The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party began on October 16, 2022, concluded at the 22nd day of the same month. The five-year Congress acquires its significance by the terms decisions it issues, such as electing of the General Secretary of the Communist Party, who in turn becomes the president of the country.
The congress, in which 2,300 Party leaders participated, also determines the state's overall strategic outlines for the next five years, within a holistic vision that takes into account China's medium-term plans for 2035 as well as the long-term 2049; the year China will celebrate its golden jubilee.
The Congress also includes electing the 204 members of the Party's Central Committee, along with 170 substitutes. Twenty-five members will be elected to the Politburo Bureau membership, 7 of whom will be appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee.
The broad hierarchy of the Party, extended in various regions and fields, reflects the complexity of decision-making in a Party that acts as a thinking mind for the state as a whole. Under the current president, Xi Jinping reign, the barriers between the state and the Party contracted to a point where the Party bureaucracy became the regulator and facilitator of the state bureaucracy, as the Chinese president stressed in his opening speech that " Chinese modernization is socialist modernization pursued under the leadership of the Communist Party of China".
The estimated number of party members of 96.7 million indicates the degree of penetration of the Party into the social and cultural structure of the country, as it is perhaps the largest party in the world in terms of the number of its members, relative to the population of the country at 6.9%.
Since China began to pursue a foreign assertiveness policy, the Congress's public actions became the focus of attention of observers seeking to see the totality of the orientations of the party, which surrounds itself with a wall of secrecy.
Accordingly, the Congress represents a rare opportunity to reveal what is going on inside the mind of the Chinese state. It is not surprising that all its decisions, discussions, and speeches would come are under evaluation, especially Jinping's speech, with which he inaugurated the Congress. The following report will address the most important features of this speech.
Comprehensive Modernization of Socialism as A Priority
Jinping's 100-minute speech is an internal account statement for a decade of hi rule, in which the country has seen an economic boom. It was also a declaration of poverty elimination, and China's emergence on the international stage as a player with a unique personality from other international actors.
The Congress featured an unprecedented event since the era of China's founding president, Mao Zedong, where the current president was elected for a third term, after he introduced a constitutional amendment in 2018 that abolished the presidential term limits, enacted by President Deng Xiaoping in the constitution of 1982, as he sought to get rid of the aura of individual leadership that Tong placed around the president's post.
Western media periodically publish articles and reports, claiming that there is some sort of internal discontent with Jinping's monopoly of power in his hand, mostly pointing to latent discontent within the party's elite, where China has -for decades- accepted one-party control, but it is the one-man control that makes the elite be resentful.
However, what strengthens Jinping's position to overcome partisan criticism, is his position outside the wings and currents of the Party, which is divided into two main currents:
The first is a leftist wing, which adheres to traditional Marxism, based on full state ownership of the means of production, and the state's provision of basic services to citizens away from the private sector. Such wing is keen that class disparities would not emerge within the country, as such wing still embrace the idea of the inevitability of class struggle through violent revolution.
The second wing is a reformist centrist, which aspires to expand in the bureaucracy of the Party and the state in order to accomplish the development plans, that guarantee the continuity of the Party's rule of the country.
Jinping's speech at the opening of the conference – as well as his policy of the past decade – underscores his integration between the two currents, as he is leftist in terms of spreading and cherishing communist culture, but centrist in terms of adopting the preparation and implementation of development plans.
Below is a brief comment on the main features of the speech:
First: Local Policies Dimension
Feelings of national pride in the principles of Confucian civilization – although not explicitly mentioned by Jinping – were reiterated in the speech, calling for peace, positive cooperation, and non-violence. At the same time, the speech shows a confident "tendency" to defend Chinese peace, and to enforce the country's plans away from any interference or violations.
The speech focused too much on the principle of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and on the need to continue to update and modernize such Socialism, which Jinping considers a gain not only for China, but for the world as a whole, in a call for the "import" of the Chinese model of rule.
"Socialism with Chinese characteristics" is seen as a light form of capitalism, in which the state maintains its role in the productive process and the economy, while granting a specific level of economic freedoms to individuals to push innovation forward, and, most importantly, the broad involvement in world trade in line with capitalist rules.
Here, we should question the ability of the Chinese state to continue adapting to two extremes: socialist domestic policies with a communist culture, and capitalist foreign economic policies.
