A turning point in China's political climate
On October 23, 2022, during the historic 20th Congress of the CPC, Xi Jinping, who has led the party and the country since 2012, took over the post of General Secretary of the CPC and President of the People's Republic of China for the third time without interference. After his re-election, he addressed the people with an encouraging speech:
“Facing more and more challenges and trials on our new path, we must remain attentive, sober-minded, collected, like a student in an exam.”
For analysts accustomed to comparing Xi to his autocratic colleagues Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a third-term re-election may seem like an expected outcome. Still, on the eve of the convention, the assumptions of many analysts were uncertain. Some of them tried to find reasons to hope for a possible retirement of the Secretary General. Reasons for Xi's departure could be the unpopularity of the Zero-COVID policy and the slowdown in China's economy in recent years. But after April, when Xi Jinping received an official party nomination for the 20th Congress, those hopes faded.
The re-election of the President of the People's Republic of China for a third term for modern China is a phenomenon, if not unprecedented, then at least extraordinary. Xi Jinping became a "norm breaker" and broke the tradition of ruling China established by Deng Xiaoping.
Principle of two presidential terms
During Deng Xiaoping's time, China's political system underwent a series of critical reforms, not exactly democratic, but definitely anti-autocratic. They were aimed at reducing the possibility of concentration of power in one hand and strengthening the party system of checks and balances. Some of the reforms were informal, rather ceremonial and establishing political traditions. So, he voluntarily resigned his position and began the tradition of preparing heirs, who themselves should be counterbalances to each other. After the reign of Xiaoping, the Secretary General of the CPC and the head of government (the Premier of the State Council of the People's Republic of China) came in tandems, and they were necessarily appointed by different groupings within the party.
Deng Xiaoping hoped that the environment of competition within the party could prevent the cult of personality and create the image of the future leaders of the party and the country as "first among equals", in contrast to Mao Zedong and himself. He also sought to distribute decision-making mechanisms: the key organs of the CCP and the government were to meet regularly for consultations and come to a consensus decision. At the same time, he introduced and consolidated the famous two-term limit on the presidency of the PRC - his followers were not supposed to hold the post of head of the country for more than two terms.
Yale University professor Milan Svolley writes about how the system that Deng Xiaoping designed and imagined should have worked in his book The Politics of Authoritarian Power (2012). After the expiration of the two terms allotted to the chairman, the intra-party elites develop an expectation of the transit of power: various generations of leaders seek to profitably distribute powers and thereby limit the power of the outgoing head and influence the choice of potential successors. The decision on their choice could not be unilateral and had to be based on a compromise. The one who leaves his place, in turn, will be interested in appointing supporters to other important posts: in this way he will seek to limit the power of the elites and heirs in order to protect his positions and interests. If the head of the country tries to stay in office longer than expected, he will inevitably meet with resistance from the elites - not only from the potential “change”, but also from party members who have already invested in the new generation.
In one form or another, the traditions established by Deng Xiaoping have existed for several generations of elites. Up until Jiang Zemin, the CCP's fourth general secretary after Deng Xiaoping, no politician had served more than one term. Zemin, however, was somewhat of an exception—he happily held office for two consecutive terms and relatively successfully consolidated power in the party—but still left office under term limits. Moreover, he clearly sought to maintain influence, being re-elected in 2002 to the position of chairman of the Central Military Council, usually held by the incumbent head of government. However, two years later, having encountered significant intra-party pressure, he was forced to leave the chair and hand it over to his successor, Hu Jintao, Xi's predecessor.
Until Jiang Zemin, the fourth general secretary of the CCP after Deng Xiaoping, no politician had served more than one term.
At the same time, in the "post-Deng" era, two main cliques within the Communist Party were formed: the Shanghai clique and Tuanpai, "Komsomol", they are also a faction of the Youth Union. The Shanghai group consisted mainly of followers of Jiang Zemin, politicians who achieved prominent positions during Zemin's mayorship in Shanghai. "Komsomol members" grew out of Hu Yaobang's entourage and were politicians from among the revolutionary youth and students, "grassroots organizations". The two parties traditionally competed stably with each other, alternately occupying the leading positions. The last representative of the two parties in the role of general secretary was Hu Jintao, who belonged to the "Komsomol" clique.
The political history of the last decades of the PRC before Xi Jinping came to power demonstrates that the system of checks and balances built by Deng Xiaoping worked quite effectively — it provided the PRC’s authoritarian machine with internal political stability, retained the potential for centralized reforms, and prevented the emergence of a new cult of personality.
