China’s ultra-secret national party congress meeting on Sunday – at which the formal process of appointing a new leadership will begin – will shape China’s future. Jason Young explains what’s at stake. 

In February 1956, First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev delivered a ‘secret speech’ to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In it, Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality and dictatorial rule. The tenor of the speech was leaked to media, but the full text only became public in 1989, some 33 years after it was delivered.

The Communist Party of China holds its own 20th National Congress this October. There is no expectation of a ‘secret speech’ or the denouncement of any leader. We’re unlikely to see even muffled critique of party leadership. The last time that happened was in 1981, when the Resolution on Party History rebuked Mao Zedong for the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

But the level of secrecy around the meeting will be very similar – if not higher – to that enjoyed by Khrushchev. Political and policy debate in China’s Communist Party remains largely a closed book.

The congress will instead be of interest for the leadership appointments and any amendments made to the party constitution, as well as for any clues it provides for gauging China’s policy direction.

Decisions confirmed at the congress will ‘guide’ party and state policy for the next five years. But world headlines will focus mostly on the party’s current general secretary, Xi Jinping. Xi has already served two terms, and norms, put in place by Deng Xiaoping to prevent the cult of personality that existed under Mao, suggest it is time for a successor.

However, it looks increasingly unlikely that Xi will step aside. He may even have an honorary title conferred on him, such as People’s Leader, which would further elevate his position. This would be largely symbolic since Xi is currently not only general secretary of the party, but also head of state and chairman of the Central Military Commission.

In 2018, revisions to the People’s Republic of China constitution removed term limits for the national president/chairman (the head of state), meaning if Xi retains the general secretary role this October he could also seek a third term as head of state when this position is selected at the National People’s Congress meeting in March 2023.

A third term is likely to deepen concern that authoritarian rule in China is moving further away from institutionalised transfer of power and reverting to personality-driven leadership.

In the unlikely event that Xi steps down, rumours will fly about what court politics conspired. If he stays on, but not as general secretary, the party may need to dust off the role of party chair, a position not held since Mao.

Other appointments will also be significant. A politburo standing committee stacked with Xi loyalists would significantly strengthen Xi’s hand and be far less likely to push back on poor policy.

Most importantly, the congress will signal the direction of Chinese politics, economic policymaking, and foreign policy. Its esoteric language will have very real consequences for the more than 90 million members of the Communist Party, 1.4 billion Chinese citizens, and ultimately the direction of Chinese policy in the coming years.

A change to the Party Constitution to elevate ‘Xi Thought’ to a level akin to ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ would further entrench the current era and darken any prospects of political reform.

A reassessment of the ‘primary stage of socialism’, or the meaning of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, could signal a shift in China’s economic direction as it faces a slowing economy, a precarious property market, and headwinds in the global economy, as well as a temporary downturn brought on by Xi’s ‘dynamic zero-Covid’ policy.

China’s model for rapid economic growth and development has run its course and left the economy unbalanced. Long-standing commentators now argue the economy has been mismanaged under Xi and worry about prolonged stagnation if left unchecked.

A shift toward a ‘People’s Economy’ or ‘Common Prosperity’ could signal a return to a more traditional party approach. On the other hand, a focus on reform and opening could signal plans for concrete action toward market-oriented reform.

China also faces strained international relations, especially with the United States and increasingly in Europe and Asia. Its more ‘proactive’ foreign policy, as signalled in the pages of the People’s Daily, suggest this approach and these strains could continue.

If the congress mirrors last year’s Resolution on Party history, it will be at pains to stress the ‘new era’, the ‘strong nation’, and that the world is experiencing ‘once-in-a-century changes’.

Such sentiments would suggest a continuation of China’s more assertive foreign policy, including through the recently announced Global Security Initiative and Global Development Initiative, two policies that have received little attention in New Zealand.

Alternatively, we could see a more conciliatory foreign policy signalled.

The 20th National Congress provides glimpses of China’s future policy directions that are consequential for New Zealand and the world, but the tea leaves are not getting any easier to read. The more grandiloquent and tightly scripted congress announcements become, the more China’s party politics resemble the bewildering days of Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’.

Associate Professor Jason Young is director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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