In fact, it is truly difficult to assume the permanence of this situation, because economic capitalism, by its very nature, carries seeds of crises and problems that are difficult to solve through political communism. So far, China did not face a large-scale crisis caused by the consequences of its emerging capitalism, embodied in the manifestations of economic openness, the free market, and the proliferation of technological companies that have created a class of the wealthy, comparable to California's Silicon Valley which houses the headquarters of major American technology companies.
This class, in China, has a consciousness that is different from the public, forming a solid nucleus for political liberals. Because the communism politics and culture does not accommodate corporate capitalism and the economy, then communism and capitalism are likely to clash against the backdrop of demands to expand the permissible political scope, and also on the backdrop of not to limit representation and decision-making in the state across the Party and its committees.
From this perspective, the connotations of what Jinping meant by "improving the system of income distribution " can be understood. Income imbalances, accompanying capitalism, are beginning to emerge. The speech also related the improvement of income distribution directly with " the Chinese people of all ethnic groups stay closely rallied around the Party Central Committee" since groups are usually the furthest from representation politically, the weakest socially protected. If such groups feel the decline of social justice and the wealth gap, then the ideological compensation should be made and the sense of political representation should be raised, even if this sense is false.
Because the Chinese president does not want this feeling to be fake, he always recalls achievements in his speeches, similarly to the opening speech of the conference in, which he addressed the people to:
- Economically speaking, the country's GDP increased, during his decade of rule, by 16 trillion US dollars, and the proportion of its size in the world economy expanded to 18.5%, an increase of 7.2%. China is ranked second globally in terms of GDP.Jinping stressed the need for mutual reinforcement between domestic and international economic cycles, and pledged to ensure the security of food, energy, as well as industry and supply chains. At this time, these elements have become vital to the national security of any country, after two global stressful shocks: the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Ukrainian-Russian crisis.
- On the level of manifestations of his personal imprint in the model of governance of the country, Jinping said that the Party "have achieved an overwhelming victory and fully consolidated the gains in our fight against corruption " considering that the serious inherent risks within the Party, the state, and the army have been removed, Jinping addressed the people's emotions by saying that the party fought resolutely to anger thousands - meaning the corrupt - and to achieve the hope of 1.4 billion people.Some observers – and political dissidents – accuse anti-corruption campaigns of being politicized, besides to being targeted, and selective in relation to political power.In his speech, Jinping responded discreetly to these claims, by asserting that "The comprehensive advancement of law-based governance has been a profound revolution in China’s governance. Law-based governance is important for the Party’s success in governing and rejuvenating the country".
- On the level of environmental protection, Jinping called for strengthening the work of the Beautiful China initiative, and protecting water and natural terrain, stressing that adaptation to nature is a necessity to move to modern socialism.Jinping revealed that "We will carry out coordinated industrial restructuring, pollution control, ecological conservation". This environmental proposition is consistent with a Western approach to sustainable growth, balancing the utilization of natural resources with the preservation of the right of future generations of such resources. The speech carried an indirect response to international criticism of China for not adhering to unified global environmental policies, especially when Jinping said that China will work "actively and wisely" to reach carbon neutrality.
- At the level of medical policies, Jinping pledged to complete the public health system, and raise epidemic response capacities, in terms of early detection and response. China is still facing international criticism over its initial handling coronavirus outbreak first moment, as well as China's early monitoring and control strategy. On the other hand, the Communist Party of China considers that China's management of the covid-19 crisis is a typical example of the countries' response to emerging risks, where state agencies have harmonized, as per a strict system monitored by smart technologies, to confine the pandemic to the narrowest scope. China was unique in following the strategy of "zero Covid" so far, despite scoring high vaccination rates, it still applies tight closures in geographical areas where cases are recorded, like in Shanghai, the most populous city and China's economic center. The government's precautionary policies faced veiled public criticism that the over-closure is unjustified for its psychological, social, and economic repercussions, especially as the risk scale has decreased with the decline in the severity of new mutants and high vaccination rates.Jinping is keenly aware of these criticisms. He responded by praising the party's policies to stamp out the pandemic, including societal restrictions and "zero Covid."
Second: The Military Dimension
As chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) that is the supreme commander of the armed forces, Jinping has made his strategic mark on the work of China's armed forces, through military modernization plans, aspiring to raise its operational efficiency to be a first-class army.
In his speech, Jinping stressed on "quickly elevating our people’s armed forces to world-class standards are strategic tasks for building a modern socialist country in all respects". The Nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party, held in October 2017, laid out a roadmap for a military vision that aspires to modernize the full military capabilities "Fully Modernized Power" by 2035, and in the long run by 2050 the Chinese military will reach the top-tier level, according to the words contained in the Party meetings, without explicitly addressing the goal of obtaining the first place in the world, as the wording was loose.
