CHINA CHALLENGE: The Communist Party Congress Consolidates Xi’s Centrality at Home and Abroad

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INTERVIEW WITH MARCO VICENZINO IN EL UNIVERSAL (MEXICO)

15 October 2022

What should one expect from the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?

In terms of expectations, the entire week-long event starting on October 16th has been carefully and meticulously choreographed for a very long time in order to prevent any adverse surprises and to ensure a smooth, uninterrupted transition to an unprecedented third term for Xi Jinping 

For Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, this Congress marks the most important political gathering in a decade. The coronation of his third-term formally consolidates Xi’s control over China and the CCP.

Xi’s overall focus on centralization of power over the past decade is accelerated by this Congress. Increasing economic challenges at home and abroad has provided Xi with a pretext to further strengthen this centralization process. It has allowed him to take definitive leadership – particularly during times of crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic. However, increasing centralization threatens the economic dynamism and pragmatism that began over forty ago that made China into the world’s second largest economy.

What message will the Congress deliver? 

A key message of this Congress is to emphasize to ordinary Chinese and the world that China is fulfilling its historic mission of achieving greatness at home and abroad and that Xi’s continuing leadership is  indispensable in this mission. 

Any new appointments will clearly be filled by Xi’s loyalists such as upcoming changes in the diplomatic and military guard.

At the Party Congress, Xi’s cult of personality will be further consolidated. Xi’s goal is to secure his place in the historic pantheon of great Chinese leaders. 

Will the Congress generate dissent?

The Congress has been preceded by a strict crackdown on all forms of opposition to Xi and the CCP. In fact, arrests of what are considered to be suspects and agitators began months ago.  These range from criminals to ethnic minority advocates. Basically, anyone that Xi and his team considered a threat or risk to the system has been neutralized, at least for now, during the Congress. 

Will the Congress mark a shift in Xi’s strict Zero-Covid policy adversely impacting China’s economy? 

The pre-Congress communique has praised Xi’s Zero-Covid policy, also referred to Xi’s all-out war on Covid.  Xi has used Covid as a pretext to further consolidate power at home and further eliminate any form of opposition to the maximum amount possible. 

The Congress will not mark any major shift on Xi’s Zero-Covid policy despite the fact that strict security measures and the relentless enforcement of mass testing and abrupt lockdowns have frustrated many Chinese citizens

The official line will continue to be that Xi’s current Covid policy remains the most effective option for protecting the health of China’s 1.4 billion citizens despite the economic costs.  Another way to interpret this is that Xi is willing to sacrifice a degree of economic productivity (at least in the immediate term) for the sake of greater, long-term political control. 

While the rest of the world is moving beyond Covid, Xi continues to hamper China’s economy with a politically motivated Zero-Covid policy.  For Xi, politics trumps profits in his pursuit of absolute power. 

In addition, China’s failure to import any mRNA Covid jabs, particularly for its most vulnerable citizens, clearly has a political dimension that continues to frustrate many in China’s medical community. 

Are China’s economic problems impeding its global ambitions?

China’s current economic problems are actually strengthening Xi’s determination to reshape the international order toward a more multipolar world with China at its center. However, China’s ability to do so has been complicated, particular in the short to medium term. 

The global economic turmoil unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic – which emanated from China – and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – which had Xi’s tacit approval – will be felt for years. 

Like the rest of the world, China is struggling and its credibility has suffered as a result. 

However, China is much better prepared than most economies globally to confront these challenges.  China will continue to exploit this advantage to further its interests internationally on all fronts with the primary objective of reshaping the global order. 

How is the current economic turbulence impacting the rest of the world?

For quite some time, a perfect storm seems to be forming, largely resulting from the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

There is an Increasing likelihood that we are heading toward a more turbulent and extended economic downturn. It is likely to last much longer than what mainstream economists anticipate – or willing to admit – with very serious social and political implications for the foreseeable future, particularly as evidenced by rising global inflation and ongoing crises with energy and food prices.

The recent IMF statistics on the global economy for 2023 clearly point in this direction. The IMF has cut growth predictions and forecast economic contraction in a third of the world. The three largest economies – US, China and EU – will continue to stall and it will feel like a recession for many parts of the world. 

