China after the 20th CPC Congress

The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) opened on October 16 at 10 am Sunday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and concluded on October 22, lasting seven days. About 2.300 delegates were meeting to elect party leaders and debate key policies.

Highlights of the Congress

The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China is China’s most significant political event in half a decade. It provides valuable opportunities to learn more about the country’s political leaders and their policies. As most political arrangements are made behind the scenes beforehand, any heated political debate will not occur during the congress. However, the general secretary’s report to the party congress often sets the tone of what China’s leadership will prioritize in the coming years.

China’s President Xi Jinping delivered a report to the Congress on behalf of the 19th CPC Central Committee. Xi highlighted how the CPC has strategically advanced China in the past 5 years, particularly key achievements include poverty alleviation, the normalization of Hong Kong and progress in diplomacy and national defense. China will accelerate creating a new development pattern and pursue high-quality development for the next 5 years.  

Compared to the achievements, success of Zero-Covid policy remains highly debatable. Zero-Covid was a “people’s war to stop the spread of the virus”, Xi said. He signaled also there would be no immediate loosening of his controversial zero-Covid strategy.

In his opening, two hours address, Xi also dealt with the issue of Taiwan, which China holds as part of its territory. Speaking slowly and deliberately, he said Beijing would “never promise to renounce the use of force” and that “complete reunification of our country must and will be realized”, prompting sustained applause from delegates.

On Hong Kong, Xi said Beijing had exerted control there, turning the situation from “chaos to governance”. Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the territory after pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019. Xi also made reference to divisions within China’s political establishment, saying his rule had “removed serious hidden dangers in the party”.

He also added that China would accelerate the building of its military, referencing the terms “safety” or “security” some 73 times. The speech was significantly shorter than his speech at the last congress in 2017.

Xi currently holds the three most powerful positions in China – general secretary of the CPC, 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 CPC does not set any term limits but no leader besides Mao, the founder of communist China, has ever served a third term.

Over the course of the congress, delegates are also expected to elect various leaders including the Politburo Standing Committee – China’s equivalent of a presidential cabinet – who will present themselves to waiting media after the congress.

The Congress unveiled its blueprint for building a modern socialist China in all respects for the next five years and beyond and to advance the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on all fronts through a Chinese path to modernization, as the 20th CPC National Congress opened on Sunday.

Analysis and interpretation of Xi’s address

In his speech to the congress President Xi Jinping summarized the “great achievements” of his first decade as China’s top leader and coined the phrase “Chinese-style modernization.” He laid out his vision for China for the next five years and beyond, signaling how the country will engage with the world.

Continuity is an apparent feature in his report. Many foreign policy narratives in this year’s report are similar or identical to those in his 2017 report. The continuity in Xi’s narratives indicates China is unlikely to embrace rapid foreign policy changes in the foreseeable future. As Xi was elected for a historic third term as China’s top leader, his policies will likely stay. 

Xi said that the next five years will be crucial for ensuring the building of a modern socialist country. The fundamental reason, why China needs to be prepared for the worst-case scenario and even “dangerous storms” is that Chinese modernization, which is very different from Western modernization, will bring challenges to the hegemony (the US), which is now dominating the current world order. This hegemony and its followers do not accept that China will succeed.

According to Xi, China will “remain firm in pursuing an independent foreign policy of peace” and stating that “China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion”. However, Xi stresses, that China won’t compromise on issues over Taiwan.

Though not directly confrontational, Xi’s report signals China does not adhere to the “rules-based international order” advocated by the US and its Western allies. Instead, China will “promote the democratization of international relations.”

One of the few noticeable new foreign policy phrases in Xi’s report is that China will “decide its position and policy on issues based on their own merits.” China’s foreign minister and ministry spokespersons have frequently used this phrase to justify the country’s position of refraining from condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Introducing this new phrase also gives China’s foreign policymakers more space to maneuver in complicated issues in the future.

Xi Jinping’s report serves as a fundamental basis and guideline for work related to Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and the One Country – Two Systems.  The successful practice of One Country, Two Systems in Hong Kong serves as a positive example for national reunification in solving the Taiwan question.

