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Michael Sainsbury

Xi’s grip tightens as China resets its foreign relations team, with Taiwan still top of mind

Unsurprisingly, there were almost no surprises at the landmark 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that finished its week-long session yesterday.

It culminated with Xi Jinping leading the elite group of seven leaders who make up the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) out on to the stage at a backroom of the Great Hall of the People, in the tightly choreographed revelation of the country’s new leadership to commence his third five-year term as the CCP Secretary General. 

Xi was confirmed as Chairman of the Central Military Commission in charge of the People’s Liberation Army, which answers not to the Chinese government or people but to the CCP. As Mao Zedong said: “Political power grows from the barrel of a gun.”

Just to make doubly sure that his ascendancy was clear, Xi had both himself and his fabulously nebulous ideology written into the party’s constitution. It is known as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.

The only moment of true surprise was the abrupt leading-out from the conference of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao just ahead of the major vote on the congress’ last day. (Yesterday, the day following the vote, was the first plenary session of the new congress which confirmed the new leadership team.) Hu looked confused, and theories abound, but none of it much matters — the optics suited Xi. Hu has long been considered a spent political force.

There was also no second act for Xi’s former number two, Li Keqiang. He has been sent into retirement; so too Xi’s former number three, Wang Yang. Two Xi loyalists — his ideological svengali Wang Huning, 67, and anti-corruption tsar Zhao Leji, 65 — survived on the Politburo. The four new faces to join were Shanghai, Beijing and Guangdong Party chiefs Li Qiang, 63, Cai Qi, 66, and Li Xi, 66, as well as Ding Xuexiang, 60, who is effectively Xi’s chief aide. The other 17 members of the Politburo contained no women and were largely Xi loyalists and technocrats, observers have noted. Li Qiang is tipped to become Premier.

There is much commentary about Xi’s third term being unprecedented. But it is a return to an era of Chinese strongmen that stretches back to the emperors and, in terms of the party, to Mao Zedong.

After gaining the CCP leadership during the Long March, Mao stood atop the party from its 1949 civil war victory until his 1976 death, crushing various internal rebellions and seeing off possible successors along the way. He was followed, after a few years of power jostling, by Deng Xiaoping — who had been purged by Mao twice. He was China’s “paramount” leader, without ever even taking the title of CCP Secretary General, from 1978 until well into the 1990s before he died in 1997.

The retention of power in the CCP is a brutal and sometimes bloody business, and all of these power shifts — most especially this latest one of power consolidation by Xi — have been a triumph of the party itself rather than any one person. It was the party that triumphed in the bloody cauldron of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and their murderous aftermath, and it has triumphed again this past weekend.

Xi, more than any other Chinese leader, is a creation and manifestation of the party. The CCP’s singular purpose has been to remain in power, and to retain absolute control over the Chinese people. He is a “princeling”, the scion of one of the CCP revolution heroes Xi Zhongxun, who was himself purged by Mao and rehabilitated by Deng.

He was banished to the countryside as a youth and carefully rose up through the party’s ranks, hiding his ambition in plain sight quietly learning the lessons of power accumulation. He has crushed his enemies within the party and rewarded loyalists, a particular weakness of autocrats which, by definition, can sow the seeds of their own downfall. But that is for another day, and not anytime too soon.

For Australia and China, stability at the top of both countries will allow the gradual resetting of the relationship to continue. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, 69, was promoted to the Politburo and looks set to take over from Yang Jiechi, 72, as China’s top diplomat in heading the Central Foreign Affairs Commission which sits above the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Wang is a known entity, who famously dressed down Australia’s former foreign minister Julie Bishop in 2014. Qin Gang, 56, China’s ambassador to the US, joined the Central Committee and is seen as a candidate for foreign minister.

Wang has met with Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong twice in the past four months on the sidelines of international meetings. A number of other ministers have also met with Chinese counterparts and senior leaders. The Albanese government has pulled out the megaphone that saw relations under the Coalition freeze.

Xi’s language was relatively muted in his main address to the congress, but security won the day in emphasis over the economy. That means both externally and internally, where Xi faces a range of very thorny problems. His COVID-zero policy has presented a unique opportunity for the party and its leader to bring the entire population to heel. As the saying goes, never waste a crisis.

The fact that Li Qiang, leader of Shanghai during the country’s most publicly oppressive and economically damaging lockdown, has emerged as China’s likely premier tells you all you need to know about Xi’s priorities. The policy, at least in the medium term (there is no way it would be relaxed over the northern winter/Chinese New Year) appears here to stay. Travel restrictions will loosen but also largely remain and the state is once more restricting its citizens’ external movements. China is once again becoming more insular.

None of this bodes particularly well for those, like Australia, that oppose autocracy. China continues to romance other autocrats as it pushes its influence into both its neighbouring region — South East and Central Asia, Pakistan, Iran and the Pacific — as well as further afield in Africa and Latin America.

Relations between Australia and China may be thawing, but Canberra’s concerns over China’s growing influence in the region, using its hefty chequebook, will continue to rise along with Xi’s new formulation of the peaceful reunification of Taiwan — possibly by force.

Perhaps the biggest question in the foreseeable future is whether China’s abruptly slowing economic growth will trip up Xi — and as a local recession looms, quite how bad things will get is anyone’s guess.

More problematically, will it force him to ramp up nationalism internally to distract from domestic woes?

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