Ideas on Europe

Anastas Vangeli - The Congress of the Communist Party of China

Anastas Vangeli - The Congress of the Communist Party of China

For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome Anastas Vangeli, from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.

As an expert in EU-China relations, you have been following very closely the recent Congress of the Communist Party of China. What do you take away from this huge event?

The Party Congress remains the most important political event in the country. Every five years, it is a spectacular display of the Party’s power, but at the same time quite boring and uneventful: political drama is limited to an absolute minimum.

The key feature of these Congresses is the election of new collective leadership of the Party, but usually choices are made long in advance – or at least, are predictable enough. Even at times of uncertainty, the Congress followed a common, pre-arranged script, in essence formalizing what had been already known – that the old leaders are leaving, new ones are coming up, and that some political heavyweights are getting promoted to the so-called “Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Party”, the body of 5 -9 top leaders.

Did we have some surprises this year?

Well, the 20th Congress was expected to be more boring and more predictable than ever. It was obvious that after completing two terms at the helm of the Party and despite reaching the informal retirement age of 68, Xi Jinping was going to stay for at least one more term.

What was less known was who would join him on the Standing Committee. Global media and the China watching community had singled out several names that were expected to be safe bets – a combination of those considered to be close aides to Xi Jinping, and those that are considered to be closer to a more liberal current in the Party. They were all wrong: on the new Standing Committee Xi Jinping is now surrounded only by loyalists, some of them fast-tracked to a top position, circumventing the meritocratic norms that had previously governed the leadership succession process.

It is important to understand just how surprising that is. One American think tank held a poll of more than a 1000 China watchers before the Congress. Not a single respondent made the correct prediction of who will be the leaders joining Xi in the Standing Committee. This demonstrates that the world has not caught up with the depth of the transformation taking place in China.

So how do we need to interpret this after the Congress?

The instinct for many researchers is to frame the outcome as a triumph for Xi Jinping, and an indicator that China is moving to a personalistic style of governance comparable to other one-party regimes in the past. Xi is thus often referred to as an emperor in the making, who sees the accumulation of power as an infinite goal in itself.

I am not so sure. I would argue that the consequences of the process we are seeing in China is much more profound than that, and it has to do with the changing circumstances.

What exactly do you refer to?

The Communist Party has become much more aware and vigilant about, I quote, “the drastic changes in the international landscape, especially external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China” as Xi Jinping put it himself.

The largest threat of all is what Beijing sees as externally-driven provocation in Taiwan, which is considered an internal issue of highest strategic importance. In this context, the war in Ukraine is looked upon with growing unease.

Moreover, the Joe Biden administration has been mobilizing a global coalition to contain China, launching competition in a variety of fields and policy sectors, and attempting to cut off China from global value chains, in particular when it comes to semiconductors.

Finally, the current economic slowdown may affect China’s social contract under which the Party is obliged to deliver prosperity in exchange for the support of the population. The cumbersome zero- COVID policy does not help in this respect.

Regardless of what we outsiders think, the message from Beijing is clear: the Party is closing its ranks, centralizing around Xi Jinping, and ultimately is preparing for dangerous times. While it is clear that Xi Jinping is an exceptionally powerful individual leader, one must not forget that the Party is a complex organization moving towards the mark of 100 million members, and its collective logic, shared sense of mission and responsibility are really what drives China forward. The Party may have taken a bet by sacrificing the meritocratic, institutionalized leadership process in the name of stability, but it is not bluffing – it is getting ready for even more turbulent and challenging times, and it is not planning to back off from its strategic goals and priorities.

Complicated times ahead. Many thanks for sharing your insight with us. We will definitely have to invite you again for an editorial on your home country North Macedonia’s future in the EU.

“Ideas on Europe” will be back next week, and we will welcome Anna Dimitrova, from ESSCA Paris, to have a look at the forthcoming mid-term elections in the US.

Entretien réalisé par Laurence Aubron.