Taiwan case is a key issue

President Xi touched on Taiwan is his opening speech to the CPC Congress:

“In the face of serious provocations from separatist activities by Taiwan independence forces and interference in Taiwan affairs by external forces, we have resolutely waged a major struggle against separatism and interference, demonstrating our strong determination and ability to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity and oppose Taiwan independence.”

“We persist in striving for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity. However, there is no commitment to renounce the use of force and the option to take all necessary measures is retained.”

“The historical wheels of the rejuvenation of the nationalities are rolling forward and the complete reunification of the motherland must be realized and can certainly be realized.”

Xi reiterated in his report that “resolving the Taiwan issue is the Chinese people’s own business, and is up to the Chinese people to decide.” Xi voiced the support for “a peaceful reunification” with “the greatest sincerity and utmost effort.” But he also said China will “never promise to renounce use of force and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary”. This statement is directed solely at interference by outside forces and the few separatists seeking “Taiwan independence” and their separatist activities, and it is by no means targeted at Taiwan compatriots, Xi said.

The content of the text on Taiwan reunification was updated to include the events surrounding the growing Taiwan Strait crisis; the language is decidedly harsher compared to the 19th National Congress report. The inclusion of the phrase “use of force” as an alternative to peaceful reunification, specifically as a response to what China considers “external interference” (the US) in internal affairs, is a grim warning for Taiwan’s democratic future with ramifications for the entire Indo-Pacific.

Yet, it is thought that China will seek the reunification with Taiwan some time before 2049, the hundred years anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. That is still a few years out and certainly not of imminent concern. Apparently, there seems to be nothing in Xi’s speech that points to any “speeding up” towards forced reunification but … other factors tell another tale, which will be examined in details here below.

Safety and national security an essential focus

The whole chapter of Xi’s report is devoted to national security. The report calls for “a holistic approach to national security”, which involves coordinating China’s “external and internal security.” In Xi’s report the terms “security” and “safety” appear 89 times and compared with Xi’s report five years ago, the frequency of these two words increased by over 60%.

His report also indicates China will not only look after its own security but also work on “common security”, primarily through the “Global Security Initiative” raised by Xi in April 2022. This initiative stresses that any state should not pursue its own security in the expanse of other states’ security.

Thus, the overall address reflected Xi’s strongman image by emphasizing the security and the threat of “dangerous storms” while preparing for “worst-case scenarios.” Xi also stressed modernizing China’s national security system and capacity and safeguarding national security and social stability. “National security is the bedrock of national rejuvenation, and social stability is a prerequisite for building a strong and prosperous China,” Xi said. “The Party will take coordinated steps to ensure external and internal security, homeland and public security, traditional and non-traditional security, as well as its own security and common security.

Xi’s report explicitly states China will protect the “legitimate rights and interests” of its “overseas citizens and legal persons”. Linking this with the report’s emphasis on securing China’s industrial chains and supply chains, it’s expected China will make more efforts to extend its protection over state-owned and private entities beyond its physical borders.

Military power of PLA

In his opening speech, Xi Jinping stressed further modernizing the national defense and the military, by saying that the modernization will involve the informatization and intelligentization of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the PLA’s enhanced in safeguarding the country’s security. Xi set the strategic goal of elevating the PLA into world-class force.

The PLA shall intensify troop training and enhance combat preparedness across the board, strengthen all-around military governance, and consolidate and enhance integrated national strategies and strategic capabilities. The modernization will be reflected in terms of military theories, the organizational form of the military, military personnel as well as weapons and equipment. Innovations cover such issues as the guidance of military strategy, development of strategies and tactics of people’s war, building strong strategic deterrent forces, raising the capability of combat forces in new domains and deeply promote combat-oriented military training.

In contrast to the previous report where the Central Military Commission (CMC) assumed “overall leadership,” Xi categorically stated that the buck rests with the CMC chairman, or Xi himself. This further highlighted the Chinese leader’s personalized control over the military.

Xi said the CPC will strengthen Party organizations in the people’s armed forces (PLA), carry out regular activities and put in place institutions to improve the military’s political work and make unremitting efforts to improve conduct, enforce discipline and combat corruption in the military.

