Party Watch Annual Report 2022
Seeking Progress While Maintaining Stability
Throughout the course of 2022, China’s senior leaders and state media commentaries repeatedly emphasized the phrase “seeking progress while maintaining stability” (稳中求进). Set as the “main theme” of 2022 economic work during December 2021’s Central Economic Work Conference, reiterated in March 2022’s government work report, and referenced in the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a consistent focus on “seeking progress while maintaining stability” reflects the Party’s concerns about maintaining stability and staying on track with plans for progress. 2022 was a year of substantial international and domestic challenges for China, of the sort often described by party leaders and media as “changes unseen in a century.” These include intensified US-China competition, variant-driven Covid outbreaks, a global economic downturn, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and nation-wide protests over the implementation of a zero-Covid policy. Focusing on the theme of “seeking progress while maintaining stability,” the authors of the CACR 2022 Annual Report will review how Beijing responded to these major international and domestic shocks—all while Xi Jinping sought to cement his grip on power and set the agenda for China’s future.
A focus on “seeking progress while maintaining stability” is not without precedent. As Stella Chen writes in her historical overview of the phrase, it was first prominently used by state media in 1991 and has seen periodic resurgences in times of economic and social challenges or instability. It is often used in reference to maintaining a stable macroeconomic situation amid national or international economic downturns, with the goal of protecting the population’s wellbeing and providing a basis for future growth. “Seeking progress while maintaining stability” continues to be used in this sense, with recent commentaries highlighting the resilience and “overall stability” of China’s economy as the foundation for long-term recovery and growth despite short-term losses. The phrase is not purely a reference to economic issues, though: throughout 2022, state media used the phrase to discuss a wide variety of issues, reflecting the far-reaching impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the security-oriented definition of stability under Xi Jinping. Xi’s April directive that “the pandemic must be controlled, the economy must be stabilized, and development must be secured” indicates the extent to which public health, economic, and security issues were intertwined in 2022.
The Party’s focus on both challenges to stability and goals for future progress was prominent during the major political event of the year, the 20th Party Congress in October. The 19th Central Committee’s report to the Party Congress, presented in a speech by Xi, reflected concerns about stability and emphasized security. It stated that China is in a “period in which strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising,” rather than an “important period of strategic opportunity.” At the same time that it noted risks and uncertainty, the report set ambitious goals for China’s modernization and “rejuvenation.” Perhaps most importantly, the Congress saw Xi overturn the Party’s modern institutional norms to cement his personal power: Xi was elected to a third term as general secretary in defiance of unofficial term limits, Xi’s allies maintained or were appointed to key leadership roles regardless of age limits, and revisions to the party constitution established and defended the central status of Xi and his signature ideology. Party media praised Xi’s ongoing leadership as a source of stability and continuity, referring to him as “steering a steady course at the helm” and describing his core status as the key to successfully facing instability. Conversely, many independent observers argue that Xi’s consolidation of power increases the risk of poor decision-making, ineffective or excessive policy implementation, or inflexible strategy. In the Annual Report, authors discuss how the changes enacted at the Party Congress will either damage or support the future stability and progress of Chinese governance.
Beijing seeks both stability and progress in areas like elite politics, international relations, the media environment, economic governance, and pandemic control, all of which face their own challenges. In some cases, as with policies for pandemic control and social stability, pursuit of progress towards one goal may ultimately undermine stability in another. 2022’s Annual Report discusses the Party’s response to challenges in a variety of issue areas and predicts its strategy for attaining future goals. Contributors review the events of 2022 in historical context, focusing on the 20th Party Congress as a pivotal event in modern Chinese politics holding major implications for diverse issues. In every section, both the pandemic itself and the Party’s response to it loom large as main sources of risk and potential instability.
In his section on elite politics, Bruce Dickson focuses on the significance of October’s Party Congress, where Xi Jinping broke with many emergent institutional norms. While noting trends away from reform prior to and throughout Xi’s administration, Dickson argues that the era of reform and opening can be officially declared over after the events of the 20th Party Congress. Reviewing the formal political rules, reformist policies, and informal norms that defined elite politics of the reform era, he concludes that Xi has now fully abandoned or reversed these major hallmarks of reform, with negative repercussions for governance.
Yanzhong Huang provides a concise overview of China’s zero-Covid policy, explaining its costs and benefits for both the Party-state and Chinese citizens. Arguing that such a policy became clearly unsustainable amid mounting social and economic costs, he discusses the factors that delayed the end of zero-Covid as well as the ones that led to its eventual de facto repeal. Analyzing the recent shift away from zero-Covid, Huang makes a compelling case that the abrupt reversal of zero-Covid only deepened many of the problems the initial policy caused.
Wendy Leutert’s section reviews Beijing’s efforts to maintain economic stability throughout 2022 while facing the negative effects of both the pandemic’s spread in China and the strict Covid control measures in place for most of the year. Leutert argues that the Party-state turned to familiar tools like state ownership and influence and Party control to stabilize the economy. She examines why and how China’s leaders use state-owned enterprises to promote stability, the Party’s tightening control over the state sector under Xi, and the extent to which stabilization efforts succeeded in addressing the economic challenges of 2022.
Yun Sun reflects upon the year in foreign policy in her section, arguing that Xi Jinping’s need for political stability before the 20th Party Congress had prompted China to adopt a de-escalatory approach toward its foreign policy challenges. She suggests that now that Xi’s third term is secured, the stage may be set for a more confrontational foreign policy in the future, despite Beijing’s initially more conciliatory approach and diplomatic efforts around the Party Congress. Sun analyzes Xi Jinping’s influence over significant foreign policy personnel changes and the Party’s increasingly security-focused global outlook, outlining Beijing’s foreign policy goals and likely future strategy under his third term.
In an incisive case study of one of the key events in China’s struggle for zero-Covid, Dali Yang analyzes a timeline of the lockdown of Shanghai, from the failure of local authorities to control the city’s coronavirus outbreak, through the grim impacts of the centrally-imposed “siege” on residents, to the eventual lifting of the city’s never-officially-declared lockdown. He argues that the lockdown was an unforgettable demonstration of the harms and public mistrust created by central authorities’ excessive approach to the zero-Covid strategy, providing insights into Beijing’s eventual abandonment of the strategy later in the year.
Finally, Rui Zhong discusses the dynamics of censorship and propaganda amid Xi’s consolidation of power. Insightfully examining the distinct characteristics, mechanisms, and incentives of Chinese censorship and propaganda in light of some of the major media events and viral incidents of 2022, Zhong concludes that the “uneasy equilibrium” of the current censorship system is likely to shift under new political pressures and the public’s growing material anxieties, albeit with current leadership still at the helm.
Download the full report here:
Introduction: Seeking Progress While Maintaining Stability
By Molly Henry
The Reform and Opening Era is Over
By Bruce J. Dickson
China’s Zero-Covid Farce
By Yanzhong Huang
The Party-State’s Struggle for Economic Stability
By Wendy Leutert
2022: A Watershed Year for China’s Foreign Policy?
By Yun Sun
The Shanghai Lockdown and the Politics of Zero-Covid in China
By Dali L. Yang
How Top-Down Propaganda Built — and Weakened— the Start of Xi Jinping’s Third Term
By Rui Zhong