How to Read the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party? An Interview with a Chinese Journalist

“Let China sleep, for when she wakens, the world will tremble,” had said Napoleon Bonaparte. But she woke up a few decades ago and became one of the most tremendous powers in the world. So to keep a beady eye on her actions, we should cook an ear for what’s going on there. Last month, the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held to decide on the senior staff of the Party for the next five years. However, this year’s Congress was significant because Xi Jinping consolidated his power by reelecting for the third time, unprecedentedly since Mao Zedong and by appointing loyal names to the Politburo, which is a kind of cabinet. Therefore, I interviewed a Chinese journalist to learn about its impact on the future of China and world politics. Since the Chinese government surveils journalists’ activities closely, the journalist’s name will not be mentioned throughout the interview due to safety concerns about their family’s life.

Firstly, I want to ask about the significance of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party from your perspective. Why do we need to care about it, and what would be possible concrete consequences for China and the rest of the world?

The most important thing about the 20th Communist Party Congress is undoubtedly the guarantee of Xi Jinping’s third term in power. This has been unprecedented in China since 1978, after the implementation of the reform and opening-up policy. Six years after coming to power, Xi Jinping, in 2018, amended the constitution, breaking the rule that China’s president could not serve more than two terms, which had been in place since 1982. This system was designed by Deng Xiaoping, known as the inter-generational designation, a succession system arrangement with Chinese characteristics to prevent the dangers of a dictator ruling for life.

So five years ago, Xi’s re-election this year was guaranteed. He also did not arrange for his successor in the current party congress. This means that he is likely to pursue a lifetime in power. Given his longevity, he may continue another ten-twenty years in power.

In terms of consequences, for example, his foreign policy is highly aggressive. His lifelong rule means that his record over the past decade will likely intensify. “Reunification with Taiwan” has become a highly likely option. Considering that the European Union is economically dependent on China if China decides to invade Taiwan by force, the EU will see disastrous results no matter how much it sanctions China or not.

The moment showing Hu Jintaos exit could be seen as the most striking moment of the Congress. Although there are rumors about his health, the mystery remains unanswered. How do you interpret that image?

This will always be a mystery. Maybe in the future, post-communist era, we could learn the truth. But, the crux of the matter is clearly not his health. From the visuals, it is clear that Hu Jintao wanted to see the document in that red folder.

So it is highly likely that this is a visual expression of a power struggle. Xi Jinping’s power has reached its peak. This video could be a footnote to that peak. From the perspective of political psychology, an alternative oath of office by humiliating the former leader, among others.

During the Congress, Xi Jinping was generally compared with Mao Zedong and called the most powerful leader since Mao. How does Xi differentiate himself from the other presidents of China?

Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a Communist Party reformer. He had a good reputation within the party and Chinese society. But Mao persecuted him during the Cultural Revolution. Because of his father’s connections, Xi Jinping was widely regarded as a reformer before he came to power. But he has gone in a completely opposite direction. As a result, some party elites and liberal intellectuals began comparing Xi Jinping to Mao Zedong around 2015.

When we consider Xi Jinping’s situation when he came to power in 2012, within the party, Xi’s other rival, Bo Xilai, tried to launch a coup to prevent Xi’s rise to power. The crisis ended with a determined counter-attack by then-Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao. The attempted coup was a massive crisis for the Communist Party patriarchs. Xi and they shared a common interest in stabilizing the party’s power structure. He was thus able to consolidate his power.

Xi Jinping sees China as the Communist Party’s accomplishment. One of his primary responsibilities is maintaining the Communist Party’s one-party dictatorship, not to liberalize party bans, newspaper bans, civil society, etc. For liberal intellectuals, the middle class and business people, a better future is a multi-party state. For the Communists, it was a disastrous future. Given the lessons of the Soviet Union, it is unlikely that Xi Jinping and his colleagues would have accepted such a future, regardless of which faction. Gorbachev is a disgrace in the eyes of the Communist Party.