How Xi prepared China for his third term
Xi's "rebellious" attitude towards Deng Xiaoping's system is what distinguishes Xi from his predecessors. It was the violation of the overt and unspoken rules that attracted the attention of political scientists on the eve of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China. And that is why the outcome of the congress could be a fundamental turning point in China's political climate and threaten the country with a new supreme leader for life.
The concentration of power in Xi's hands is not just about running for a third term. His plans in this area have been evident since 2018, when, right before his re-election for a second term, with the unanimous support of the legislators of the National People's Congress of China (only two delegates voted "no" with 2958 votes in favor), Xi managed to make historic changes in the Chinese Constitution, which included the abolition of the limitation of presidential terms. It is important to understand here that this step was rather symbolic - the constitution limited only the term of office of the chairman of the PRC, and not the general secretary of the party, who just has the main power. Two posts were traditionally held by one person and passed them into the hands of heirs after two terms. The same applies to other non-term-limited positions held by the chairman: Jiang Zemin's re-election as chairman of the Central Military Council after two terms had expired caused condemnation from the party, and he was forced to leave the post. The constitution here played a rather guiding role - despite the fact that the legal restriction exists only for one, secondary post, de facto it extended to the chair of the general secretary and other posts.
Xi Jinping, apparently, planned not only to keep key power in his hands as general secretary, but was resolutely not going to share it even symbolically. Xi has signaled to China and the rest of the world that the constitution and legacy of previous generations are secondary to his personal power and influence. To be limited to one role is below his pride, and in order to maintain the formal status of the supreme leader, one can remake the fundamental laws.
Xi made it clear to China that the constitution and the legacy of previous generations play a secondary role against the backdrop of his personal power and influence
Xi also stood out from the ranks of the Shanghainese/Komsomol members: his appointment was a compromise between two cliques. Coming from a respected political family, he belonged to the Red Princes party. "Princes" is less of a faction, more of an umbrella term for a group of wealthy heirs to the establishment. Xi took advantage of his non-factional position extremely well and set about forming his own party, the Xi Group.
At the same time, almost from the doorstep, Xi began to cut down on competition and organized campaigns against both major cliques. The persecution of competitors was based on the anti-corruption agenda, and there were enough reasons for it - the period of the rule of Hu Jintao, Xi's predecessor, was marked by its high level, according to some estimates reaching a historical maximum by 2010. In many ways, Xi was lucky with the moment, and the situation in the country gave him a mandate to “clean up” the party. However, some analysts, such as Yan Li, a well-known Hong Kong journalist, believe that part of the motivation behind the anti-corruption campaigns was Xi's somewhat fanatical devotion to his own idea of the party's purity, and he played the role not only of an aspiring dictator but also a natural product of Chinese institutions and ideology. .
Xi gave the posts vacated by competitors to loyalists from his new "group": both in the central bodies and at the provincial levels. In addition, he formalized the instrument of his own direct control over legislative and development-related initiatives. Xi has increased the role of the so-called "Guiding Groups" - advisory bodies to the Party's Central Committee - and personally led nine of them. These groups under Xi have become an alternative to the "collective leadership" of Deng Xiaoping and allow him to keep most of the initiatives under his personal control.
In parallel with the reform and cleansing of the central power structures, Xi Jinping was actively engaged in the suppression of grassroots protest moods. In addition to tightening censorship, introducing a social credit system, and persecuting religious and ethnic minorities that some analysts have compared to Maoist nationalism, Xi sought to suppress grassroots leftist and labor movements, including Maoist associations and circles.
Thus, the protests of workers at the Jasic welding equipment factory in Huizhou ended with mass layoffs and arrests. The workers tried to form a union to protest poor working conditions and low, delayed pay. News of the workers' problems and the obstruction of union formation quickly spread through the media and social media, with students, members of independent left organizations and "neo-Maoists" joining the protests. At the same time, large accounts and chats appeared on social networks, and students began to distribute the hashtag #epochpioneer. In the very first days, this led to the arrest of 50 students and other protesters. Their further whereabouts are unknown . It is assumed that they, like the leaders of the movement and the account administrators, were sent to re-education camps.
The #MeToo movement, which came to China through academia, also led to a major censorship campaign, in which women - initially students and teachers - spoke about harassment and sexual abuse by professors and in everyday life.
