting the press afterward, then Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang impishly flashed the inside lapel of his well-cut double-breasted suit, saying with a grin that it was “made in China!” For the Chinese people and foreign journalists alike, it was a moment of guarded optimism: Plenty of conservatives still opposed the capitalist-style economic reforms that were spreading. But the sense from the very top of the Party was that China was opening up – and moving forward.

I am certainly not the only person who worries that China seems to be moving backward to a more closed, pre-reform state. Of late, a few brave Chinese souls have posted banners around Beijing and the rest of the country claiming that they don’t want a return to the Cultural Revolution, the 1966-1976 decade of extreme-left violence, suspicion, and political turmoil. Nobody predicts a return to that kind of chaos. But a poem is making the rounds, blocked by censors as soon as they can spot it, calling for “Life not Zero-Covid policy; Freedom not lockdown; Dignity not lies; Reform not Cultural Revolution; Elections not dictatorship; Citizens not slaves.” What I am longing to know is, what do the Chinese people think of all this?

Views from the Grassroots

By Daniel Koss, Lecturer, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations; author of Where the Party Rules

Digesting the mesmerizing rituals of the 20th Party Congress, with its display of power and powerlessness, how to assess the meeting’s consequences? UC San Diego scholar Victor Shih, whose predictions for the new leadership lineup turned out to be among the best, has called this a “norm-busting Party Congress.” With fewer norms, there is less predictability, so extrapolating from precedents becomes less reliable. To be sure, thanks to decades of better access and elite politics research, we are not back to the secrecy of the Mao era. Yet in some ways, little has changed since the late Roderick MacFarquhar’s successful approaches to deciphering the politics at Mao’s court. (In his 1971 article “On Photographs,” MacFarquhar demonstrates the value of systematically studying details of protocol, even conventions surrounding the hanging of leaders’ portraits.) And now, when we are puzzled by the public removal of former Party Secretary Hu Jintao from the Congress, ostensibly for trying to open a red folder, it pays off to go back to well-researched incidents of the Mao era. In 1971, Mao’s designated successor Lin Biao died in a mysterious airplane crash. Despite obvious differences, then as now images of human drama allow for multiple interpretations, a political purge meets a health crisis, and one man’s fate becomes a hard sell for propaganda.

Taking it to the Grassroots

On the question of what specific policy initiatives follow from the slogans highlighted in Xi Jinping’s speech, there is also another approach: Watch the grassroots of the Party. Like overseas observers, the Party’s almost 100 million members now face the challenge of making sense of the new political guidelines. Party members have already begun meeting in their party cells to study the “spirit of the 20th Party Congress.” The goal is to translate the party line into action in their workplaces and communities. Since most Party members are not cadres working in government positions, but rather workers in almost any imaginable profession, they serve as a conveyor belt carrying central politics into society. For instance, Party members in banks will discuss how the Party Congress should shape their business decisions. Much is at stake: Party members know that one day discipline inspectors will come and ask them about implementation success. As with previous Congresses, grassroots party members will not immediately agree on the implications of the proceedings in Beijing. Mistaken interpretations occur, and a broad consensus on the correct interpretation will only emerge over time. Meanwhile, central authorities have space to adjust their policies, without changing intentionally ambiguous campaign labels such as “common prosperity.” What ordinary party members, and citizens make of the Party’s new slogans will be as important as the Congress itself.

Who Will Benefit, Post Party Congress? Think Strategic Sectors

By Ya-Wen Lei, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology; author of the forthcoming Gilded Cage: Techno-State Capitalism in China

In my reading of Xi Jinping’s report to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, I saw no substantial changes in China’s economic and technological policies. Although globalization has contributed to China’s economic ascendence, growing geopolitical tensions have undermined this progress in recent years. As the US-China tensions escalate, the Chinese government has elevated the role of national security in its economic and technological policies.

Firms in key or strategic sectors are likely to see great prospects. Xi Jinping’s report emphasizes the security and resilience of key industrial and supply chains, greater self-reliance and strength in science and technology, breakthroughs in core technologies, and the creation of a globally competitive innovation ecosystem. To achieve these goals, the Chinese government will continue to use its “invisible hand” to invest in key sectors (e.g., artificial intelligence, integrated circuits, and advanced manufacturing) and build new “national teams.” While members of these teams are likely to receive public and private procurement contracts in China, these companies may also face the negative consequences of being placed on U.S. trading blacklists.

In comparison, the 20th Party Congress may disappoint numerous private firms that do not operate in key or strategic sectors. These private firms have been beset by many problems, including the zero-COVID policy, rising geopolitical tensions, the relative absence of the rule of law, and unequal access to bank credit between private firms and state-owned enterprises. No signs suggest the Party would solve these problems in the short run.