Will China Invade Taiwan?

At this moment, China does not possess the capability for a successful invasion of Taiwan. It would pay an enormously high price on all levels and not achieve its objective. This reality can change in about five years. The world and the broader East Asia region may have a much different geopolitical structure by then. Basically, there is no upside at present for China to pursue military action against Taiwan.  Its policy of maximum pressure against Taiwan is fairly geared for domestic consumption with an external warning to outsiders, particularly the U.S.  However, China’s continuing game of brinksmanship over Taiwan risks an outcome it may not intend and complicate its longer term objective of reshaping the global order.

How is the Ukraine war impacting China’s global ambitions?

After Xi and Putin paraded their no-limits partnership at the Olympic Games in China in early 2022, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began afterwards on February 24. Xi clearly gave his tacit approval to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, believing Putin’s flawed expectations that it would be a fairly quick and successful operation and strengthen their objectives internationally, in particular reshaping the international order to their advantage. 

The disastrous course of Putin’s Ukraine war has proven a serious reversal for Xi on numerous fronts.  It has provided him with serious lessons and a rude awakening, particularly about his long-held view of a rapidly declining, and less effective, western world.

The western show of continuing unity and concerted action on Ukraine – particularly sanctions against Russia – has surprised Xi. This has also impacted Xi’s calculations vis-a-vis Taiwan – and other territorial claims and disputes along China’s borders. 

Xi is unlikely to abandon Putin anytime soon but his serious concerns over the course of Putin’s Ukraine war are growing, and have also been expressed in public. 

Xi’s ultimate long-term objective is ensuring China’s top role at the center of a new global order on all levels.  From Xi’s perspective, Putin’s war in Ukraine is increasingly complicating this mission as it adversely impacts business for China globally. 

For now, Xi sees Putin playing the nuclear card with the west as a negotiating tactic in a wider, but increasingly risky, game of brinksmanship. 

Although rational actors will do whatever necessary to avoid a nuclear outcome, the danger lies in a potentially unpredictable and unintended miscalculation that could result in such an outcome. Hence, the indispensable need for all lines of communication to be constantly active and open between all parties involved. 

Would current U.S. policy change should President Biden’s Democrats lose control of Congress in the U.S. mid-term elections?

In a highly polarized political environment, there are very few issues today that get bipartisan support in Washington, DC. China is the leading foreign policy issue that draws near unanimous bipartisan support. 

Even if Biden’s Democrats lose their majority in either one or both congressional chambers in the U.S. mid-term election, Biden will continue to receive the necessary bipartisan support as long he pursues a firm line with Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. 

China is not just a partisan issue but has become an existential issue on the foreign policy front.

Biden correctly made it clear recently that the U.S. faces a ‘decisive decade’ in its rivalry with China. This is further supported by his newly published national security strategy which highlights China’s ability and drive to reshape the international order.

In my opinion, the U.S. foreign policy establishment woke up very late to the threat of the Chinese Communist Party and has been  generally behind the curve in this rivalry. Although some think that war is inevitable, the U.S. needs to pursue a well thought long-term strategy that involves constructive engagement with China when possible and taking a firm line when necessary.  

How is China’s influence growing in Latin America?

Over the past two decades, China has become the leading economic partner for much of Latin America and a key provider of foreign direct investment, which has given it enormous leverage over the region, particularly in the political and diplomatic realms – and even in security in places such as Venezuela. 

This has provoked serious concern in the U.S., that China is using its leverage to extend its strategic goals and undermine U.S. interests in Latin America. 

It has also triggered concern among several nations in the region and beyond – that is, the fear of encroaching interference in their internal affairs and foreign policies. 

Much of this actually goes unreported and under-analyzed in the region. This considerable void facilitates China’s ability to operate effectively throughout Latin America to the detriment of regional and domestic interests. 

However, the U.S. has to tread carefully in dealing with nations in Latin America. Pressuring any state to make a choice between the U.S. and China can provoke adverse reactions and activate certain regional views about the U.S., which had traditionally considered the region a part of its hemispheric neighborhood. 

With Latin America, the U.S. must pursue an effective strategic engagement that is astutely balanced in rhetoric and focuses on actions yielding tangible results.