The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party Approaches: Here’s What to Expect
On October 16, China’s Communist Party will host its 20th National Congress and, in all likelihood, see the reelection of General Secretary and President Xi Jinping for a third term. Such an election may have broad consequences for the West as Xi finishes solidifying his political control and turns his focus back to expanding global Chinese influence.
The Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, is the ruling party of China, which is a one-party state. To manage this political organization, a national congress is held once every five years to appoint top leaders and to set policy. Members of the Central Committee are elected by the CCP National Congress, who in turn select the Politburo. The Politburo, made up of 25 members, then selects the Politburo Standing Committee of less than ten people. The Politburo Standing Committee represents the highest level of governance in the party, and thus in China. The general secretary of this select few becomes the President of mainland China as a whole as well, leading both the party and the nation.
The 20th National Congress stands out due to one important fact: the incumbent general secretary, Xi Jinping, is going to seek a rare third term. This is all but guaranteed, as Xi has not appointed a successor, and had the constitution rewritten back in 2018 in order to allow a third term (and beyond) in office. Given what it has taken Xi to get to this point, it is unlikely that he would suddenly step down after having nearly conquered a rival faction and consolidated political control.
Xi Jinping was originally appointed as general secretary as a compromise candidate, satisfying the princelings, Shanghai Clique, and the military. However, after two terms of service, Xi now stands as the dominant faction in and of himself having purged his opponents largely through his ‘Anti-Corruption Campaign’.
An appointment to his third term would have large ramifications for Xi’s political rivals in the Shanghai Gang, the faction of former General Secretary Jiang Zemin. This would mark their near-total defeat, having failed to prevent the purge of their members, the altering of the constitution, and finally the upcoming election that largely removes the barriers to Xi remaining leader for life. At the upcoming Congress, there will be more proposed changes to the Constitution. As reported by CGTN, the proposals would seek changes to “... promote the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics and Party building….” This would essentially codify Xi Jinping’s particular ideological views into China’s political structure, making him the most powerful leader of the CCP since Mao Zedong.
All of this together means that upon Xi Jinping’s nearly inevitable ascension to a third term, he will be at the helm of unprecedented political control. Having indicated a desire to invade Taiwan, and with the US pledging to defend Taiwan in all but treaty form, the potential for war during a future third term would be uncomfortably high. However, the disastrous effects of COVID-19 on the state economy and the dynamic-zero policies that are still hurting China may serve to delay or entirely stave off a theoretical war. Even if the CCP recovers and does not pursue war, there are still rising economic tensions. For example, the Belt and Road initiative, which seeks to expand China’s geopolitical influence economically and politically, could see a strong US response if the government fears China is threatening the US’ role as the global hegemon.
While reputable information regarding China’s economy and inner political workings is difficult to gather, analysis of leaks from within the CCP can provide a good picture of what is really happening. Xi stands at the precipice of his third term and, having consolidated power for the last decade, could have political influence rival to Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China. If Xi achieves his third term, his ambitious political goals may serve to further agitate military and economic tensions between China and the US that are already severely strained.