By Peter Main
THE TWENTIETH Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, CCP, predictably went according to plan. Well, almost. Xi Jinping was at last able to fill all of the places on the Politburo and its Standing Committee with his own supporters. Although he had defeated the supporters of Hu Jintao and Li Keqiang, the previous President and Premier, in 2012, he had been obliged to keep them on the highest policy-making body, the Standing Committee, until now.
The only interruption to the carefully staged display of monolithic unity came in the final session. Suddenly, Hu was removed from his seat at the top table by officials and was led away. As he went, he glanced at Xi and lightly patted Li’s shoulder.
We may never know exactly what lay behind this extraordinary episode, but many have noted that, immediately before his removal, Hu had opened the red folder in front of him which, reportedly, should have remained closed until Xi had spoken. Was he removed simply for an infringement of protocol? Was it feared he might interrupt Xi? Or was it simply a demonstration that absolutely nobody is permitted to depart from the script, as laid down by Xi? What nobody seems to accept is the official story that Hu was taken ill and was helped away for his own good.
Whatever the truth of that matter, the whole Congress certainly made clear that Xi is now completely in control. In case anyone was in any doubt, the amendment to the Articles of Association obliges all party members to uphold his status as ‘the core of the party leadership’.
Such adulation, such monolithic unity, immediately raises the question, ‘What is he scared of?’ Surely such measures are only necessary if there is a threat of some sort. Even in such a tightly controlled country, there are, indeed, signs of dissent. A week before Congress began, two leading medical authorities, Gao Fu and Zhong Nanshan, declared that Zero-Covid, the pandemic strategy enforced by lockdowns and seen as Xi’s signature policy, is now impossible to achieve. The next day, the People’s Daily rebutted the idea, praising the policy to the skies.
On the first day of Congress a lone figure dropped a banner from a road bridge in Beijing; among its many slogans the first was, ‘We don’t want tests, we want food!’ ‘Bridge Man’, as he is now known, in an obvious reference to ‘Tank Man’ who defied a column of tanks after the Tiananmen Massacre of June 1989, neatly summed up the feelings of millions.
He also pointed to the key weakness in Xi’s dictatorship; if his rule is so complete, then he is directly responsible for all errors, all failures—and, given the global spread of covid, the lockdown strategy will fail. The public health authorities know it, local government leaders know it, no doubt many party members know it—but it cannot be said, and it cannot be corrected. On this issue, Xi has backed himself into a corner. In the long term, this leads to political paralysis—Xi controls the party, the party controls everything. If Xi were removed, the whole regime would be threatened.
Lockdown is only one of the issues from which Xi’s opponents in the party, and in the country more widely, will draw strength. Another is the direction of economic policy. For the first time in many decades, Congress took place against the background of a slowing economy. Industrial production for the year to July grew by just 0.4%. The quarterly GDP figure, due to be published during Congress but delayed until it was over, showed an annual growth rate of 3.9%, it was planned to be 5.5%.
Xi’s lockdowns are partly responsible for this, disrupting production, supply lines and domestic consumption. His opponents also point out that the dashing of any hopes that Congress might see a relaxation of the policy had international consequences. The morning after Congress finished, the Nasdaq index of Chinese companies listed in the US had its biggest ever one-day fall, down 14.4%. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index also had its biggest fall since the crisis of 2008, down 1.6%.
China’s economic slowdown, however, is not just a result of mistaken policies. Domestically, it is as subject to the cyclical pattern of capitalist production as any other capitalist economy. Rapid growth after the 2001 entry into the World Trade Organisation came to an end in the crisis of 2008. The recovery was fuelled by huge state spending on infrastructure but this was halted by the stock market crash of 2016, which prompted Xi to begin moving against some of the capitalist circles he had at first promoted. Growth rates have declined steadily since then.
Internationally, the country’s rise as a major capitalist economy, an imperialist power, has brought it into conflict with the already existing world powers, above all the USA. US sanctions against China, begun under Obama and maintained ever since, are now having a serious impact, especially in those sectors where advanced technology could have a military, as well as an industrial, application.
These are the factors that have shaped Xi’s policies which are generally characterised by a greater belligerence internationally and repression of any potential rivals domestically. As Bridge Man showed, however, there is widespread resentment and hostility to the one party dictatorship and the supposedly all-powerful leader. He also showed who Xi Jinping is really scared of—it’s not the Americans, it’s the Chinese.