More of the same. That’s the outcome of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which concluded at the weekend. The implication for Australia is that we had better get used to it.
As generally expected, Xi Jinping was re-elected General Secretary of the Party for a third term. He restated the Party platform in a long speech. This demonstrated that the years to come will bring China and the world more of the same China that we have come to know. Within the continuity of ideology, economic and industry policy, health and Covid policy, international policy and policy towards Taiwan, there will however be some changes of emphasis that we in Australia should fully understand.
Xi’s work report is notable as much for its omissions as its conclusions, as David Armstrong has noted in his survey of the Asian media. In a break from convention, Xi’s speech to the Congress merely summarised his full 72-page report. This is the most important document of the Congress, having been vetted and discussed extensively within the senior ranks of the Party before being delivered. This year it is doubly significant because in 2022 the Party marked the centenary of its founding. Xi therefore reflected deeply on historical trends within the Party and on its achievements and shortcomings. As might be expected in any statement by a political party leader to a gathering of the faithful, the Party’s achievements were trumpeted, and the shortcomings glossed over.
Later in the Congress, an amendment to the Party charter elevated the status of the General Secretary. Xi himself, who Geremie Barme has dubbed the “Chairman of Everything,” had already been described as the “core” of the Party and his thoughts made compulsory study for Party members and school and university students. In the words of Australian China-watcher, Neil Thomas, “China has entered a new era of maximum Xi.” The Congress declared that a strong leader was needed in the face of domestic hazards and international challenges.
In Xi Jinping’s world, politics triumphs, but ultimately his reign will be judged by his ability to deliver either the “moderately prosperous society” that he promised in 2015 or the “common prosperity” that he has spoken of more recently. This is something we must keep our eye on. When China accounts for about twenty percent of global GDP, the strength and development of its economy will affect Australia and the whole world. Not surprisingly, China’s ambassador Xiao Qian, told a recent meeting of the Australia China Business Council that the business community had an “important role” to play in getting bilateral relations back on track.
The Chinese economy has faced marked challenges in 2022. Although it has more than doubled since Xi assumed power a decade ago, GDP in the first half of the year only increased by 2.5 percent, a considerable slowdown from previous years. There are demographic pressures. The birth-rate is also declining, and the population is ageing. Policies designed to promote the advanced technology sector are under threat. Just before the Congress opened, the US imposed harsh controls on semiconductor exports and restrictions on US personnel working in Chinese chip companies. These moves will damage the Chinese AI industry.
Climate change is a threat to China as it is to the whole planet. The country has already suffered extensively from rising sea levels, heatwaves, droughts and water shortages. The Congress committed China to drastic action, aiming to achieve net zero emissions by 2060. This will require investment in power and transport of US$14 trillion, according to a recent World Bank report. Necessary transition measures will hurt the economy. Australia’s coal exports will continue for some years but clearly have no long-term future.
Most of the Congress’s decisions have been recorded by the international media, relying on a handful of resident correspondents and a plethora of analysts based in Hong Kong, Taipei and around the world. It is unfortunate that Covid restrictions on travel are still an effective deterrent to reporting on the spot. On the other hand, media based in Beijing hardly gained any advantage from their presence on the spot, since access was limited to formal press briefings, official communiques, Xi Jinping’s report, the revised Party Constitution, media data points and official editorial commentary. I have no inside sources of information but, writing after the conclusion of the Congress, can access many committed China-watchers who have pored over Party documents. I am grateful for their insights. Between us, we have reached one major conclusion, albeit not very surprising: there will be more of the same. We had better get used to it.