The Party Congress and the Future of China
Guoguang Wu: "The central disaster is that anything may suddenly befall an average Chinese citizen at any time."
Many thanks to the New York Times’ Asia tech columnist Li Yuan for letting us publish a translated transcript of the October 23rd episode of Bumingbai 不明白, her excellent Mandarin-language podcast on contemporary China. The following transcript was edited for length, and hyperlinks and bold marks were added by the ChinaTalk team.
Guoguang Wu 吴国光 is a Senior Research Scholar at Stanford’s Center on China’s Economy and Institutions and a Senior Fellow at the Center for China Analysis of the Asia Society Policy Institute. In the late 1980s, having graduated from Peking University after being sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, he became a policy advisor on reform and speechwriter to China’s then-Premier Zhao Ziyang. After 1989, he left China and pursued an academic career in the US. He wrote the book on China’s Party Congress.
I chose to translate this interview given the Professor’s deep expertise and the fact that a number of the points he makes have not yet trickled into English language discourse. Running this interview here should not be taken as a reflection of Rhodium’s, CNAS’, or my personal views on CCP elite politics.
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Political Depression and the Elite Reshuffle
Li Yuan: Many friends and acquaintances have been telling me that they were utterly shocked, or so furious they couldn’t sleep. Even previously oblivious folks have started asking about how to “rùn” since yesterday.
I’ve already stopped caring or having hope, but I have to say that yesterday’s Politburo list and today’s Standing Committee list really did shock me a little. How do I put this? The sheer violence of politics is laid out so nakedly in front of you, as if you are watching a war movie.
Guoguang Wu: The part that actually surprised me was the way this Congress has been conducted. During previous National Congresses of the CCP, after the report by the head of the party, the current leader would go around attending discussions with various delegations and hearing speeches from delegates. Of course, those mostly involved glibly sucking up to the leader, but at least those kinds of proceedings would be reported by the press. This time there were no such reports. Except for Xi’s meeting with the Guangxi delegation, no other stories like that came out from the grounds of the Congress. Compared to previous methods of conducting the Congress, which were already opaque, the opacity has only increased.
This foreshadows a Chinese political world that will become even more opaque as the years go on. It upends Congress norms of the past forty years from the mid-1980s onwards.
From my analysis of every National Party Congress of the CCP, including the NPCs at the height of Mao, none had ever reached a replacement rate above two-thirds. Last time, as we know, quite a few Politburo members were forced to empty their seats due to age as well: Li Yuanchao, Liu Qibao, Zhang Chunxian, etc. So that’s Xi Jinping’s method, more or less. Last time the focus was on controlling the Politburo, so this time the focus is on controlling the Politburo Standing Committee. At the meeting grounds, it was mainly one of two things: one is to force those who are not yet of retirement age to retire, and the other is to fill the empty seats left by those forced retirees with close confidants.
As for the list of new Standing Committee members, I wasn’t surprised by the departures of Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, or by Li Qiang becoming Premier. The exact mechanisms behind selections isn’t something we can easily guess. I didn’t, however, expect some of the new Politburo members, especially when it came to members selected from the military. When I was looking at the new list last night, I was most surprised by Zhang Youxia (aged 72) staying on and Wang Yi (69) staying on. Earlier we were talking about how the way the Congress was conducted shocked me; the upending of the age-limit rule shocked me somewhat as well. In the context of “seven up, eight down”, retiring some people before age 68 partially upended the rule. This time the rule has been completely broken.
From a political angle, the third part of this is that Xi has mainly targeted the Youth League faction in assembling his personnel. The Youth League faction lost major ground this time around: one particularly shocking thing is Hu Chunhua being omitted from the Politburo altogether. Hu was born in 1963, and now he is out of the political game completely.
Li Yuan: I think the way Xi did it has left him no way out. Is that accurate? Not only did he cut off any future moves by the Youth League/reformist faction, he also has no way out of this himself anymore. Now one hundred percent of all responsibility rests with him.
Guoguang Wu: The way the CCP rules is by gathering everything in the hands of the Party. Within the CCP, everything is in the hands of the highest leader. I have to beg to differ a little bit here, in that we shouldn’t equate the Youth League faction with the reformists. I personally believe that after 1989, there was no reformist faction left in the CCP.
Everyone in the Party wants more economic prosperity — even now, as Xi Jinping looks another way, he still wants some economic growth — and not a single person is receptive to political reform.