Thus, by his third term, Xi has successfully rid himself of constitutional barriers to re-election, consolidated central power in his hands, and greatly increased his control over the political life and ideology of ordinary citizens. The only limit to his power was the remnants of internal party checks from rival cliques. Despite efforts to consolidate power, some key positions remained with people who, to one degree or another, disagreed with Xi. Thus, during both terms of Xi, according to the old tradition, the post of prime minister was held by a representative of another clique (“Komsomol”) and a protege of Hu Jintao, Li Keqiang, who, unlike Xi, was considered a “moderate” politician and representative of a liberal group. Another protégé of Hu, Wang Yang, one of the most liberal systemic politicians in China, led the People's Political Consultative Council of China (a body, although it does not have real legislative or state power, but still has significant political weight).
Many members of China's economic elites, interested in retaining liberal comrades in government who could balance Xi's policies, hoped that a third term as secretary general would not lose the pluralism that still remained in the party.
However, these hopes were not justified. During the 20th Congress, after guaranteeing himself a smooth re-election, Xi set about finally purging the party of any votes he did not control. The re-election of members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo ended badly for the "liberal bloc" and Hu Jintao's henchmen, Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, both of whom lost their positions and were forced to retire. Lee will continue to serve for approximately another six months. His successor is not yet known - but most likely it will be someone from the new composition of the Standing Committee, loyal to Xi. One should not count on the fact that the elites will be able to promote someone who can balance Xi to this position. The end of the 20th Congress in practice also means the end of at least one of the two cliques - "Komsomol members". None of the prominent members of the faction remained in power, and there is no reason to assume that someone can remain active "behind the scenes".
The end of the XX Congress in practice also means the end of at least one of the two cliques - "Komsomol members"
Against this background, the final scene of the entire congress looks even more curious and disturbing - the "expulsion" of Hu Jintao. At the closing ceremony, the former secretary general, who was sitting to the left of Xi Jinping, after a small and seemingly chaotic conversation between the leaders, was led out by the arms of assistants. Official media explained the incident by saying that Hu was unwell and needed help. In the evening, the sick general secretary was shown on national television, saying that he was already better and there was no need to worry about the health of the former general secretary. Of course, a real malaise cannot be ruled out - Hu is far from being young, and he really could have been unwell. But it is difficult to refrain from speculating about the possible planned and demonstrative nature of the gesture, although such violations of protocol and demonstrativeness are not characteristic of official ceremonies, especially those broadcast to the whole world. The “expulsion” of the former general secretary, the leader of the just erased opposing faction, is a very effective gesture, almost like erasing Stalin’s former allies from photographs of the personality cult era.
Regardless of whether it was really a demonstrative political gesture or Hu became ill, the result remains the same. Xi has effectively seized power in the party and throughout China, getting rid of all his actual and potential opponents and reshaping the party system to his liking. However, it is too early to talk about the return of Maoism, and, most likely, it will not be necessary - Xi clearly sees himself as a politician of a completely different kind, albeit with equal ambitions. But even without such comparisons, one can understand that both the sole power - perhaps for life - and the cult of personality are beginning to take shape.
The specific model of this new autocracy is still unclear and is open only to speculation. It is possible that Xi will abandon Mao-style lifelong power in favor of a time-limited dictatorship modeled after Deng Xiaoping or, for example, Lee Kuan Yew, the “virtuous dictator” whom Xi has praised many times.
Unlimited power over the country until his personal vision is achieved, with a peaceful retirement to a powerful but quiet position in retirement, would not be an unexpected outcome for Xi. What his vision is, is reliably known, perhaps, only to Xi. However, from his speeches and politics, a certain finish line emerges quite accurately - the "Chinese Dream".
"Chinese Dream" Xi
Xi first spoke about the “Chinese Dream” in 2012, promising to “revive the Chinese nation.” The revival of the nation, in his opinion, should take place in several areas at once: and the first of them is the economy. Even at the beginning of Xi's reign, Xi clearly stated his goal - China's achievement of the status of the world's leading economy. And he set an ambitious intermediate goal - doubling GDP by 2020. Вместе с тем подход к развитию экономики в новой парадигме значительно поменялся: Си с самого начала делал упор на развитие внутреннего потребления и уменьшение зависимости китайской экономики от международной торговли, в отличие от своих предшественников. Публично такой разворот объясняется желанием построить «человекоцентричную» экономику и повышать общее благосостояние — но, возможно, на деле он связан и со стремлением Си изменить позицию Китая как глобальной державы.
Можно предположить, что Си Цзиньпин видит усиление Китая на международной арене не столько как средство для сторонних целей — национальной безопасности, экономических отношений, и прочего — но как независимую, если не ключевую, цель — предсказание — причем неизбежное, практически уже сбывшееся или начавшее сбываться. Выступая в Париже в 2014 году, он процитировал Наполеона:
«Наполеон говорил, что Китай подобен льву, и когда он пробудится, мир сотрясется. Китай уже пробудился, но это мирный, приятный и цивилизованный лев».