Xi Jinping believed in a set of philosophies of class struggle. However, he was not precisely a communist but more of a nationalist or statist. So he believes in the power struggle against the West. However, Mao was revolutionary. He grew up in a world where imperialism was rampant and fought with each other, and national and communist states emerged. When Mao was young, he could be considered a journalist, writer, and poet. He became the leader of the Communist Party of China with charisma. He was in the role of a national savior before causing a massive disaster in China. Therefore, in a sense, he was equal to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

But in charismatic terms, Xi is a poor imitator of Mao. He is not a man of letters, intellectual, or revolutionary; he is the product of a mutual compromise between the Communist Party patriarchs. When the patriarchs wanted to choose a successor who would best serve their interests, he had to appear to have no obvious political leanings or even to appear to be easily controlled to stand out. But once Xi assumed power, he changed completely.

Xi wields more power than Mao. Mao controlled the military in his era, but the country’s premier, Zhou Enlai, held the intelligence and secret service systems. But in the Xi era, Xi has all the systems. So, we can see the paradox that when Xi has more power than Mao, he still cannot be Mao. Of course, the reason is time has changed. Chinese society now has a large middle class, intellectual and business class, which are not foolish enough to sing the praises of the supreme leader.

The tension between China and Taiwan has become one of the essential matters in world politics. During the Congress, Xi Jinping uttered the possibility of using forces for reunification. However, he did not support the Russian attack on Ukraine on behalf of Russia or condemn the war. This is a really interesting situation because while keeping irredentism at home, he keeps silent on the Russia-Ukraine war. How do you explain this contradiction? Do you think that there will be any political or discursive alterations? 

I don’t think this is contradictory. On the level of international law, Ukraine is an independent country recognized by the United Nations and has diplomatic relations with China. What Putin has unquestionably launched is a war of invasion. Taiwan, on the other hand, is a de facto state, but less than twenty countries in the world recognize Taiwan as an independent state. This gives the CCP an opportunity. They will argue for the legitimacy of the “reunification of the motherland”.

I think China will remain “neutral” on the Russo-Ukrainian war. But in Taiwan, Xi Jinping will most likely go much further. It depends on whether he is crazy enough and whether there is enough pressure from the international community.

Many political scientists agree that we have entered the new cold-war era with the Russia-Ukraine war. In this era, we are witnessing an increase in security policies and military investments of states. There are examples of these policies in China, such as the Zero-Covid policy and policies against minorities at home and towards Hong Kong and Taiwan abroad. However, there is a slump in the Chinese economy as well. Do you think Xi Jinping will maintain security policies amid economic shrinkage while consolidating his power after Congress?

It is clear that Xi Jinping has put “security” ahead of “economic development.” “Security” can mean many things, like not being overly reliant on technology from Western societies. But security can also be understood as the opposite of security, and that is war. China is likely to become a quasi-warlike state in the next decade. The Zero-Covid Policy that China has implemented over the past three years is a quasi-warfare state. People have been massively deprived of their freedom. Lockdowns, quarantines, mobility restrictions, 24-hour Covid testing, deportations, tracking personal information, etc., were unthinkable before and have now been achieved.

China’s economic system will likely evolve on this basis. China will still have a market economy and import/export trade; simultaneously, the Communist Party will intervene on a larger scale in different forms. At the same time, a more typical change is that a wartime economic state will be more and more likely to emerge. Suppose China does experience a severe financial crisis in the future. In that case, it could instead spur the authorities to launch a war against Taiwan to fuel nationalism and divert domestic conflicts.

So, the economy is essential to the CCP. But the most important thing is maintaining the one-party state and keeping the one-party state when the economy is good and maintaining the one-party state in a more brutal way when the economy is terrible.

Is there any powerful or influential opposition in China against Xi Jinpings authority? Are you hopeful/optimistic about the future of democracy in China?

No, there is no opposition against him. But in terms of being hopeful, I can say that it is not about hope but Chinese people’s actions. Not now, but in the future.

Selin Akbaş

Selin Akbaş

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