Xi Jinping, the Secretary Genera of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has been waiting for this moment for years. In his plans, the 20th Congress of the CCP should have taken place in a stable domestic and international political environment, granting him a third quinquennial term as the head of the Party. However, the conditions at home and abroad are currently at an all-time low since the beginning of his 10-year tenure. Economic growth is progressing at its slowest pace in years, with the possibility to reach the 5.5% growth target looking increasingly unlikely. To make matters worse, Xi is being personally blamed for the downturn, provoked by a his zero-Covid strategy which has severely damaged domestic consumption levels. Meanwhile, just before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, he signed a “friendship without limits” pact with President Vladimir Putin.
From global flattery to international mistrust
China has so far sat on the fence vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine: the country did not explicitly support the war, nor has it supplied Russia with arms or else. But it never condemned Putin’s actions either. Therefore, the international community considers China as Putin’s strongest supporter, even though - officially - Beijing continues to maintain a neutral stance. At the recent SCO Summit in Samarkand, Xi showed some suspiciousness over Russia’s behavior, yet he refused to explicitly condemn it. This is because, during his 10 years in power, Xi has lost the West’s consensus and is now considered by the US and its allies as the major threat to the international world order, even more than belligerent Russia.
Since the Trump administration, the US has directly targeted China with a trade war and the establishment of plurilateral institutions aimed at countering its economic and strategic influence across the Asia and Pacific region. This strategy can be interpreted as a reaction to Xi Jinping’s policies to bring China back to its old primacy on the global stage, as he declared with the launch of the China Dream and later put in practice with initiatives such as Made in China 2025.
Consequently, China risks facing sanctions and being excluded from global supply chains in critical sectors. As a matter of fact, the US and the EU are already adopting measures of this kind (via export bans for critical technologies and screening on investments, among others) and are considering further measures. The idea that China might represent a systemic rival – as was labeled by the EU Commission in 2019 – was due to the centralization of power and the adoption of a more ideological stance during the Party’s XIX Congress in 2017. At the time, the Party canonized Xi Jinping’s name into its Constitution and indicated no successor, making it clear that he would stay in power longer than the usual 10 years.
Living in isolation?
Western suspicions about China are fuelled not only by its economic and military strength, but also by the development of its domestic politics, which the 20th Party Congress could only make tougher. Xi Jinping is indeed expected to take full control of the Party, fostering the need for cadres to adhere to his ideological orthodoxy. In addition, because of the pandemic, China has heavily developed strict mechanisms around digital control, including ID checks for subway rides and facial recognition cameras. Once adopted, those measures are difficult to dismantle and can limit people's movements. After almost three years since the pandemic began, Chinese citizens are still being severely restricted from leaving the country, while foreigners can hardly access China. There are some hopes that these restrictions will be lifted after the Congress, but nothing is certain. The reality is that entering and leaving China right now has become dramatically more difficult. People-to-people exchanges are at a historical low since the country opened in the 1980s. In addition, great power competition is also damaging international cooperation as regards science and technology with China, as fear of espionage is trumping the global common quest for knowledge.
From an economic point of view, China will have to rely on domestic innovation to cut its dependence on foreign technology, especially in the semiconductor industry. However, the rise of ideological orthodoxy is likely to affect China’s innovation ecosystem for two reasons: first, it limits interactions with non-Chinese actors. Second, it reduces room for private entrepreneurship, which has been the case since 2020 with the so-called tech sector crackdown.
For these reasons, the 20th Party Congress will be crucial in assessing China’s degree of openness for the foreseeable future. Xi Jinping must strike a balance between the need to maintain his control over politics and the economy and the imperative of letting the latter flourish. In addition, he must convince foreign partners to keep their doors open, persuading the world that China should not be confronted for three reasons: it is not a threat to the West, it is too strong to be contained, and it can avoid isolation thanks to the developing world’s support. The Congress is not only about selecting the new ruling elite, but about deciding China’s place in the world.