Choreographed cliches fail to hide China’s weakness

Discontent at home and a changing landscape abroad overshadow the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party

Made in China will take on a whole new meaning when the 20th National Congress rolls into Beijing on Sunday like a political circus.

Held every five years, it showcases the highly-secretive ruling Communist Party and cements the unelected power of the CCP elite, including General Secretary Xi Jinping, the “chairman of everything.”

Naturally, there will be a shake-up of his inner circle as even the Party can not stop the march of time with the gray old men pensioned off.

But apart from a few choreographed television events in the Great Hall of the People, the main business of state will take place behind closed doors next week. Away from the prying eyes of the global media, there will be no interviews with Xi. He does not do them. 

As for the nearly one billion eligible voters in the country, they are just a silent audience in a tragic farce. Universal suffrage does not exist in the world’s second-largest economy.

Still, the Congress will set China’s domestic and foreign policies for the next five years and leave Comrade Xi at the top of a decaying pyramid.

Below is a snapshot of views on the state of a nation that has suffered economic pain and international condemnation under his hardline leadership.

Outwardly, Xi still projects confidence. But behind the scenes, his power is being questioned as never before.

Cai Xia, former professor at the Central Party School

Cai Xia was a professor at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party which trains the political elite. She was expelled from the CCP after criticizing Xi’s rule and fled the country. She now lives in the United States after describing the Party as a “political zombie.”

In a commentary this month for Foreign Affairs entitled The Weakness of Xi Jinping, Cai Xia wrote:

Not long ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping was riding high. He had consolidated power within the Chinese Communist Party. He had elevated himself to the same official status as the CCP’s iconic leader, Mao Zedong, and done away with presidential term limits, freeing him to lead China for the rest of his life. At home, he boasted of having made huge strides in reducing poverty; abroad, he claimed to be raising his country’s international prestige to new heights. For many Chinese, Xi’s strongman tactics were the acceptable price of national revival.

Outwardly, Xi still projects confidence. In a speech in January 2021, he declared China “invincible.” But behind the scenes, his power is being questioned as never before. By discarding China’s long tradition of collective rule and creating a cult of personality reminiscent of the one that surrounded Mao, Xi has rankled party insiders. A series of policy missteps, meanwhile, have disappointed even supporters. Xi’s reversal of economic reforms and his inept response to the Covid-19 pandemic have shattered his image as a hero of everyday people. In the shadows, resentment among CCP elites is rising.

No despotic regime in history has had resources to match modern China’s.

The Economist

The “weakness” theme has become a common thread during the past six months. President Xi’s “zero-Covid” strategy has tanked the economy while his “Wolf Warrior” foreign policy shift has tarnished the country’s international reputation. 

An excerpt from The Economist newsletter highlighted the challenges ahead:  

From October 16th the grandees of China’s Communist Party will gather in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for their five-yearly congress. Not a teacup will be out of place; not a whisper of protest will be audible. The Communist Party has always been obsessed with control, but under President Xi Jinping that obsession has deepened. Such control freakery has wider implications for China and the world. At home Mr Xi makes all the big calls, and a fierce machinery of repression enforces his will. Abroad, he seeks to fashion a global order more congenial for autocrats.

Rightly, the West finds this alarming. No despotic regime in history has had resources to match modern China’s. This is why Western governments now treat Chinese innovation as a national-security issue. Many are boosting subsidies for industries such as chipmaking. Perhaps, though, they have it wrong. Mr Xi’s obsession with control may make the Communist Party stronger, but it also makes China weaker than it would otherwise be.

We Want Freedom, Not Lockdowns, We Want Votes, Not Leaders; We Want Dignity, Not Lies …

Chinese protester in Beijing

Yet despite the Party’s obsession with “total control” and its spy-in-the-sky networks, there have been episodes of dissent from the “masses.” Online discontent rumbles on while sporadic street protests have broken out, which are rare in a society crying out for change.

Chris Taylor, the founder of ChinaDiction, reported on one brave soul who stood alone on a bridge of sighs:  

Social media was awash [Thursday] with photos and video of a banner unfurled on Sitong Bridge, near the Haidian Campus of Renmin University in northwestern Beijing, calling for strikes and an end to Xi Jinping’s dictatorial rule. The perpetrator – dressed in a hard hat and the orange outfit of a construction worker – lit a fire on the bridge to draw attention. He was arrested by police and hustled away, as censors valiantly fought to hold back a tide of social media interest – and in many cases support.

On one of the two banners, in the characteristic red of Chinese public slogans, were the words: “Depose the Traitorous Dictator Xi Jinping.” On the other: “We Don’t Want Nucleic Acid Tests, We Want Food; We Want Freedom, Not Lockdowns, We Want Votes, Not Leaders; We Want Dignity, Not Lies; We are Citizens, not Slaves.”

During the summer there were physical protests after a regional banking scandal and a property mortgage crisis. Online, even the army of state censors struggled to contain the anger of ordinary citizens fed up with the draconian “zero-Covid” policy and flash lockdowns. 

The balance of yin and yang is changing for Commander-in-Chief Xi. But that will not stop the political circus and the ringleader’s unquenchable thirst for power.