Ciara Morris | China Fellow
The Communist Party of China’s (CPC) ability to cultivate public support and legitimacy for the last 73 years has come from its unwavering commitment to economic growth and development. A well-known theory is that as long as people were getting richer, the CPC could maintain the narrative needed for its continued leadership over the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
And to be fair, under the CPC’s leadership, the PRC has amassed terrific economic growth and development. 745 million fewer people are living in extreme poverty in China today than 30 years ago. Post 1978, China saw average real growth of more than 9 percent a year. But with a slowing economy and an increasingly well off and educated middle class, the CPC is shifting its emphasis from making China richer to keeping China safer.
Other than the expected glorification of the Party’s achievements over the last 10 years of his leadership, the central message of Xi Jinping’s speech at the 20th National Congress of the CPC this October was that the PRC is facing a challenging and dangerous world, and that the Party alone can keep its people safe.
Of course, many political leaders make these sorts of promises, both dictators and democratically elected politicians alike. The world is arguably less safe today than it was a decade ago: Geopolitical tensions across the Asia-Pacific, uncertainty surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and COVID-19 disrupting lives and supply chains are only a few examples. China has a lot more to worry about today than five or ten years ago.
In Bloomberg's English translation of Xi’s speech, the word ‘economy’ was mentioned only 22 times and ‘security’ 80 times. He also made only two fleeting mentions of the PRC’s famous Belt and Road Initiative. Instead, he chose to spotlight the newer Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative in his section on foreign policy.
Once considered a reformist, Xi now spouts conformity, insisting “all Party members closely follow the Central Committee in terms of political stance, orientation, principles, and path”.
Staunchly defending his zero COVID-19 policy, Xi ignored any economic problems caused or exacerbated by his policy, instead emphasising how he has kept China’s citizens safe and healthy. The PRC’s zero COVID-19 policy is here to stay.
In addition to health policy, climate change was also positioned as a security issue. Xi promised to “get actively involved in global governance in response to climate change”.
Although signalling no escalation of the issue, Xi also took the opportunity to remind us again of China’s unwavering intention to unify with Taiwan, peacefully, but by force if necessary.
Xi closed his speech with a special nod to China’s younger generation, imploring them to “steadfastly follow the Party”. He knows he needs to garner their support. This is a whole generation of people who have grown up accustomed to the wealth their parents and grandparents acquired; grown up with VPNs and access to international media and politics, but who have also grown up in a world of nationalistic confrontation and anti-China fear mongering.
If Xi can convince them that they are in danger - from global actors, disease, and climate change among other things - and that he alone, a leader they have known since childhood, can keep them safe, the legitimacy of the CPC remains intact for another generation with Xi at the helm indefinitely.
In 2018, the Party announced a constitutional amendment that removed presidential term limits. Xi could now remain ‘dictator for life’. Having already served two terms, Xi Jinping ordinarily would have had to step down at this Party Congress. Yet he remains, and no line of succession has been announced publicly.
Xi’s newly announced Politburo Standing Committee is a who’s who of those most loyal to Xi. China Expert Neil Thomas says it “represents a massive consolidation of Xi’s power that is unprecedented since the Mao era”.
The 25-member Politburo also signals a concentration of power: male power. It is the first Politburo in 25 years without a single woman, with the only woman serving over the last 5 years having retired.
People are generally more comfortable with continuity than change during a crisis. And disasters can make or break a leader. Xi survived 2020, and now he has at the very least 5 more years until the next National Congress.
Ciara Morris is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.