20th Party Congress: Itching for Conflict

Oct 20, 2022

Halfway through China’s 20th Party Congress and the news has been fairly predictable.   Xi Jinping’s opening speech on October 16 was long on self-promotion and ideology, but actually about one hour shorter in terms of delivery time when compared with his grand oration five years earlier. The language was steeped in dogma and generalities but the strategic thrust of his message was clear: China will stay the recent course — less market-driven and more state-directed, more muscular in terms of foreign policy rather than passive as Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” would have implied, more self-reliant (especially with respect to innovation and technology), and steadfast in its resistance to unfriendly forces of containment (i.e., the United States) amid an increasingly treacherous global climate.

Notwithstanding extraordinary efforts by the international media to inflate these conclusions to breathtaking revelations, none of this is really new news — it all pretty much fits the script of Xi’s second five-year term.  But two important developments have recently become evident that are worth emphasizing in the context of the 20th Party Congress — one internal to China and the other driven by external pressure.

Press reports suggest that Wang Huning, currently a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo (the top seven CCP leaders), is likely to be named Chairman of China’s National People’s Congress (the state legislature).  This is typically the second or third most important position in Party hierarchy.  Wang is not only Xi’s ideological alter ego — responsible for crafting “Xi Jinping Thought,” the new ideological anchor that was rolled out at the 19th Party Congress five years ago — but he has also been especially prominent in articulating the view of a declining America that has been central to China’s conflict-prone geostrategic strategy.   Wang’s 1991 book, America Against America, written after his three-month visit to the United States, paints a dystopian picture of a nation beset by mounting social and political turmoil that was ripe for crisis.  When that crisis subsequently occurred — the 2008-09 Global Financial Crisis that was made in America — Wang’s view became ascendant in senior CCP leadership circles, leading Xi Jinping to conclude that a rising China was well positioned to challenge a declining America.   Wang’s promotion adds worrisome fuel to the US-China conflict, a point I warn of in Accidental Conflict.

A new external development plays even more directly into this conflict — the Biden Administration’s rollout of unprecedented sanctions on leading edge US technology exports to China.  Intended as nothing short of a major chokehold on Chinese access to American made high-end AI and supercomputing chips, the new regulations put teeth into a September 16 warning shot fired by Jake Sullivan, US National Security Council Director, who hinted at actions aimed at “a competitor [aka China] that is determined to overtake U.S. technological leadership.” It is hard to believe that the October 7 announcement of these actions coming on the eve of China’s 20th Party Congress was simply a coincidence. These export restrictions, in conjunction with the just enacted CHIPS and Science Act that provides $52.7 billion of industrial-policy support to the US semiconductor industry, put a Xi-centric CCP on notice that the United States is taking dead aim on one of the key pillars of China’s great power objectives — the advanced technologies aimed at driving an upsurge in indigenous innovation.

With the elevation of Wang Huning, China has thrown down the gauntlet in its ideological and geostrategic conflict with the United States. The Biden Administration has done the same in countering China’s most audacious aspirations as a techno-superpower. Conflict escalation is moving further into the danger zone — totally unconnected to business-as-usual at the 20th Party Congress.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

Sign up for Stephen’s Dispatches: