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Perspectives on the 20th Party Congress

The Politburo Standing Committee's Seventh Plenum, 9-12 October. (Xinhua photo by Ding Haitao, 丁海涛)

In the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress, CACR asked several China experts what they are watching for and what implications they believe the Congress will have for the United States and its partners. Our respondents pointed to potential changes in China’s language on Taiwan, changes to the Chinese Communist Party Charter, new language on international relations, and the apparent absence of political discourse among the Chinese public in the lead-up to the Congress.

Oriana Skylar Mastro, Center Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University:

Party congresses are usually about two things, personnel and policy. Of course, on the personnel side, everyone is waiting to see Xi Jinping consolidate his position for a third term. But policy might be equally interesting, particularly China’s policy over Taiwan. The question is whether the CCP is going to further clarify its position on how “one country, two systems” would apply, as the CCP is definitely thinking it would be different than the previous formulation for Hong Kong. We might also get some clarification on some things that were missing from the last white paper, in particular whether or not a Taiwan under the CCP's control will have the ability to elect its own government officials and indications of a timeline for unification.

Holly Snape, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Glasgow:

My focus is on the report to Congress and changes to the [Party] Charter [also translated as the Party Constitution]. The report sits at the top of the constellation of documents: who headed its drafting is important, and what it says will be studied, theorized, and implemented through more concrete policy documents for years to come. The report may outline strategy on “Chinese-style modernisation”; it may intimate what the current leadership sees as a “great modern socialist country” (the 19th Congress report added “强国” to the goal for mid-21st century); it may lay out plans for tackling "imbalanced, insufficient development"; and, crucially, it might indicate further changes to the Party itself and to its relationship with its state towards achieving these ends.

The Xi administration treats the Charter as important, and it has spent the past decade building a vast, cohesive intra-party regulatory system that enables its implementation. The 19th Congress codified “the Party leads everything” into the Charter and added the term “supervisory” (监察) to the list of state organs appearing in its General Program. The following spring, these Charter amendments were reflected in momentous changes to the state Constitution (entering Party leadership into the General Principles and creating a whole new “state” supervisory system). This struck at the heart of the Party’s relationship with its state, expanding the Party’s role in leading and supervising the state. 19th Congress Charter amendments also changed intra-party relationships, codifying a new take on “correct” democratic centralism (upholding the authority of the Center with Xi as “Core”), and codifying regularized, institutionalized study of Xi speeches. The 19th Central Committee (CC) Seventh Plenum communiqué shows that Wang Huning explained Charter amendments to the CC. To me, two things particularly merit attention: what Charter amendments do to adjust intra-party formal rules and relationships, and the space that this shapes for informal practices; and what Charter amendments do to consolidate the notion of Party leadership over the state and society: will the new Charter create further mechanisms to put “the Party leads everything” into practice?

David Ownby, Professor of History, Université de Montréal:

Going through my WeChat subscriptions over the past few days, I found, to my amazement, no mention of the Party Congress, and no mention—or pictures—of Xi Jinping. It is true that I consciously choose not to subscribe to propaganda organs, but I certainly did not consciously set up my WeChat feed to avoid mention of important events in Chinese politics. Core subscriptions include 文化纵横,开放时代,文史哲,天府新论,and 探索与争鸣, to which I have added other journals and authors over time.

There may be references to Xi and the Congress somewhere in the dozens of texts I skimmed. But the only thing I found that struck me as even slightly meaty was a piece by [the staff of Beijing Cultural Review] 文化纵横 which seems to be sort of a retrospective on its mission, in which they note that it is crucial to “maintain the ability to think independently and think clearly,” because “we feel that an era that can be truly called a ‘revival’ should be an age that can stand up to scrutiny and examination. It should be an era where we maintain universal concerns and ask real questions.”

I confess that I do not know what to make of this. I generally consider it a good thing that a semblance of intellectual life continues under Xi Jinping, and I suppose that we should be encouraged that the journals that cater to this life have not been compelled to drop everything and join the propaganda chorus. At the same time, is it not whistling past the graveyard to say nothing at all about a major moment in Chinese politics? Presumably because they can’t?

Wen-Hsuan Tsai, Research Fellow, Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica:

In short, Xi Jinping may propose a new discourse on international relations at the 20th National Party Congress. This is mainly based on the basic theory of "dual circulation" (雙循環), which is based on domestic circulation, supplemented by international and domestic circulation. This means that the CCP will open up foreign exchanges to a limited extent and think about strengthening its own independence. In addition, Xi Jinping will strengthen the party organization's ability to integrate international, domestic, and cross-strait relations. In the political report of the 20th National Party Congress, there may be discussion about the party's historical mission or contemporary functions. The Party must be able to integrate all government institutions and social organizations, and the core of the Party is Xi Jinping. Finally, the 20th Congress may make a clearer statement on Xi Jinping's status and praise his historical achievements in China's rejuvenation. This means that Xi Jinping's term may extend to 2032, but only if there are no health problems.

David Gitter, president and CEO, Center for Advanced China Research:

Probably one of the most (if not the most) consequential developments to watch is how the 20th Party Congress report frames the significance of making progress toward Taiwan’s absorption by China. Since October 2021 (one year before the 20th Party Congress), authoritative speeches and documents have made explicit that Xi Jinping’s overarching goal of “national rejuvenation”—China’s first-rate wealth and power—is unachievable without “national reunification”—Taiwan’s absorption. Similarly, since the 19th Party Congress’s Sixth Plenum and related Historic Resolution, “resolving the Taiwan issue in the ‘new era’” [read ‘Xi’s era’] has become a regular feature of the Party’s line on Taiwan and has been explicitly named a part of Xi Jinping’s addition to the Party’s ideology, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era. These significant linkages will very likely be made high canon in the 20th Party Congress Work Report. Such an outcome should be viewed as signaling Xi’s likely intent to resolve Taiwan during his time in power, however long that may last. He is 69….so we can do the math. The United States and its allies should consider this timeline as they strive to deter or prepare for a Chinese move on Taiwan.


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