Reading the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China: Dimensions of Change

By David S. G. Goodman, Director, China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney

While international analysis of the Communist Party of China Congress focused on the membership of the core leadership groups, a better guide to the future of China could be found elsewhere in the business agenda of the Congress, writes David Goodman.

The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP) closed on 22 October  and was followed the next day by the announcement of the party’s senior leadership. As always, much attention both within and outside the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has focussed on the appointments to the CCP’s Politburo and its seven-man Standing Committee.  Within the PRC the presentation of the new Standing Committee is one of the most watched broadcasts in the five-year political cycle, possibly because for almost everyone else the whole process of selection that precedes announcement is so opaque.

The new Politburo is somewhat older than that appointed last time after the 19th Congress in 2017. Then the average age was 62 years old, now it is 63.5. Xi Jinping is one of the oldest at 69, as might be expected, but the oldest is Zhang Youxia, a General of the People’s Liberation Army and Vice Chair of the Central Military Commission, aged 72. Interestingly, their fathers were not only veteran CCP members from Shaanxi Province, but worked together in Northwest China during the Civil War.

Personal connections certainly must be important to understanding the process of leadership selection and the dynamics of Chinese politics in the next few years. At the same time, while most commentators outside China have highlighted the importance of personal loyalty to Xi Jinping, it cannot be a sufficient explanation. For example, Chen Xi (also aged 69), always seen as close to Xi Jinping through their Tsinghua University connections and previously a Politburo member and the Head of the CCP’s Organisation Department, has not retained his position.

A more reliable guide to the impact of the CCP Congress is to be found in the Work Report of the General Secretary presented by Xi Jinping on 16 October, in which he summarised the past tenyears and the CCP’s plans for the immediate and longer-term future; as well as the amendments to the CCP Constitution announced at the end of the congress.  There are no dramatic new directions announced in these documents, but there are clear (re)statements of political positions and policies that have emerged in the past few years, as well as some new possible nuances in approach, at least in the ways they are emphasised.

The centrality of Xi Jinping to both politics and ideology is clear. Amendments to the CCP Constitution have affirmed his core leadership position as defined in his own persona; and ideologically there is a recognition that ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era is the Marxism of contemporary China and of the 21st century and embodies the best Chinese culture and ethos of this era.’ While it is easy for commentators to draw parallels with Chairman Mao’s position in the CCP, it is perhaps a little premature to talk of Xi’s personal rule in quite the same way. Xi has certainly built networks of influence and association around himself, but Chairman Mao’s authority was based in several decades of revolutionary activity through which he had proved himself to be correct where others had not been.

As might be expected at a party congress in a party-state, one of the strongest messages to be reinforced by the congress is the importance of CCP leadership to the PRC’s development. The tasks assigned to the CCP are significantly not just ideological work, but also its own infrastructural development, and possibly more than in the recent past. Emphasis was placed on party self-governance reform, highlighted as a solution to avoid what is described as ‘the historical cycle of rise and fall.’ In particular, the weak operations of base-level party organisations and their cadres is identified as needing remedy, along with the widespread extension and improved efficacy of CCP organisation into economic and social activities.

Since the introduction of the 14th Five-year Plan (2021-2025) the emphasis in economic development has moved somewhat from quantity of output to quality of life. At the same time, as noted at the Congress the commitment to raise GDP and disposable income per capita to that of a mid-level country remains, as does the commitment to ensure innovation in advanced science and technology development. The acceptance of the PRC as a socialist market economy where (in the words of the Work Report) ‘the market plays the decisive role in resource allocation and that the government better plays its role’ has been written into the CCP Constitution. The Work Report particularly emphasised that the non-public sector is encouraged alongside the state sector, though also being explicit that there will be CCP guidance of the non-public sector.

The Congress left its audience in no doubt about the CCP’s commitment to the policy goal of Common Prosperity, which in addition to be discussed at length in the Work Report was now added into the CCP Constitution. While the idea of Common Prosperity has been interpreted outside China as primarily an attack on the wealthy and inequality, these may be secondary results of what is intended. There is as yet no detailed program of Common Prosperity policy implementation. Its main purpose as defined at the Congress (and indeed earlier) has been the increased and much needed provision of welfare (health, education and social services) at the basic levels of society to support equality of opportunity. As with economic development, an important part of the discussion at the Congress centred on the development of the CCP’s institutional leadership at the basic level; as was also the case with statements about the development of community governance, explicitly following the early 1960s Fengqiao Model, promoted by Chairman Mao.

The Congress largely delivered messages to its domestic audiences. At the same time, there was some mention of foreign affairs, over and above the emphasis on greater military development. In particular, Xi’s Work Report frankly acknowledged changes in the international environment: ‘The world has entered a new period of turbulence and change.’ Nonetheless, sections of the Work Report dealt with planned soft power outreach, and there were even hints that there were possibilities for the export of the PRC’s economic development model and practices.

Prof David S G Goodman is Director, China Studies Centre, University of Sydney

Banner image: Great Hall of the People (Chinese Parliament), Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. The political hub of Beijing and home of the National People's Congress. Credit: Shutterstock