20th Party Congress: Surprises?

Oct 13, 2022

The attention given to China’s upcoming Party Congress far exceeds that preceding any other event in the modern (post-Mao) history of the CCP. The focus has spanned the gamut — from leadership and ideological doctrine to the internal policy debate and China’s geostrategic intentions.   My dispatches of the past two weeks have focused on the interplay between ideology and leadership.  Apart from the widely telegraphed ascendancy of Xi Jinping to an unprecedented third five-year term as China’s paramount leader, much remains a big mystery.  As Bill Bishop, America’s favorite China watcher, cautions, “The lack of any credible leaks so close to the start of the Congress is remarkable.”

So, what are we to think on the eve of the Big Event slated to commence in less than four days on October 16? In my half century of forecasting experience (gulp), I have learned to prepare for the unexpected. Yet over the past ten years, Xi Jinping’s China is all about discipline and control — leaving no margin for the unexpected. His third term as CCP leader is the most obvious example of the sure thing.

History reminds us of the limits of autocracy.  The concentration and perpetuation of power in any one leader ultimately turns into a personalization of governance.  And so it is in the era of Xi Jinping.  Xi Jinping Thought has become the anchor of all that China stands for today — not just its revisions to the Chinese strain of Marxian ideology but also to a new muscularity of the nation’s foreign policy wrapped around a resurgence of Xi-inspired nationalism.  Xi guarantees that a proud and tough China is on a trajectory to great power status by 2049, the centenary milestone for the PRC.

That’s a lot for any autocrat to balance on the head of a pin, even an exalted “core leader” like Xi Jinping whose supreme position in modern Chinese history as the “people’s leader” is about to be affirmed by the 20th Party Congress. Yet, to me, China’s leadership sweepstakes is not the place to look for the unexpected.  I don’t see any major surprises coming out of this gathering or its immediate aftermath — the so-called First Plenum leadership reveal.  No, the surprise is more likely to come from many challenges that China faces, challenges in the economy, the quality of its people’s lives (health, the environment, and inequality), and in conflicts with other nations (like the United States).  All of these challenges ultimately collide with the very human frailty that any autocrat brings to the daunting tasks of governance. Xi Jinping is hardly an exception.

The contrast between Xi Jinping and Deng Xiaoping deserves special attention as we think about the deeper meaning of where China is headed.  Notwithstanding his own flaws, Deng’s genius was his belief in consensus leadership, predictable transitions of power, an experimental approach to economic reforms, and a low-key approach (“hide and bide”) to China’s role in global affairs. Xi is the anti-Deng in all of these respects and makes no bones about it.  Can both approaches be correct at different phases in the rise of China? That is Xi Jinping’s biggest bet — and ultimately, in my view, likely to be the weakest and riskiest link in his seemingly open-ended power gambit. Deng’s flexible approach allowed for a margin of error that Xi can’t even begin to fathom. In today’s complex and challenging world, leadership flexibility will always triumph over autocratic rigidity.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

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