Xi’s third term and new Standing Committee

China’s top leader Xi Jinping was set to begin a norm-breaking third term with an even greater concentration of power, after retiring key party leaders from the top ruling body to make room for his own allies. Xi was appointed the party’s general secretary for another five years on Sunday, making him the most powerful Chinese leader since party founder Mao Zedong, paving the way for potential lifelong rule.

As expected, it’s been announced that Xi will also continue as Chairman of the Central Military Commission – meaning he’s the commander in charge of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). That means Xi is again the party secretary, military commander and will almost certainly also be the president of China (a head of state title that just needs technical confirmation at a legislature vote early next year).

The CPC has finally unveiled the men who will rule China for the next five years. The Politburo Standing Committee is China’s equivalent of the presidential cabinet. Getting to the top often requires not only a stellar political track record, but also deft manoeuvring of internal rivalries. The men, Xi has picked for his Standing Committee, are also all figures rewarded for their loyalty. There are no challengers against him now in the top tier of the party.

They are: Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi. Effectively handpicked by President Xi Jinping, they are all new to the top team apart from Zhao Leji and Wang Huning.

Shanghai party chief Li Qiang was the first member behind Xi to walk into a room packed with journalists, confirming his second-in-command rank and signaling that he will become the country’s next premier. The pair were followed by anti-corruption chief Zhao Leji, ideology tsar Wang Huning, Beijing party head Cai Qi, top Xi adviser Ding Xuexiang and Guangdong province chief Li Xi. Most have previously worked with the 69-year-old Xi over the years as he shot up the ranks of the party. Those promoted to power have had their political careers closely tied to Xi’s leadership, implying that this is going to be an administration that will not question or challenge Xi’s authority.

In remarks to Sunday’s briefing, Xi said his administration would be on “high alert” for the challenges ahead. This echoed an opening speech, when he elevated security to the top of the agenda, as Beijing navigates a slumping economy and soaring tensions with the US and other Western nations.

Western media and analysts were again wrong, when insisting that Xi has reverted to Maoism. Precisely the opposite of what the commentariat expected seems to have happened. Members of Standing Committee are highly educated and experienced and particularly “the second”, Li Qiang, is a “tech-intelligent” supporter of high-tech entrepreneurship, who believes that China’s future lies in the digital economy.

Amendment to the CPC Constitution

The 20th National Congress of the (CPC) on Saturday passed a resolution on an amendment to the CPC Constitution.

Fully, faithfully and resolutely implementing the policy of One Country, Two Systems; resolutely opposing and deterring separatists seeking “Taiwan independence” will be added to the amended Party Constitution.

President Xi Jinping, who emerged from the Congress even more powerful, securing a precedent-breaking third term, emphasized China reserves the right to use force in certain scenarios regarding Taiwan: “China reserves the option of “taking all measures necessary” against interference by outside forces” on the issue of Taiwan. We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”

It agrees also to include in the Party Constitution statements on enhancing political loyalty in the military, strengthening the military through reform, science and technology and personnel training, and running the military in accordance with the law; elevating the people’s armed forces to world-class standards.

US-China relations in the context of National Security Strategy (NSS 2022, October 2022)

Amid rising tensions with China, intentionally provoked by policies such as aggravating the situation around Taiwan, the US administration recently released its new National Security Strategy 2022. The related document openly declares China to be the ‘most pressing strategic challenge’, continuing the implication of the nation as a rival or even enemy rather than as an equal legitimate partner in global governance and development.

The Chinese have made their position on this American ‘strategy’ clear. An editorial in Global Times notes that since the end of the Cold War the political leadership of the US has not adapted to the new objective realities of the system of international relations. They still cling to a ‘Cold Warrior’ worldview of international conflict and zero-sum rivalry as the normative basis of international politics.

Chinese experts have noted the contrived attempt of the United States to present a new ideological split of the international society, akin to the communism versus anti-communism of the 1945-1990 period, by talking of a supposed confrontation between ‘democracy’ and ‘authoritarianism’.

The Chinese stress that their model of political order and economic development is a new model of democracy, which puts the national and popular needs first, as evidenced by the incredible achievement of raising millions out of poverty and transforming China into a leading economy. This is in contrast to the American democracy of increasing polarization, racial hatreds and violence, xenophobia, poor leadership, economic crisis and rising levels of poverty etc. Democracy, it has to be accepted, comes in various forms, and the US or the EU possess no monopoly on the concept. 

