Xi comes out swinging as 20th Party Congress opens in Beijing

The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, theoretically the highest organ of the Party, opened Sunday in Beijing, and Chairman Xi led off with a speech that got rousing applause when it got aggressive toward Taiwan, and took hardline stands on zero Covid, Hong Kong. You can read summaries of it here, here, and here.

Xi is in charge, no question. But he knows he alone is on the hook as hard times loom, and the opposition lets him know they haven’t gone away.

Real power in the party lies at the top of the hierarchy, and that hierarchy is elected every five years at these Party congresses. 

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The 2300 delegates elected from party organizations all over China, will start the formal process of updating the membership of the Party’s power structure:

These delegates will appoint some 400 members to the party’s top national-level institution, the Central Committee. The 200 voting members of the Central Committee will then select from its ranks, the 25-member Politburo and the even more elite seven-member PSC.

Xi has purged opponents with corruption trials. Corruption is so common there that virtually anyone in the power structure is vulnerable. He is in charge, has consolidated his backing and he’s going to get his term as Party Chairman extended beyond the norm since Mao.

In the past, the twice-a-decade congress was seen as a chance for leaders to promote their supporters, as they vied to increase the power of their factions within the party.

But observers say these days there appears to be only one faction at the 20th Party Congress - that of Mr Xi.

In a clear sign of this consolidation of power, top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders released a communiqué days earlier endorsing him as "the core" of the party and leadership. They also called for the party to unite even more closely behind him.

Mr Xi currently holds the three most powerful positions in China - general secretary of the CCP, chairman of the country's armed forces and president. He is expected to renew his term for the first two titles at the congress.

The CCP does not set any term limits. But no leader besides Mao, the founder of communist China, has ever served a third term.

The downside of all this power is that he is accountable, and if too many of his policies go south, you might say that he could lose the Mandate of Heaven. The Party, while a dictatorship, must always fear losing the allegiance of the people. That’s why it has so heavily invested in surveillance and social credit schemes, to keep control of unrest. Because China has millennias of history of throwing out failed governments.

Xi may be powerful now, but the germ of opposition is out there, lurking in the soil.  Everyone attending the conference has seen or heard about the signs that all is not calm beneath the surface.

In an ultra-rare move, banners directly attacking Xi were displayed in an affluent Beijing neighborhood. It was a reminder that currents of opposition still exist and that the happy talk of official media is not the real story.

A little over a year ago, a very Chinese style criticism of Xi’s rule came for a respected elder. A retired Premier, Wen Jiabao, published what everyone in China understood to be an implicit criticism of Xi, couched in, of all things, a tribute to his mother.

 In China, with no tradition of free speech, criticism of authority has always had to be couched in indirect terms, sometimes as historical allegories, or on the basis of moral inquiry, for instance.

Stephen P. Young, who coauthored the book The Tradition of Human Rights in China and Vietnam, explained it:

In the elegant style of Neo-Confucian literati in previous dynasties when they would comment on the unfitness of a ruler, Wen’s political thesis is put forth indirectly with allegories, symbolic references well known to readers, and analogies to past heroes and ideals. His thesis though is to criticize the politics and philosophy of Xi Jinping for lacking virtue and relying instead on the repressive apparatus of the state to be the “One Man” in China supervising “All-Under-Heaven” as the former emperors asserted was their right and duty.

When Wen finally states his beliefs at the end of the letter, he provides a China Dream to rival Xi’s China Dream of power, glory, and global hegemony.  Wen’s China Dream is that of “a country full of fairness and justice, where there is always respect for the human heart, humanity and the essence of human beings, and where there is always an air of youth, freedom and struggle.”

The revealing “tells” in Wen’s letter are:

  1. He goes on at length about his Mother and Father and the sufferings and vicissitudes of their lives as just ordinary, hard-working and patriotic Chinese establishing his credentials as a Chinese worthy of respect for being “of the people”.
  2. He states that “My mother taught how to be a human being” or simply “how to be human”. This simple sentence brings to mind the first passage in the Book of Mencius where Mencius sets forth the core of his vision for humanity – “my only counsels are to humanness (ren) and righteousness (yi).  Mencius rejects li or self-interest as the basis for just rule. This implies that others may not follow ren-yi and so are not dutiful administrators of the best of Chinese thinking.
  3. His Mother’s telling him about the heroes Yue Fei, Wen Tianxiang and Zhuge Lian. To me the most important allegory here is to Zhuge Lian. Zhuge Lian was the Taoist master strategist who could use yin/yang forces and the Five Elements. He was one of the heroes seeking to preserve the Han Dynasty against unworthy militaristic upstarts in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Mentioning Zhuge Lian immediately brings to mind noble efforts to preserve righteousness under Heaven. Yue Fei and Wen Tianxiang were famous under the Southern Sung Dynasty striving to preserve the ethical heritage of China against northern invaders, again pitting righteousness against military might and unseemly personal ambition.
  4. Building on this moral instruction, Wen says: “She always combined being a human being, ambition and responsibility with hard work and conscientiousness, which made me understand that people should not only be able to do something, but also learn to be a human being first.”
  5. Another “tell” is his pointing out that his Mother called on him when “at the top” to “make peace with people, and to remember that a lone tree cannot become a forest."
  6. Wen provides a guide as to how to measure the goodness of a leader – look at his face. This brings to mind a saying by Confucius that a person cannot hide his moral quality. Wen simply says “There are many things that people can do to imitate each other, or even make painstaking efforts to do so. But the only thing that cannot be faked is the sincerity, simplicity and kindness of emotion and heart. Just look at his eyes, look at his compassion, look at his courage in distress, look at his spirit of commitment at the critical moment of the country's future and destiny, and you can see his true nature.”  Xi Jinping, by the way, has a face (physiognomy) which does not inspire trust or reveal his possession of caring virtue.
  7. Wen’s closing lines are a frontal challenge to the state authoritarianism advocated by Xi Jinping:

The China in my mind should be a country full of fairness and justice, where there is always respect for the human heart, humanity and the essence of human beings, and where there is always an air of youth, freedom and struggle. I have cried out and fought for this. This is the truth that life has taught me and that my mother

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