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Michael Sainsbury

As Xi enters his third term, Canberra focuses on China’s next ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to cement his power with a third term as secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is hosting its 20th national congress on Sunday. This places Xi in the pantheon of the organisation’s greats alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

All power emanates from the secretary-general role. Xi’s triumph is as much about the all-powerful CPP, whose grip over the country remains vice-like, as it is about him. Yet under Xi, while the nation’s rise has gathered pace, China’s internal problems have also multiplied.

The congress is the apogee of the CCP’s five-year cycle, which sees more than 2000 delegates convene at the Stalinist edifice the Great Hall of the People at the eastern side of Tiananmen Square.

They then select, or rather unveil, the preselected members of the Central Committee, who at present number 205 with 171 alternatives. It then selects a politburo of 25 people (only one at present is a woman), and from this comes the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). The PSC comprises seven people currently, but its numbers can rise or fall by one or two.

The Central Committee also selects the powerful Central Military Commission. This is usually headed by the secretary general, which Xi does at present (and he will surely continue in the role).

On occasions, a previous leader has held on to this position, as Jiang Zemin did for some years after he was succeeded by Hu Jintao. It was Deng Xiaoping’s sole senior party post in the years when he was paramount leader.

Much has been made of Xi’s impending third term being “unprecedented”, yet that really only applies to the post-Mao era. Mao was chairman from 1949 until his 1976 death. The title was abolished and replaced by secretary general in 1982. Since then there has been an unofficial two-year term limit and also an unofficial 68-year age limit. Xi, who is 69, has largely bent these to his will.

What is far more unclear than at previous congresses is who will join Xi in the PSC and who will succeed Li Keqiang as premier — a government title rather than a party one under the country’s sometimes confused dual official line-ups — which does have a two-term limit. The top government role is president, a purely ceremonial job that Xi holds, having abolished its two-term limit in 2021.

A range of candidates for the PSC and premier have been mooted in foreign media, and there are suggestions that Li may stay in the top group as chairman of the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress. China-watchers will be scouring the list of new politburo and PSC members looking for public signs of internal party dissonance with non-Xi loyalists appointed.

Just as Xi’s own rise was somewhat unexpected when he emerged as a compromise candidate to replace Hu, his mastery of Machiavellian party politics was similarly missed until it was too late for many in the party.

During Xi’s first term from 2012 to 2017 in particular, his high-profile anti-corruption campaign served the dual purposes of effectively crushing the factions inside the party, thereby creating his own dominant cohort, and reimposing Marixist-Leninist ideology tailored to so-called “Xi Jinping Thought“. Still, the campaign has continued and intensified amid internal party jostling ahead of the congress, with a number of very senior officials taken down.

In Canberra, there will be a particular focus on who emerges at the top of the country’s foreign affairs bureaucracy. The top diplomat is the state councillor responsible for foreign affairs — currently Yang Jiechi, with number two being Minister for Foreign Affairs Wang Yi. (Both are slated for retirement, although some suggest Wang may step up.)

Under the duo, Chinese “wolf warrior diplomacy” has proved very much a double-edged sword — underscoring China’s rising power yet diminishing its standing in the eyes of many citizens in countries it is aimed at, including Australia.

Whoever takes over, Xi remains in singular control of foreign policy, and the central contest between China and the US will continue apace. Tactics may shift, but continuing will be the strategies of containment of China by the US and its allies, including Australia, and China’s determination to continue increasing its influence around the globe.

But while Xi has presided over a strengthening of the party — whose primary aim is self-perpetuation in order to maintain power — and the elevation of himself to the pantheon, this outward success has somewhat disguised a range of missteps as well as structural problems in the country.

Central to the latter is the country’s demographics, with many citizens aging before getting sufficiently wealthy. Chinese citizens have spurned opportunities to have more children after the lifting of the one-child policy, and the nation faces a shrinking workforce and increasing social welfare burden that bodes ill for its economy.

Xi’s potential own goals largely relate to the economy. Economic growth in China has deteriorated under Xi, often in fits and starts. China had an average of 10% annual GDP growth from 1980 to 2010. But under Xi it has averaged 6.6 % average growth between 2013 to 2021 and is forecast to be under 5% this year.

He has shifted emphasis away from reasonably gung-ho state capitalism back towards a tighter grip by the state. This has seen many wealthy entrepreneurs lose favour, including globally recognised businesses such as Jack Ma’s Alibaba. This has significantly dampened dynamic entrepreneurism within China, potentially crimping its ability to pull ahead in the global technology race.

The country’s property ponzi scheme, which has underpinned much of its growth in recent decades (buoyed by constant government stimulus), is unravelling as the emerging message from the centre is that houses are for living in, not speculating, in line with more traditional socialist ideals.

All this has been compounded and exacerbated by the often draconian imposition of COVID zero, which has seen even the biggest Chinese cities go into dystopian lockdowns. Any thoughts that this may be lifted or even softened following the congress now appear to have been wishful thinking, with state media promoting the policy heavily on the front pages of the CPP mouthpiece People’s Daily in recent weeks, and new strains of the virus already emerging as the northern winter sets in.

Some observers argue that a combination of these issues underscore a fundamental slowing and weakening of the middle kingdom’s rise. It is here that could lie the real danger for the region and the world in general, as we have seen writ large with Vladimir Putin and Russia.

Much of China’s outward aggressiveness has been highlighted by its adventurism in the South China Sea and its vast, partly paramilitary distance water fishing fleet. Conversely, Putin’s failure has surely delayed any timetable for China to attempt an invasion or blockade of Taiwan — still the biggest fear for the region, including Australia.

But with Xi likely to be leader for life — he appears to have made too many enemies to risk stepping down — that threat remains a central plank of his and the party’s goal of China’s rerun to full strength by 2049.

The Taiwan threat is perhaps the best demonstration of how Xi’s rise has ushered in what is, in reality, a new Cold War.

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