According to Global Times, the new NSS report is a mirror, reflecting the selfishness, ambition and the deepest fears of Washington’s political elites. In all its national strategy reports, Washington emphasizes US’ “leadership.” There is nothing wrong with ambition, but what does the US want to do by “leading” the world? The report shows that the US is still trying to rope in one group and fight another, creating division and confrontation in this world. There are also many contradictory and logically confusing contents in the report, which reflects the US’ powerlessness and incompetence in the face of real global issues. Washington has seriously lagged behind the complex evolution of the international structure and the needs of our times.

If the US and China can achieve stable and constructive ties, this will inject a fundamental basis of stability for the emergent multipolar/ polycentric world order of the 21st century and shall benefit all of humanity. American attitudes and policies have actually alienated other states and rendered the United States increasingly impotent in controlling the flow, trends, and outcomes of international politics. Furthermore, it will not stop the tide of history towards the emergence of a more multipolar or polycentric model of international order. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China is pursuing unification with Taiwan “on a much faster timeline” than previously expected, on October 18.

In Sunday’s opening speech, President Xi Jinping refused to rule out using force to unify with Taiwan. Xi said the “wheels of history are rolling on towards China’s reunification” with Taiwan. While peaceful means were preferable, we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”

Speaking at an event at Stanford University with previous Secretary Condoleezza Rice, Blinken said that, if Beijing could not achieve unification by peaceful means, it would use coercion and possibly force. Blinken added that the US would honor its commitments to Taiwan and support the island’s ability to defend itself. The State Department didn’t explain Blinken’s comments that China has moved up its agenda for taking Taiwan.

According to Blinken, China has made a “fundamental decision that the status quo was no longer acceptable, and that Beijing was determined to pursue reunification on a much faster timeline.” He didn’t elaborate on the timing for reunification or provide other details but suggested that the Chinese government was increasingly preparing to gain control of the island through coercion or military force, which prospect is “creating tremendous tensions” between Beijing, Taipei and Washington.

Washington has always walked a diplomatic tightrope over the issue of Taiwan and China. Its official policy does not commit to military action on Taiwan – but US President Biden has seemingly gone against this stance by repeatedly emphasizing that Washington would defend Taiwan. Last month Joe Biden said, US forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack – despite the official US policy of ambiguity on the issue.

Tensions between US and China have been high in recent months, especially after a visit to Taipei by US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi. China conducted large-scale military exercises in response to Ms Pelosi’s visit, something Taiwan condemned as “highly provocative”.

Responding to Blinken’s remarks on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin criticized the US for selling billions in advanced weapons to Taiwan and accused the Biden administration of encouraging the island’s move toward formal independence.

Postscript – summary analysis

Taiwan – the US

In October 2022, Taiwan signed a contract with the US for maintenance of the island’s Patriot air defense missile systems, a move that comes as Washington is working to bolster Taipei’s military. According to The South China Morning Post, the five-year contract is worth $78 million and will send technicians from Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to the island through 2027. The signing of the contract comes as the US is looking at ways to get more weapons into Taiwan’s hands.

It was revealed this week that the US is considering a plan to jointly produce arms with Taiwan so weapons could get to the island more quickly without delays. The Senate wants to give Taiwan $10 billion in military aid over the next five years and has included the measure in its version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which senators are expected to approve after midterms in November.

What is relevant to realize now – as Biden’s 2022 National Security Strategy indicates – is that the US sees itself in the midst of a “great power struggle” in which the primary enemy is China who is regarded as “the only competitor with both the intent and, increasingly, the capability to reshape the international order.”

In other words, the Biden administration is admitting that the US is at war with China and that it must use any means necessary to accomplish the upper hand in that conflict. As foreign policy analyst Andre Damon recently noted, the NSS is not a strategy for the defense of the Republic but a “blueprint for World War 3”.

Events after the congress

When analyzing Xi’s speech, there is no indication of any “speeding up” regarding Taiwan reunification process. China will seek the reunification with Taiwan some time before 2049, the hundred years anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That is still a few years out and certainly not of imminent concern. There is also no ‘change in the approach from Beijing toward Taiwan in recent years’ as Blinken claims. The only change has been on the US side.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) called for boosting the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) combat abilities to achieve “national unification” with Taiwan after its new military commission was formed on Sunday. The Chinese army will deepen its reform and innovation, change the way of its training, recruit new talent and keep learning from the spirit of the 20th Party Congress, Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission (CMC), said in a meeting on Tuesday (October 25).

