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What Did Xi Say at China’s 20th Party Congress?

The Chinese leader received rapturous applause during his opening speech, but he didn’t offer a clear plan for confronting ongoing crises.

James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
People watch the opening session of the 20th Chinese National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Huaibei, China, on Oct. 16.
People watch the opening session of the 20th Chinese National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Huaibei, China, on Oct. 16.
People watch the opening session of the 20th Chinese National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Huaibei, China, on Oct. 16. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Chinese President Xi Jinping receives rapturous applause at a Party Congress that has so far held no surprises, the Chinese Communist Party is expected to unveil its new Standing Committee this weekend, and staff crack down on protesters at a Chinese consulate in the United Kingdom.

LIVE Q&A: Join me for a special Q&A on Thursday, Oct. 20, from 3 to 4 p.m. EDT to get your questions answered on the signs emerging from the Party Congress and what they might mean for the future of China under Xi’s ever more entrenched leadership. FP subscribers can submit their questions ahead of time, and I will respond live during the Q&A.

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Making Sense of Xi’s Party Congress Speech

The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has kicked off in Beijing, and so far there haven’t been any surprises. Little suggests China’s leaders have a clear vision for a way out of the numerous crises the country faces. The message of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s opening speech on Sunday was simple: Everything we’ve been doing is great, and we’re going to keep doing it.

That means the increasingly unpopular zero-COVID policy has no foreseeable end, since Xi spoke of it only in triumphal terms. It means China won’t back down from its so-called wolf warrior diplomacy and aggressive global posture, since in Xi’s telling China has shown “fighting spirit” despite “external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China.”

Furthermore, Xi’s message reflects no economic vision: Instead, he frequently mentioned “common prosperity,” a favorite term that dissipated earlier in the year during China’s economic slowdown. In theory, common prosperity is an attempt to make the Chinese economy more equal, but in practice it has become another excuse for putting the CCP in charge of everything, especially private businesses.

In Xi’s view, he and the party always come first. In his opening speech, Xi effectively excoriated his predecessors for the situation a decade ago, before he took over, as a “slide toward weak, hollow, and watered-down party leadership in practice.” And he described the relative freedom of speech in 2012 as dangerous: “Misguided patterns of thinking such as money worship, hedonism, egocentricity, and historical nihilism were common, and online discourse was rife with disorder,” he said.

But Xi maintains that things are alright now.

“Over the past decade, we have stayed committed to Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, and the Scientific Outlook on Development, and we have fully implemented the Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era [Xi’s own contribution] as well as the party’s basic line and basic policy,” he said, rattling off past ideological shibboleths to demonstrate the rigidity now expected from party members.

Xi received rapturous applause, and even the camera emphasized his dominance. During the broadcast of the speech, Politburo members were framed in groups of two or three, while Xi stood alone. However, he said nothing that wasn’t an existing cliché or political slogan. Although it’s understudied, the defining quality of CCP work is boredom. Backstage politics can include intrigue, but being a party member usually means sitting through interminable meetings, work reports, and ideological talks—all pitched to the lowest common denominator of interest.

The Party Congress just puts the small-scale tedium of meetings on a grand stage. In that context, Xi’s speech—which lasted just under two hours—was relatively short. (There were some long pauses, leading to speculation that Xi, a former smoker, may not be as healthy as he once was.) Even leaders who can give interesting speeches avoid doing so in a formal CCP context out of fear of making a political mistake. It’s a fundamental paradox that the party is unable to correct: A party founded on the romanticism of revolution has turned that language into passionless repetition.

The only surprise at the Party Congress came from outside. Last Thursday, in a very rare instance of public protest aimed directly at the leadership, a man identified as Peng Lifa, who maintained a dissident social media presence, hung anti-Xi and anti-zero-COVID slogans off a Beijing overpass. The banners were rapidly removed, Peng disappeared into custody, and online censorship went into overdrive. But the incident has produced some small splutters of resistance in an increasingly tightly controlled China.