By this definition, after Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour in 1992 there was no reformist faction left. On a certain level, maybe Li Keqiang did care about market factors a bit more, while Xi wants to fully control the market. I think there was a bit of disagreement there. But I also don’t think Li was a reformist: while he did see more value in a market economy, he was already in pretty deep and wasn’t going to openly challenge the leader of the CCP. That’s what I think, at least.
Old Factions Out, New Factions In
Li Yuan: And the so-called Jiang Zemin faction and Hu Jintao faction, have they fully ceased to exist?
Guoguang Wu: The New York Times’ Beijing Correspondent called me earlier to ask about this question of factions. They asked whether new factions will form and I said, “you asked a great question.” In the past, there were the Jiang, Xi, Youth League, etc. factions. Today the Youth League faction has completely sunk. The Jiang Zemin faction might still have a couple people barely hanging on. Whether it’s Wang Huning or Ding Xuexiang, there are people in the current cohort who have developed their political chops in Shanghai and maintain deep ties there. That, however, does not a Jiang faction make.
Indeed, today we see Xi as an incredibly powerful and thoroughly centralized leader, but the problem with that is that a new factional network will inevitably emerge underneath him.
The first reason for that is that Xi simply cannot do everything himself. He’s going to have to use lots of people, especially as so many new Politburo members have been selected. These people all have their own backstories and personal networks. They have their own preferred confidants, protégés, and helpers. When they rise up to a certain level, their inner circles will start to gather into so-called factions.
Actually, what we’ve seen is that Xi Jinping is already using factional balance as a way of approaching this new leadership cohort.
For example, Li Qiang is obviously going to be Premier, so of course someone else will be the Executive Vice Premier. We also know that He Lifeng has made it into the Politburo, and he looks likely to be replacing the role Liu He used to play at the State Council. Among these three, Li Qiang is from Zhejiang, Ding Xuexiang is an old-school Shanghai native, and He Lifeng is from Fujian. He Lifeng was Xi Jinping’s close friend when they were in Fujian: apparently when Xi Jinping got married he only invited a small group of people over to have a drink, and one of them was He Lifeng.
So what you see is that even in the State Council, as those [Xi] trusts most are elevated to the Standing Committee level and his most loyal follower Li Qiang is Premier, he is still having different factions restrain each other. He could have simply left power with Li Qiang, but without being balanced out by Ding Xuexiang and He Lifeng, Li Qiang’s power might grow so large that he is able to challenge [Xi]. Xi Jinping knows how to play emperor very well.
My last point is that the longer Xi stays in power, the more intensely new factions will struggle. They will need to fight for their own privileges in the post-Xi era. The rule of factional politics is that as soon as old factions disappear, new ones emerge. The CCP’s internal gangs, cliques, and coteries are impossible to eliminate. Even as Xi himself was punishing cliques and rectifying others, he himself ran the biggest clique of all. Those under him see no alternative to building their own cliques. This is a constant in CCP politics.
Portfolios, Succession, and Taiwan
Li Yuan: You mentioned earlier that even though Zhang Youxia is 72, he still managed to stay. I wonder if you’d be willing to discuss what the direction for policymaking looks like with this new list of Politburo and Standing Committee members?
Guoguang Wu: I think, first of all, that the reason Zhang Youxia stayed on at age 72 is that Zhang is someone Xi very much relies on for managing the military. Before Xi’s rise to power Zhang was merely a run-of-the-mill high-ranking general, but under Xi he parachuted into the position of Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). We all know that Zhang and Xi have close family connections: Zhang’s father, Zhang Dongxun, was a founding-father figure in the CCP military due to his contributions to the establishment of the PRC. During wartime, Zhang Dongxun and Xi Zhongxun [Ed.: Xi Jinping’s father] were colleagues: Zhang was the general and Xi was the political commissar, and they worked closely together for many years. Therefore, both because of the past and because of being promoted at an unprecedented speed, Zhang Youxia is very loyal to Xi Jinping. It is also said that Zhang Youxia is the only remaining top general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who experienced Deng Xiaoping’s war with Vietnam in 1979, so Xi can use the experience argument to justify keeping Zhang Youxia.
Of course, the other CMC member of the new Politburo is the biggest black horse of all: He Weidong. He certainly has deep connections to Xi as well. When Xi was Party Secretary of Zhejiang province, He Weidong was stationed with what I think was the 30th Army Division in Huzhou. Xi is said to have visited the 30th Division in Huzhou dozens of times, and so He Weidong’s relationship with Xi is arguably very deep. Loyalty comes first. The other important detail is that He Weidong used to lead the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, which is the one that directly faces the Taiwan front. These selected military leaders know what war is like, whether through experience or through in-depth knowledge in military technologies and strategy.