A full report of the Party Congress, released on Tuesday, showed that General Secretary Xi Jinping had simplified two paragraphs of content concerning a “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan into one sentence but highlighted reunification by force in his widely reported speech on October 16, which was met with resounding applause by the gathered cadres.

On October 22, the Congress closed and formed a new 205-member Central Committee. In its first meeting the following day, a 24-member politburo, a seven-person standing committee of the politburo and a seven-member CMC were formed.

Xi and Zhang remained as CMC chairman and vice-chairman, respectively. Zhang, 72, fought in the Sino-Vietnam war in 1979 and the following battle in 1984. He Weidong, 65, was selected as another CMC vice-chairman on Sunday. He was born in Jiangsu and graduated from the PLA’s Army Command College in Nanjing. He was a commander at the East Theater Command between 2019 and early this year. Miao Hua, a 66-year-old Fujianese, renewed his term in the CMC.

The CMC held its first work meeting on Tuesday nominally to study the spirits of Xi and the 20th Party Congress. The meeting was chaired by He Weidong and attended by Zhang. Zhang said the CMC would learn how to implement Xi’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era and push forward his plan to strengthen the Chinese army. He said the CMC would increase the quality of the army’s development. He Weidong chimed in that the CMC would strengthen its political organization and establishment.

Assessments regarding Taiwan takeover by China

After Xi said at the Party Congress’s opening ceremony on October 16 that China would not give up the option of reunifying Taiwan by force, US Secretary of State Antony said the following day that the PLA could try to seize Taiwan on a “much faster timeline” than previously thought.

In March of last year (2021), Admiral Philip Davidson, then commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that China wanted to take Taiwan “during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”

Mike Gilday, the chief of US Naval Operations, told the Atlantic Council on October 19 that China could stage an invasion of Taiwan as early as late 2022 or 2023.  

Chen Ming-tong, the director-general of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau, said although most people believed the PLA would not attack Taiwan until at least 2025, it was still possible that China could launch an invasion next year.

Zhao Chunshan, an honorary professor of the Mainland China Institute of Tamkang University in Taiwan, told media that a Chinese attack on Taiwan was not likely before the self-governing island’s presidential election in early 2024 but that the risk would gradually rise closer to the time of the 21st Party Congress in 2027.

Ming Chu-cheng, a professor at the Department of Political Science at National Taiwan University Taiwan, said whether the PLA would attack Taiwan would depend more on the international situation than the military balance between Taiwan and China.

Ming said President Xi would start a war against Taiwan only, if he misjudged the international situation, which he said was unfavorable for China to do so. He said the appointments of He Weidong and Miao Hua to the CMC would increase the chance of such a misjudgment as the duo tended to echo rather than check Xi’s opinions.

Taiwanese media and other commentators said the risk of a near-term PLA invasion had risen after the Party Congress, with many opining that a Taiwan Strait war would break out between 2025-2027 but not before 2024.

According to the full report of the 20th Party Congress, China would communicate with Taiwanese, who support the notion of reunification with the mainland and try all means to achieve it peacefully. The report said it’s a historical mission for China to solve the Taiwan matter, which Xi said would be done by force, if necessary, in what could go down as a historic October 16 speech. 

Epilogue by the Author

No doubt, the final countdown of Taiwan reunification has been initiated now. The detailed schedule is covered by the twilight, both to outsiders and to Chinese themselves. However, it appears to take place much sooner than 2049 (PRC 100y), highly likely in 2020s. Taking into account of all the above mentioned and some previous events, particularly recent Samarkand summit, some clues and hints can and shall be monitored:

  • China starts outselling of US Treasury Bonds in quantities
  • US Navy makes large-scale FONOPS (freedom of navigation operations)
  • the US – Taiwan “extra” military drills or extra military deals
  • China organizes large-scale military drills around Taiwan
  • extra military “performance” by North Korea
  • “crucial events” in Ukraine war or other “exceptional” events, e.g. in the Middle East