The coverage of the National Party Congress outside of China was dominated initially by individual acts of protest within the country itself, notably the one-man demonstration at Sitong Bridge in Beijing (“this is not my President”) and a bizarre scrum in Manchester, England which the Chinese Consul-General somehow managed to involve himself in. After the event, it was footage of former President Hu Jintao being escorted from the main auditorium either to send some sort of signal about his diminished status (plausible but if so strangely conducted) or because he was suddenly taken ill (the official explanation in so far as the incident is even mentioned within China at all).
The more important questions, however, is what we can discern in terms of the five key areas set out above, namely: Titles, Ideology, Politburo Standing Committee, Economics and Foreign Policy?
This saw the least movement but that may simply be a matter of priorities and timing. There is a further opportunity to adorn additional authority to Xi at the National People’s Congress (the most important meeting of the State, rather than the Party), which will take place in March 2023. This is when Xi will formally be awarded his third term as President and is the chance to add to his titles.
While a lot of what was done here might seem relatively arcane, the deeper enshrinement of the key role of Xi Jinping Thought into the official party ideology did indeed occur as predicted.
Politburo Standing Committee
This was at the radical end of the spectrum as far as the consolidation of Xi’s command is concerned. It was known that the Premier Li Keqiang would “retire” in March 2023. What is more surprising is that he now looks set to be replaced by Li Qiang, a close Xi ally. This is unusual in a number of respects. He has never been a Vice Premier so has not served at a national level before. He has also been the Party Secretary in Shanghai where his tough stance on imposing Covid lockdowns has been deeply unpopular and triggered rare examples of open dissent against the ruling elites. In an odd way, though, this may be an asset for him. Although set to be the number two after Xi he is not a rival or an heir apparent. Other interesting aspects of the new Standing Committee is that is consists of not only the outgoing Secretary of the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection (a secretive organisation that is every bit as controlling as it sounds) in the form of Zhao Leji, but the incoming one as well in the shape of Li Xi. The anti-corruption and party-purification drive to set to continue. No one who might be viewed as a protégé of Hu Jintao is remotely near the levers of power. There is also no woman on the Politburo Standing Committee for the first time in decades and indeed no female representation on the wider overall Politburo for virtually the first time in living memory.
Xi reaffirmed and if anything hardened the positions that he has flagged in this area for the last two years or so. The private sector will be more subordinate to State direction. There is a new emphasis on acquiring self-sufficiency in technology and no let up on the tough stance on COVID outbreaks. What the Party cannot admit in this last regard is that the rushed vaccination campaign that it ran in 2021 using very traditional vaccine technology and without adequate clinical trials has not provided a high enough level of protection to render the virus relatively harmless. Until there is a Chinese version of the mRNA vaccine technology pioneered by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna (either via innovation or Replication and Duplication) and a fresh national vaccination effort then China and its supply lines will remain vulnerable to sudden and severe clampdowns to contain the virus internally.
The rhetoric on Taiwan did toughen but not least because of the practicalities involved in a full-blown invasion fell short of the outright aggressive. Xi made it clear that the reunification agenda was on fundamental importance and that any attempt at outright independence by Taiwan would be met with force, he is not yet willing to do what Vladimir Putin has attempted to do in Ukraine.
In short, this was a National Party Congress which, particularly in terms of the personnel changes, really did live up to the advance billing as to its significance.