President Xi Jinping delivers a report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 16. Photo: Xinhua
Stephen Roach
Stephen Roach

What the 20th party congress reveals about China’s leadership, strategy and attitude to conflict

  • It is unsurprising that Xi Jinping chose loyalists to surround him in the Politburo Standing Committee, but the elevation of ideology tsar Wang Huning bears watching
  • In terms of strategy, it is clear national security will continue to take precedence over economic growth, especially with regard to conflict with the US
China’s 20th party congress has come and gone. Despite all the fanfare and media hype, it was a hollow event. It revealed little we didn’t already know about China – an autocracy that maintains grandiose ambitions and ideological bluster to match but is woefully unprepared for an uncertain future filled with risks largely of its own making.

That much is evident when the results of the congress are examined from three perspectives: leadership, strategy and conflict.

The leadership reveal of the so-called first plenum – the formal meeting of the Party’s 205-member Central Committee that immediately follows the conclusion of the congress – was in line with the power consolidation that has been under way since President Xi Jinping was first appointed general secretary 10 years ago.
Confirmation of Xi’s third five-year term as leader of the Communist Party of China was never in doubt. Neither was his selection of loyalists to surround him at the top in the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.

There will be some jockeying for positions such as premier and the chairs of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, but the outcomes matter little. In Xi’s China, these positions, once central to the model of consensus leadership that Deng Xiaoping wisely put in place following the death of Mao Zedong, have been marginalised.


China’s 20th party congress concludes with bigger than expected leadership reshuffle

China’s 20th party congress concludes with bigger than expected leadership reshuffle
Xi seems to have a preference for premiers with the surname Li. Li Qiang, the Shanghai party chief and the public face of China’s draconian zero-Covid lockdowns, is the strong favourite to replace the retiring incumbent, Li Keqiang.
Wang Huning is worth mentioning as the only other noteworthy leadership appointment. Apart from Xi, he is one of two holdovers from the previous Standing Committee and appears to be in line for one of the ceremonial legislative chairs.
But Wang’s role is more important than that. He is not only Xi’s ideological alter ego, responsible for crafting Xi’s signature “ Chinese dream” as well as “ Xi Jinping Thought”, he also has been a prominent proponent of the view that the United States is in decline. Wang’s 1991 book America Against America, written after a three-month visit to the US, paints a picture of a country beset by mounting social and political turmoil, ripe for crisis.

When that crisis occurred – the 2008-09 global financial crisis – Wang’s view became ascendant within party leadership circles, leading Xi to conclude that a rising China was well positioned to challenge a waning US. Wang’s promotion adds worrisome fuel to the US-China conflict.

In terms of strategy, the main message of the 20th party congress is that China will stay the course of the past five years. This means one thing: national security takes precedence over economic growth.
The party has lost itself in endless praise of Xi as China’s core leader, the ideological virtues of Xi Jinping Thought and the all-encompassing need to “pursue a holistic approach to national security and promote national security in all areas and stages of the work of the party and the country”. In other words, modernisation and growth are fine, but only on Xi’s terms.
What do those terms look like? An important hint is provided by the party congress’s emphasis on another of Xi’s signature initiatives, the “ common prosperity” campaign, which features a variety of efforts aimed at tempering wealth and income disparities. Common prosperity was also associated with the 2021 regulatory assault on the private sector, especially the once-dynamic internet platform companies.
While Beijing’s subsequent spin has attempted to soften this regulatory clampdown, the targeted companies have been crushed in the equity market, as have the animal spirits and potential for indigenous innovation their spectacular growth once promised.

What is China’s common-prosperity strategy?

The outcome of the 20th party congress underscores an important distinction between economic growth “with Chinese characteristics” and a very different strain of development with Xi Jinping characteristics. The latter unfortunately throws cold water on the Chinese dynamism that many, including me, have long emphasised.

Perhaps the most noteworthy implications of the party congress pertain to conflict. It emphasised the “unparalleled complexity”, “graveness” and “difficulty” that China faces at home and abroad. While hardly an Earth-shattering admission, it exposes Xi’s willingness to accept sacrificed growth as a steep price to pay for national security.

The opaque ideological dogma of the party congress only hinted at what to expect from China in meeting those challenges. That was more evident in Xi’s July 2021 speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China’s founding. “We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress or subjugate us,” he said. “Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

In view of this warning and the challenges stressed at the 20th party congress, the collision with the US championed by Wang takes on new meaning. The clash concerns not only Taiwan but frictions in the South China Sea and Western pressure concerning human rights abuses in Xinjiang.


China says ‘no limits’ in cooperation with Russia

China says ‘no limits’ in cooperation with Russia
At its root, it’s about the containment strategy the US has pursued toward China. It’s also about China’s unlimited partnership with Russia and the risk of guilt by association with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unconscionable war on Ukraine.

As Xi said, these are obviously complex challenges. But in celebrating the party’s centennial, he left little doubt of what those challenges might portend: “Having the courage to fight and the fortitude to win is what has made our party invincible.” A modernised and expanded military puts teeth into that threat and underscores the risks posed by Xi’s conflict-prone China.

Stephen S. Roach, a former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is a faculty member at Yale University and the author of the forthcoming Accidental Conflict: America, China, and the Clash of False Narratives. Copyright: Project Syndicate