Once the dust settles on the Party Congress, tune in for an FP Live discussion with James Palmer, Beijing-based reporter Melinda Liu, and Evan S. Medeiros, a professor at Georgetown University and former China director at the U.S. National Security Council, on Monday, Oct. 24, at 11 a.m. EDT. Register here.

What We’re Following

Standing Committee TBA. As part of the 20th Party Congress, the CCP is expected to unveil its new Standing Committee—the small group within the 25-person Politburo that comprises the most powerful people in China—this weekend. Prevailing opinion holds that the committee will be heavily weighted toward Xi loyalists, as China Brief predicted last week. (The Wall Street Journal has a plausible list of names.)

The premiership seems likely to go to either longtime Xi ally Li Qiang, despite his mishandling of the Shanghai lockdown earlier this year, or to Wang Yang, who is seen as more of an economic reformer—but it’s rumored that Wang might retire rather than take a job so directly under Xi’s thumb. If Li gets the post, he’ll be seen as a Xi puppet, given his failure in Shanghai and his lack of central government experience, unusual for such a high office.

Taiwan timetable. Xi’s rhetoric on Taiwan received big applause from the Party Congress. However, it remained entirely within the norms: Reunification is inevitable, others shouldn’t interfere, China wants peace but reserves the option of force. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said China was working to seize the island on a “much faster timeline” and had decided that the “status quo was no longer acceptable”—but he was speaking in the context of the last few years in response to an audience question.

It seems very unlikely that China would pile on risk by invading Taiwan in the immediate future. But in the next five to 10 years, a faltering economy might make gaining national credibility through a successful invasion seem like a risk worth taking.

Manchester fracas. Staff at the Chinese Consulate in Manchester, England, assaulted Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters outside the facility on Sunday, including dragging one person inside the grounds. As it happens, I grew up around the corner from the consulate—the second-largest Chinese diplomatic facility in the United Kingdom—and there were always small groups of protesters there; violence against them is a new development.

That the attack seems to have been ordered by senior consulate staff is particularly concerning, and the U.K. summoned a senior Chinese diplomat to complain. Chinese staff abroad are under high pressure to demonstrate their loyalty in sensitive political moments, especially as contact with foreigners has become a political liability. During the Cultural Revolution in 1967, Chinese diplomats in London attacked people on the streets—and filmed it—in an excess of supposed revolutionary zeal.

FP’s Most Read This Week

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The Thaw on Russia’s Periphery Has Already Started by Daniel B. Baer

Helsinki Commission Recommends Kicking Russia Off U.N. Security Council by Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer

Tech and Business

Missing GDP figures. China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced on Monday that the country’s October GDP figures, due to be published Tuesday, were indefinitely delayed. The move could represent political caution during the Party Congress—but in that case it might have been announced much sooner. There are also rumors that zero-COVID policies in Beijing, tightened for the conference, held up the work necessary to publish the figures.

The most likely possibility is that the figures are simply bad—bad enough that they might need to be buried and certainly not released amid a moment of triumph for Xi. This reflects a larger dilemma. A developing economy growing at a rate of 2 or 3 percent (optimistically) must operate under different policies from one growing at a rate of 6 to 8 percent. Because of the weight of loyalty now demanded by Xi, changing policies without direct approval from the top has become harder.

Biden deals a blow. Measures announced by the Biden administration last week targeting U.S. companies and individuals involved in China’s semiconductor industry have dealt a severe blow, as Jon Bateman writes in Foreign Policy. With U.S. firms no longer able to provide services and U.S. personnel quitting en masse, the industry is devastated; analyst Jordan Schneider usefully translated a Chinese analyst’s dramatic summary of the situation.

It’s possible the move could spur domestic innovation, another of Xi’s favorite terms, but China’s state-led semiconductor ambitions have mostly flopped. It’s also possible that the U.S. semiconductor lobby, which is well funded, will find loopholes or push for changes in the law.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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