Xi Jinping spent much time governing in the Southeast, from Fujian to Zhejiang and then Shanghai, and he’s close with local soldiers, commanders, and armies. I think one reason why Xi is so tempted to raise the temperature on the Taiwan Strait is because it’s a good excuse to promote his allies in the military and increase military power. But does that have any real implications? Will they actually fight? Recently American politicians and the US military have been talking about the risk of war in the Taiwan Strait in very serious terms, as they seem to think that a military crisis may come up in the next one, two, or three years.
My personal view is that it may not come that quickly. The first reason for that is that the war in Ukraine has probably taught Xi Jinping a tough lesson. The second is that as someone who studies politics, I think a war over Taiwan will first and foremost be a political war. A war like that will have to score Xi Jinping the largest political gain he’s ever wanted [to be justified]. What could that be, now that he’s made his way through the central elite completely? In my opinion, it would be the issue of succession.
When succession comes near Xi Jinping’s political agenda, that’s when he may risk a military adventure in the Taiwan Strait, because if he gets what he wants [in the war] he will be able to push through his preferred succession plan.
However, I doubt Xi will be willing to step down after five more years. He’s probably hoping for a fourth, fifth, or even sixth term. So when will succession issues be in the picture? During his fourth term at the earliest, and by his fifth term it will definitely be an item of discussion. That’s why I don’t think a war over Taiwan will come as quickly as American officials say.
Li Yuan: People are saying that Cai Qi will run ideology, and folks like us obviously care about ideology quite a bit. Also, there’s talk that Li Qiang will run the economy. I don’t know if you want to talk about these?
Guoguang Wu: Let’s start with the economy then. If I’m honest, I’m not sure how much power over the economy Li Qiang is actually going to have as second-in-command. Over the past ten years, Ding Xuexiang and He Lifeng have followed Xi Jinping’s every step while Li Qiang was over in Jiangsu and Shanghai. Since Xi has already put both Ding and He in the State Council (obviously there will be others as well, and we haven’t seen the full makeup of the State Council leadership yet), I think the message he’s sending to Li Qiang is, “Don’t think that just because you are the Premier and second-in-command, you are going be oh-so-powerful. Look, I just put two others next to you… I’ll let you put the pieces together.” So I think Li Qiang might not have that much power over the economy.
Regarding ideology, Cai Qi is definitely going to keep his eyes on ideological matters as First Secretary of the Secretariat of the CCP. A new Publicity Department head is very likely to be in both the Politburo and the Secretariat. I think it’ll probably be Li Shulei, who happens to be a former underclassman of mine. [Ed.: He was right!]
Li Yuan: I see Cai Qi and immediately associate him with “low-end population”, because for people like us he is most famous for clearing out Beijing’s “low-end populations” in 2017. I saw a funny post earlier, which said, “Xi Jinping is good at tackling the high-end population, Li Qiang is good at tackling the mid-level population, and Cai Qi is good at tackling the low-end population; dream team!”
Since yesterday, my phone has been buzzing with questions from Twitter, the podcast, etc. Many people say that they’re depressed and want to know what kinds of impacts the 20th Congress elite bloodletting may have on their lives as average citizens. If this regime heads towards the extreme, will there be disastrous events? If so, what do you think they’ll be? Asking for a friend…
Guoguang Wu: In the past ten years, and especially in the last five, disasters have already been happening. You brought up Beijing evicting migrants earlier: the fact that they did it during the coldest months of winter made it unimaginable. And of course, we don’t even need to go into the pandemic: the lockdowns in China may just be the biggest humanitarian disaster to go down in history. There were the floods in Henan, which made a huge impact as well. These are the bigger disasters.
With regards to smaller-scale disasters, from the chained woman in Xuzhou to the Tangshan scandal, even under such strict control of public discourse these stories got out. If reporting were allowed, I imagine [we’d hear about] these disasters happening every day, everywhere.
The central disaster is that anything may suddenly befall an average Chinese citizen at any time.
As for what kinds of disasters, I think that in the days to come any kind of disaster is possible. In our last episode we talked about how in this current system, the ability to control has increased while the ability to govern has decreased. When the ability to govern decreases, even in the absence of any particular policy from the top, the ineptitude, obstinacy, and ignorance of lower-level officials will brew disasters for the common people they rule over. China from now on may well be a China of frequent disasters.
