Beijing's 20th National Congress underscores hardening of China’s position

Analysts expect to see ideological, economic challenges intensify in Asia-Pacific region

If the latest National Congress in China is any indication, the country’s economic and ideological challenge to the West will 
only intensify.

That is the view of several Canadian analysts and researchers who have observed the all-encompassing political gala in Beijing that outlines the next five years of Chinese policies and strategies.

They say Chinese leader Xi Jinping – who extended his mandate beyond the typical two-term, 10-year period to lead China’s direction for at least five more years – has used this year’s 20th National Congress to double-down on China’s ever-hardening position on a wide range of social, ideological and economic issues.

“The main event in Congress [early on] was Mr. Xi’s report from the 19th Congress to the 20th,” said Charles Burton, senior 
fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing. “It primarily seems 
to be suggesting that Mr. Xi’s policy priorities will be in the area of security, both domestically and internationally.… And it does suggest that the Chinese Communist Party will be downplaying economic issues.”

Outside of its rising friction with the United States and much of the western world over the last five years, China is facing major economic and social upheaval domestically. Two dominant issues have affected almost all aspects of everyday life in China for the last year. 

One is Beijing’s stringent zero-COVID policy, which essentially freezes international travel and regularly disrupts people’s day to day movements through quarantines, daily mass testing and physical and digital barriers to keep the coronavirus from spreading in an environment without mRNA vaccines.

The second issue is the growing property crisis, in which delayed home projects have led to people refusing to repay their home loans (in China, mortgage payments are made before properties are finished). The “mortgage boycotts” have cascaded into the banking and real estate sectors – and, in many cases, on to local governments which were often involved with local developers.

Earlier this month, Chinese authorities delayed the release of GDP (eventually revealed to be an increase of 3.9% in Q3 versus a year prior) and other key economic data a day before their scheduled release. While there was no explanation for the delay, observers speculate that the original release date – which coincided with the National Congress – may have brought negative attention if the numbers did not show strong growth.

In his National Congress address, Xi did not mention any possibility of ending the zero-COVID policy. He noted that Beijing’s focus is “protect[ing] people’s health and safety to the greatest extent possible.” 

The mortgage crisis was not mentioned.

The speech instead focused on key Beijing talking points, such as reunification with Taiwan (an increasingly hot-button issue in the West that shares similarities with Russia’s attitude toward Ukraine) and China’s enforcement of controversial “national 
security laws” in Hong Kong.

Xi also spoke of establishing a clear sense of party control in all aspects of Chinese life, while creating a political model that “offers humanity a new choice for achieving modernization” internationally.

To the that end, Xi mentioned Beijing’s crackdown in the ethnic-Uyghur region of Xinjiang, noting that religion in China has to be “Chinese in orientation.” Xi also urged youth to follow the Communist party’s rule and “build a modern socialist country.”

China’s National Bureau of Statistics said that youth unemployment in the country reached 18.7 per cent in August after spiking at 19.9 per cent in July.

“Mr. Xi’s policy priorities … demand that the party become united under his charismatic leadership,” Burton said. “China 
also has the goal for 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic, that China should assume the position as the predominant superpower on the planet … which suggests institutions that are associated with the international liberal world order will be replaced by Chinese ones.

“Those two priorities are both very challenging for the party to implement, but it does suggest a downplaying of economic 
issues.… Presently, zero-COVID has led to an economic downturn, and there’s an increased interest [for Beijing] of more centralized control of non-state-associated economic activity. Add on the demographic challenges – China’s population is rapidly aging – and one wou ld have hoped that government would put more stress on maintaining higher living standards and the importance of creating employment, investment and prosperity.”

Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the University of Alberta’s China Institute, said none of the announced goals 
were surprising. He added that while the membership of the new Communist Party Standing Committee – the elite group of 
Chinese leaders including Xi and six other senior party members – indicates some inner workings of party leadership, there is no doubt that Xi will remain the main person in charge for the foreseeable future.

The eventual Committee membership - stacked with Xi allies including former Shanghai party chief and new premier Li Qiang, which also ousted potential rivals such as Li Keqiang and Wang Yang - confirmed that prognosis.

“I think when you get a run as far along [as Xi has as leader], I’m not going to say a running out of new ideas, but there’s a certain predictability in terms of a focus,” Houlden said. “You see Xi’s major focus on reinstating state control on businesses and a strong stance on minorities in sensitive areas, and I don’t see any wavering there.”

It is also important to note what Xi didn’t say in his speech, said Houlden, because what was omitted can reveal as much about the future direction of China as what was included.

For example, Beijing’s position on Taiwan, where Xi said China will not relinquish the option of reunification by force but also noted he will “continue to strive for peaceful reunification.”“I still see an element of caution when it comes to military policy,” Houlden said. 

“I know that at a time [when] they are flying planes around Taiwan that people may not see that. But we need to keep in mind 
things they aren’t doing. They could have gone further. They could be imposing a blockade.… 
Beijing is thinking this through very carefully.”