The short answer is “the Communist Party is the state” in China, so its congress will determine the next phase of Chinese politics, experts say.
For outsiders, China’s ruling communist party, which has worked through a market economy to make the country the world’s second-biggest economy, is a political mystery of sorts.
But the ruling party under the country’s President Xi Jinping keeps getting stronger. Jinping is a true believer of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, a phrase which is called Xi Jinping Thought.
On Sunday, the party will hold its 20th National Congress with a plan to revise its political structure and decide who will be the party’s crucial Central Committee members in the next five years. The Central Committee elects the Politburo, which respectively names the members of its Standing Committee, the party’s most powerful organ. The general secretary is the leading member of the Standing Committee.
“The upcoming party congress is a very big deal. This is the big five-year party congress where major decisions are made by the leadership and the party kind of agrees on the plan for next five years and who is going to lead the country,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think-tank.
Pantucci, a prominent expert on China, believes that this Congress marks “an important moment” because it will also exhibit the coordinated reelection of Xi Jinping into his unprecedented third term, which has not happened for any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong’s death. Mao, a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), was the country’s first communist leader.
Many experts believe that the one-week-long Congress matters as much as the process of it when crucial backdoor talks inside the party’s elite circles have long determined who will be elected to the Central Committee, the Politburo and the Standing Committee, the three crucial organs of the CCP, as well as to the general secretary.
While the election to the party organs and the general secretary does not automatically translate into the state’s official political structure, the CCP decisions, which draw up nominees for government positions, will materialise into real results, during the sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the Chinese legislature, in March 2023.
‘The party is the state’
Under Xi’s control, the CCP has figured even more prominently in state affairs and Xi’s highly-anticipated third term would only mark how the party decides China’s destiny, experts say.
The Congress is crucial for both China’s future and global politics because the Communist Party is essentially the state, according to Charles Parton, the EU’s former First Councillor on China, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the country’s political structure and Xi Thought, the most modern interpretation of Marxism to most Chinese elites.
“Xi Jinping has deliberately dismantled the gap between party and state. The party is the state now. He has strengthened its role in all areas, whether that is business/economy, education, culture, but above all in governance,” Parton tells TRT World.
Over 80 percent of state officials and 95 percent of senior officials of Beijing are Communist Party members and those figures have risen in recent years, Parton says, pointing out that the party’s hold over the Chinese government has significantly increased under Xi.
“All the top officials are party members. I don't refer to China or to the Chinese government. I speak about the CCP because it is the party which governs China. It is a Leninist system with Chinese characteristics,” the former UK diplomat analyses.
Parton exemplifies his thinking with the central committee on discipline inspection (CCDI), which is one of the party’s most powerful units monitoring members’ behaviour. The CCDI is the same as the national supervision commission, a state organisation, according to Parton. “Two names for one institution,” he says. “Whether or not you are a party member, as an official, you are subject to the same rules and discipline” the CCP requires, he says.
Pantucci has similar views to Parton on how the state and the party have been intermingled with each other to a great extent in China. “There is no separation between the state and the party,” he tells TRT World.
While Pantucci points out that state interests mostly correspond to party interests in China at the same time, he still finds one-party rule a fundamentally problematic reality for Beijing in some issues.
“The party being the state means actually the party’s interests will always trump the state’s,” he says, pointing out a range of areas from some economic decisions to Covid-19 rules and foreign policy decision-making process, where top leaders are focusing “on the party interests and the party’s ability to stay in power rather than necessarily national interests.”
Focusing on the party's survival also brings other issues like large-scale purges of dissidents from the CCP, which have happened at different times, destabilising national politics. Interestingly, Xi, who has strengthened the party, equaling it with the state and crushing any opposition, had a dissident father.
During the Mao era, which executed many purges against dissidents, Xi’s father, a party elite, was also expelled from the CCP and exiled to live in rural areas to understand peasants better. But Xi’s father still reportedly advised his son to stay loyal to the party “no matter how it treats you”, wrote Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London and author of a number of books on Chinese politics.
How Xi will deal with problems
While almost everyone believes that Xi’s third term is a settled issue inside the party, he will still face some serious hurdles from Covid challenge to foreign opposition and economic downturn, experts see.
But Xi aims to meet these challenges with a strong domestic policy, strengthening ordinary people’s living standards by reducing inequality, which will ensure Chinese stability and translate into more support for his policies, according to his policy planning.
“The key difference from the first ten years is that he now faces severe headwinds. Covid is an obvious one and it is not clear when and how he will extricate China from its disastrous zero Covid policy,” says Parton.
“To do so would mean either having an effective Chinese vaccine very soon and being able to get it into all arms - it is indeed surprising that a totalitarian government has been unable to get most of its people vaccinated - or backtracking and using Western vaccines,” he says.
“But that would be a big U-turn and raise the questions both of why so late and whether Xi is able to accept that he made a big mistake. That seems unlikely, given that legitimacy is built upon his omniscience,” the former diplomat adds.
There are also other problems in relation to the country’s economic downturn. While Xi Thought pays critical attention to equality, a pillar of the communist system, aiming to improve “common prosperity”, the Chinese economic system has continued to be “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable” in the words of Xi, Parton wrote in a recent report.
But Xi’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, which is called the 21st Century Marxism, aims to narrow the wealth gap across Chinese society by improving ordinary people’s quality of life with strong economic measures like “alleviating poverty; and giving greater weight to improving rural life and agricultural production,” according to Parton.
In the last years, in those areas, China has shown significant improvement while it has continued to pace its economic growth.
Beyond health and economic issues, Xi’s China also needs to face a hostile foreign environment led by the Western alliance, which has been even more adversary with the Ukraine conflict against both Russia and China, the two anti-Western countries, according to the former British diplomat.
“The US has made it clear that it will undermine China's efforts to replace it as the top superpower,” says Parton. Increasingly, European and other pro-Western states are seeing China's rise as a threat and are taking measures to prevent it from getting stronger, he says.
For the Chinese leadership, the Western animosity toward Beijing is rooted in its spectacular economic growth while pursuing a neutral foreign policy based on soft power not hard power.
Xi’s China will continue to be very careful not to make even “a single misstep” to give the West an opportunity to ruin Beijing’s number one target of the country’s restoration as a great power, “overtaking the United States as the world’s largest economy someday”, according to Brown.