Си очарован идеей Великого Китая. Его манит память о былой Империи, о легендарном Шелковом пути. И он не просто грезит о былом, а активно пытается его вернуть — в модернизированном виде. Так рождается проект « одного пояса » — крупнейшего международного инфраструктурного проекта Китая, распространяющего его экономическое влияние на всю Юго-Восточную Азию, Африку и, пусть и в меньшей степени, на Европу. В этом же контексте Си противопоставляет Китай «однополярному миру» — до боли знакомому по речам Владимира Путина — и США в частности. Китай не может допустить существования единого гегемона и, как минимум, обязан выступать как конкурент, достаточно сильный, чтобы оппоненты не решались даже пытаться вмешиваться в его внутренние дела.
В «Китайской мечте» страна предстает не только богатой и влиятельной, но и единой и неоспоримой. Независимость Гонконга в этом видении — не свобода, а «хаос», тогда как избавление от самоуправления и подавление протестов — долгожданный порядок. Такое же отношение у Си и к Тайваньскому вопросу. В выступлении после своего переизбрания Си еще раз заявил: Китай стремится к «национальному объединению» и не может исключить необходимости силовых решений, пусть они и нежелательны.
Сопротивление политике нулевой терпимости
Между тем продление Си строгих мер в отношении ковида привело к протестам. Политика по борьбе с пандемией в Китае, получившая название Zero-COVID, или «динамическая очистка», отличалась жесткостью мер с самого начала: она включала в себя строгие и продолжительные локдауны, массовые тестирования и усиленный контроль границ между регионами.
Жесткая линия подавления эпидемии, которой упорно придерживается Си, не поддавалась — и не могла поддаваться — сомнению внутри правительства. Вместе с тем генсек, кажется, прекрасно понимал возможную непопулярность таких мер. С самого начала он дистанцировался от прямой ответственности, предоставив руководящую роль в осуществлении антиэпидемической политики не кому иному, как премьеру Ли Кэцяну. Допуск «либерального» Ли до такой роли мог показаться удивительным, но вместе с тем позволял выставить его козлом отпущения. В каком-то смысле осторожничал Си не зря — ковидные ограничения действительно привели к беспрецедентно массовым протестам по всей стране.
15 ноября на фоне возвращения продолжительного и строгого локдауна в Гуанчжоу в городе вспыхнули массовые волнения. Подробной информации о количестве и продолжительности протестов нет — сообщения из социальных сетей быстро блокировались и удалялись цензорами. 24 ноября в Урумчи, что в Синьцзяне, случился пожар в одном из жилых домов, он привел к гибели 10 человек. В причине возгорания и неудачных попытках его сдержать жители обвинили чрезмерные и затяжные антиковидные ограничения. За трагедией последовали масштабные волнения — сначала в самом Урумчи, а затем и в других частях страны. Протесты вспыхнули в нескольких университетах Пекина, распространились по Чэнду, Гуанчжоу и Уханю. В центре протестов оказался Шанхай — согласно сообщениям из социальных сетей, там на массовых шествиях раздаются редкие для современного Китая лозунги: «Компартию в отставку, Си в отставку!» Таким образом из узконаправленных протестов против ковидной политики они превратились в антиправительственные, направленные лично против Си, и, более того, — в одни из самых масштабных со времен Гонконгских протестов 2019–2020 годов. Это, конечно, сделало их самыми обсуждаемыми китайскими событиями за рубежом, безусловно, подорвав имидж Си — практически сразу после переизбрания.
Именно этого стремился избежать генсек, но из-за приверженности собственным идеям о Zero-COVID и о послушном, консолидированном обществе, а также из-за отсутствия уравновешивающих его голосов, так и не смог. Чем закончатся протесты, говорить пока слишком рано: где-то власти отчасти пойдут навстречу протестующим, облегчая локдауны, например, так уже поступили в Урумчи; однако в других местах они будут активно и жестко подавляться, как и предыдущие, менее масштабные волнения. Вместе с тем накопившееся недовольство никуда не денется, и Си придется брать его в расчет. Так что «доброжелательным» диктатором генсек вряд ли будет. Укрепившееся правление, скорее всего, будет сопровождаться ужесточением контроля над экономикой и социальной жизнью, подавлением протестных настроений и культурной и национальной унификацией.