Li Yuan: Families are wondering if they should send their children abroad to study even earlier than planned. I know many people started drawing up new plans for their lives yesterday.
Hu, Mao, and What It’s Actually Like at the Top
Li Yuan: Let’s now move on to the most dramatic scene from yesterday, or maybe from the entire 20th Congress, which was when Hu Jintao was led out of the hall midway. You wrote on Twitter that “the drama and political meaning of this scene may even be greater than Mao’s show at the 9th Congress; what possibly could they be doing? This has become the biggest focal point of the 20th Congress.” Could you explain what you meant?
Guoguang Wu: When I was writing China’s Party Congress, I looked at many archival materials. One was a video of Mao at the 9th Congress Presidium meeting. There were two scenes which I found interesting. One was when Mao was presiding over the meeting and asked everyone to vote for the committee of the Presidium. He read out the list of names and asked, “Does everyone agree or not? If you agree, raise your hands.” Everyone raised their hands. After the hand-raising was done, the committee of the Presidium was elected. Then Mao said, “Committee members of the Presidium, please come to the stage and take your seats.” However, in reality, those committee members had been sitting on stage already even before the election. It’s all pomp and circumstance; these people knew the procedure is just for show. So Mao turned around and realized these people were already there. This was a bit embarrassing for him. But Mao had one advantage over Xi Jinping: he didn’t take himself too seriously and had a sense of humor. Mao then said, “Ah, looks like our comrades always work ahead of schedule!” And they left it there.
Mao then said, “Now, we will be electing the President of the Presidium. Can I nominate comrade Lin Biao?” Everyone immediately panicked. Lin Biao, of course, was the most terrified of them all, and he stood up quickly and said, “No no no, President Mao Zedong the Great Helmsman should be President.” Lin Biao then turned to the rest of the meeting room and asked, “Is that right?” Everyone else went “Yeah!” and all clapped.
Ultimately, Mao being the often unserious person that he was meant that these things tested the loyalty of these delegates. [They knew] Mao wouldn’t go, “You little bitches aren’t listening to me? I’m asking Lin Biao to be President and you’re not onboard?” Instead, they all knew that what mattered more to Mao was being President and having power. From my research into Party Congresses, I’ve discovered that almost every Party Congress contains a few dramatic scenes. However, first of all, in the past secrets were better kept because there were fewer information channels, and secondly, there were fewer cameras.
Someone commented under my tweet, “Can anyone here lip-read?” I replied saying, “The prerequisites for researching Chinese politics are getting tougher and tougher: first it was face-reading, and now it’s lip-reading…” I didn’t add the next bit, which was, “... soon I’ll be out of a job!” Ultimately, for that to have happened at the Closing Ceremony of the CCP’s Party Congress is absolutely unusual no matter how you see it. The removal of a former Party head, whether with friendly or nefarious intentions and whether for political or health reasons, should have at least merited a vague comment or two from Xi Jinping or Li Keqiang. They should’ve, at minimum, explained to the delegates present that comrade Hu Jintao had to leave for health reasons and asked everyone to kindly bid farewell, or say that they regret that he’s unable to stay…
Li Yuan: … or even something like a thank-you, that would’ve been fine.
Guoguang Wu: Exactly, that’s just basic human kindness. As we saw, all the people Hu Jintao promoted — Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Hu Chunhua, and the many others present — sat there extremely nervously, and none of them expressed any sympathy or tried to comfort him. I actually saw lots of positive social media comments about Li Zhanshu, who acted on his instinct and moved a bit.
These elites sitting there at the top of the CCP’s leadership, what kind of human beings are they? Do they still have basic human feelings? This was their treatment of their former highest leader, to whom many owed huge favors during their political careers. They talk all the time about the “common folk” and “the people” and this and that, but do they still have any inklings of basic human empathy? He’s an elder and a sick person. When you see an elderly, sick stranger in front of you, you will naturally feel sympathy.
Li Yuan: The Chinese title for your book on the Party Congresses is “The Theater of Power: The Chinese Communist Party Congresses’ Institutional Operations”, which I’ve always found very apt. It is a theater of power after all: every element is choreographed, even pouring tea. When something like this happens, it seems like they’re suddenly having to do what instinct tells them, which shows us what they really are like on the inside, right?
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