Bureaucratically, as in the duality of the Party and the government, there is the duality of the Party Military Committee and the Military General Command. In both cases, the Party's directives are to be obeyed according to the Constitution and custom. The Party's civilian control extends to the military dimension, in what is known as "the Party leads the gun".
This explains what Jinping meant by saying that China " will strengthen Party building across the board in the people’s armed forces to ensure that they always obey the Party’s command". In a clearer sense: to ensure that the vast army of communist ideology is well-absorbed, in order to prevent any defections or disobedience to the Party's political orders.
Regardless of what is said about the Party's control of the military, the military modernization plans overseen by Jinping are a gain for the military's capabilities. Such plans are monitored and evaluated by defense research departments in Washington, such as the RAND Corporation, which allocates permanent space to the Chinese file.
In one of Rand's 2020 books, " China's Grand Strategy: Trends, Trajectories, and Long-Term Competition" Rand foresaw four scenarios for China's national power in 2050: victory (global leadership), rise (strengthening its current capabilities), recession, and internal collapse.
The book saw the extreme scenarios of victory and collapse to be unlikely, and suggested their oscillation between ascent and stagnation.
However, what is striking in the book is its warning of the seriousness of China's military modernization, and that in the current decade the Chinese military will have integrated military capabilities that are able of competing all areas of war throughout vast territory. Rand Corporation, therefore, recommends that the U.S. military and its allies to prepare for immediate deployment in prompt response to any crises.
Third: The Security Dimension
Jinping summed up his security philosophy by saying "We must take the people’s security as our ultimate goal, political security as our fundamental task, economic security as our foundation, military, technological, cultural, and social security as important pillars, and international security as a support".
Throughout his speech, it can be argued that Jinping considers a comprehensive development to be organically linked to new security, as China's security perspective is centered around national security in its comprehensive, multidimensional, and multi-level sense, as the basis for the nation's renaissance.
Jinping called for modernizing the national security system, without specifying the general outlines of this modernization, nor whether the national security law, ratified in early July 2015, will be amended. It was clear that the law is primarily directed at criminalizing separatist tendencies, "subversive and terrorist" acts, and collusion with foreign powers, in a sharp reference to some provinces such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.
The said law also affirmed the defensive approach, on which foreign policy is based, in terms of respect for sovereignty and non-interference in its affairs and those of other States.
Fourth: The Foreign Policy Dimension
China views the Taiwanese issue as a domestic issue, rejecting any external interference in what it considers the core issue of its foreign policy. In recent months, the Taiwan was the subject of a Western-Chinese debate, that culminated in the visit of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan in August 2022, and with the "rare" statement of the Chinese Ministry of Defense that the visit will be followed by a "military" response warning of "plunging Taiwan into a deep catastrophe and inflicting serious damage on the island's population". A Position Assessment published by STRATEGIECS Think Tank reviewed the possible aspects of this response.
The visit was followed by the Taiwan Government Affairs Bureau issuing a core document, classified as the first white paper on Taiwan since 2000, according to Reuters, which read "We will work with the greatest sincerity and exert our utmost efforts to achieve peaceful reunification. But we will not renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all necessary measures".
In his speech, Jinping reiterated his adherence to the principle of "one country, two systems" and called for its improvement, without clarifying the means and mechanisms to that end, while repeating the possibility of resorting to force to reunite and target outside powers and what he called "the tiny minority of separatists".
This combination of pacifism and power suggests that China is now following strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan, just like the United States, which recognized Beijing as China's legitimate representative at the expense of Taiwan in the late seventies, but at the same time, pledged to support the island with what it takes to maintain its own administratively independent status, and the principle of "one country, two systems".
The Party's Congress is held in a violent international environment, with much talk and theorizing about the emergence of a multipolar world and the end of unipolarity. But Jinping's speech contained no details about the international system or its major crises, such as the Ukrainian-Russian crisis, or the American-run security structures in the Indo-Pacific region.
Jinping merely responded indirectly to accusations and skeptical speculation about the future behavior of Chinese foreign policy, stressing that " China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansionism" and that it will steadfastly continue its foreign policy independence, a reference to keeping a distance away from Russian foreign policy and inconsistent with Moscow's military involvement in Ukraine.
It is true that the principles of Chinese foreign policy – respect for sovereignty, non-interference, and respect for the basic rules of international relations – are still in valid to interpret and understand China's foreign orientations, but China's tendency to harden its foreign positions may reduce the predictability of its activity and decisions.
