IAUTUMN GOES to plan for the Chinese Communist Party, 2022 will feature a study on contrasts that humiliates America. Chinese leaders hate free elections, but they can read opinion polls. They see the headlines predicting a beating for the Democratic Party in the US Congressional midterm elections in November, condemning the country to the uncertainties of a divided government, if not total deadlock. If these polls prove to be correct, the Chinese propaganda machine would take yet another chance to declare that China enjoys order and prosperity through one-party rule, while American-style democracy does not. brings that chaos, dysfunction and decline.
In contrast, the year in Beijing will be dominated by the 20th Party Congress, a tightly controlled show of power staged amid the marble columns, red carpets and flamboyant chandeliers of the Great People’s Palace. The rally, which will likely be held in the fall, will mark Xi Jinping’s first decade as China’s supreme leader. It may also suggest how long Mr. Xi intends to stay in power: for five more years, or ten more, or (less likely scenario) that he prefers to move towards some form of semi-retirement, for rule behind the scenes. Remarkably, it’s possible that Mr. Xi’s future plans won’t become visible until the end of Congress, when he (or perhaps just an unexpected successor as party leader) heads the new Politburo Standing Committee. on an upholstered platform in order of rank.
If Mr. Xi wishes to signal that he will step down in another five years, he will need to be followed on stage by one or two plausible successors. There is, as of yet, no obvious candidate with the right combination of experience, age, and close connection to Xi. He may feel compelled to stay in charge until at least the 2032 Congress, when he turns 79. This version of events will be signaled if Mr. Xi is followed on stage in November by a line of non-threatening men in dark suits: longtime devotees or burgeoning proteges who will either be too old or too young and inexperienced. to succeed their current boss. at the 2027 party convention.
Party congresses take place every five years. Meetings have been used in modern times to organize orderly transfers of power between generations of rulers. Because such high-level moves are, by custom, reported five years in advance, Xi has already broken with recent precedent by refusing to anoint a successor at the 2017 party convention. heir questioned a consensus established after Mao Zedong’s death that no leader should accumulate too much power or stay in office for too long.
In a new attack on those standards, Xi had China’s constitution amended in 2018 to abolish term limits for the post of president – one of three powerful posts he holds, alongside those, much more important, secretary general of the party and president of the Central Commission. Military Commission, and the only one, so far, bound by a constraint of two terms. Xi’s supporters say he must stay in office for as long as he sees fit to push through vital reforms. His critics, a silent and fearful group in today’s China, see a dangerous weakening of the institutions necessary to prevent one-man rule.
Whichever path Xi chooses, the next congress is likely to look like the Communist equivalent of a coronation. Chinese leaders see more and more reason to be confident about the benefits of their political system. Until recently, they were rather defensive on their governance model. Chinese diplomats have worked in bodies such as the United Nations or the World Trade Organization to change international standards or global rules to make the world more accepting of their country’s version of state capitalism and of autocracy. Today, Chinese envoys are on the offensive, ready to promote their model as one that delivers better results for more people than the cranky individualism of the West.
At the same time, officials in Beijing see threats every moment. They are sure America and its allies are determined to contain China. They are eager for any foreign criticism and are quick to claim that Western governments are berating China only to distract from their own failures. The atmosphere in Beijing is a strange mixture of confidence, pride and paranoia. It strengthens Mr. Xi. Describing the current world order, he likes to talk about “changes not seen in 100 years”. At such a time, the Communist Party is betting that continuity at the top is the surest route. The divide between America and China has been widening for some time. It will yawn surprisingly wider in November.
David Rennie: Beijing bureau chief and Chaguan columnist, The Economist■
This article appeared in the China section of The World Ahead 2022 print edition under the title “Coronation of Emperor Xi”