Even that the tools to achieve foreign policy goals can evolve. It is noted that Beijing, under Jinping, views innovation and technology from a geostrategic perspective, related to taking precedence, leadership, and international competition.
The speech devoted a wide space to technology and science, and affirmed " research to achieve breakthroughs in core technologies in key fields". Jinping asserted that the acquisition of exclusive superiority globally, in high-tech, gives an advantage to soft control over the joints of the international system, and also an advantage to military decisiveness via military technology.
Huawei was part of the tariff war between Beijing and Washington under Trump. The company faced Western accusations over interference by the government – specifically the Chinese military – in its management and ownership, access to user data, and violation of privacy and confidentiality rules in force in the West and across countries.
The speech touched on industrial modernization to ensure competitive advantages globally, and to achieve important results "in basic research and original innovation, made breakthroughs in some core technologies in key fields, and boosted emerging strategic industries. We have witnessed major successes on multiple fronts, including manned spaceflight, lunar and Martian exploration, deep sea and deep earth probes, supercomputers, satellite navigation, quantum information, nuclear power technology, airliner manufacturing, and biomedicine".
All of this comes as part of what Jinping called an "innovation-driven development" strategy aimed at promoting autonomy and self-sufficiency.
A potential Turning Point?
The speech looked closely at the domestic development and security axes, and did not elaborate on international competition and foreign relations as stated in the foreign policy item. Although comprehensive and secure development is China's paramount goal, moving forward with it is faced with disincentives stemming from regional and international security threats, because confronting these threats transcends meeting the requirements of development.
These threats have increased on the ground of Beijing's increased international engagement, which means that meeting the ultimate goal — comprehensive and secure development — requires reducing international engagement, resetting crisis positions, and reducing the polarization of China's international personality.
Therefore, China may resort to adjusting its weight to move more and more inward and content itself with the regional dimension of its foreign policy. A report published by Strategiecs Think Tank entitled "The Necessary Balance: The Rise of China and U.S. Control" discussed two conflicting principles in the approach of China's foreign interactions: the peaceful rise, and "Hide and Bide".
This principle revolves around China's development of its capabilities in various fields, quietly and in relative secrecy without drawing attention, waiting for the appropriate time to disclose the impact of these capabilities, after they have been increased by minimal international obstruction, and via directing the national effort towards comprehensive domestic development away from external files.
It is noted that Jinping's speech, at the opening of the Congress, resets a compass to fortify its development, strengthening its capacities, and reduce international disharmony as much as possible. Comparing to the 3-hour speech of the Nineteenth Congress, the half-time speech of the Twentieth Congress did not address sensitive issues, such as the South China Sea, and construction on islands and coral reefs.
More importantly, the speech of the Twentieth Congress avoided reviewing the progress path of the Belt and Road Initiative. It was only mentioned once when Jinping said " We will promote the high-quality development of the Belt and Road Initiative". The previous Congress speech mentioned the Belt and Road for five times, and relatively elaborated on its features and importance.
There are some politically oriented doubts about Beijing's actual commitment to the "joint construction of the Belt and Road". Important joints of the Initiative, in some countries, were exposed to Chinese acquisitions due to the impossibility of repaying Chinese loans, in what Western circles call "debt trap".
In fact, China's spending on this initiative declined, for reasons related to the international confrontation to which it is subjected to, and also because of directing spending towards domestic development, not to mention the technical and logistical obstacles that have confronted it.
The speech evaded the major economic problems facing China, such as the mortgage crisis, production stalled by lockdowns related to the party's "zero Covid" policy, and the blocking of advanced technology, either due to sanctions or U.S. coordination with its partners.
Demonstrating these crises, the International Monetary Fund expects the Chinese economy to record its worst year-on-year growth in 4 decades except for 2020, which witnessed the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
The foregoing entirely suggests that such speech may be a partial turning point for Beijing's further inward turn, and for the possible neutralization of international discord with Washington, in order to preserve and enhance global trade advantages.
As for the balance of power within the Party's wings, it is difficult to build an objective view on this, given the impossibility of obtaining neutral and non-politicized information, but it is certain that Jinping's, rule after his election to the 20th National Congress, will not be as smooth as the last decade, where China made economic and international breakthroughs reflected in his domestic leadership. Therefore, it can be assumed that the Twenty-first National Congress – autumn 2027 – may not be a complementary scene to the endorsement of Jinping's tendencies, rather, it may witness a clear competition thereto.