China’s ‘New Era’ through the lens of 20th Party Congress Work Report

By — Rahul Karan Reddy and Omkar Bhole;

            Xi Jinping’s opening speech at the 20th Party Congress highlighted key achievements and challenges during the tenure of the 19th Party Congress. In combination with the detailed work report, Xi also revealed key drivers of China’s behaviour for the next few years. His speech at the 20th Party Congress has struck a different tone from the one he delivered at the 19th Party Congress. Both reports highlight China’s achievements and project confidence but the latest report blends achievements with warnings of threats and challenges faced by China and the Party in a drastically changing international landscape.

This most noticeable shift is the emphasis on national security in the report, which employs the word security (安全) 91 times, compared to 54 times in the report at the 19th Party Congress. The latest report prioritizes security of food, energy, supply chains and resources, an effort to sanctions-proof China’s economy from US sanctions. This is the first Party congress report to mention sanctions (制裁), revealing China’s growing scepticism about reliance on foreign markets and technology in a deteriorating external environment. The word risk has been used twice as much in the latest report and the emphasis on security and self-reliance has come at the expense of emphasis on China’s economy and reform.

Although the 20th Party congress report does not signal any major economic policy changes, the emphasis on high-quality development increased significantly in the latest report, perhaps hinting at lowered expectations of economic growth in the near future. Here too, the report emphasises stability and continuity. Compared to previous reports, words like economy, reform, innovation and opening have decreased in frequency.

Achievements and Challenges

The theme for the 20th Congress was ‘Hold High the Great Banner of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Strive in Unity to Build a Modern Socialist Country in All Respects’. This theme highlighted Xi’s emphasis on achieving the second centenary goal of building an all-round modern socialist country by 2049 and was reflected throughout the work report. It also encompassed China’s other goals like China dream (中国梦), great rejuvenation (中华民族伟大复兴), community with a shared future for mankind (人类命运共同体) and so on.

During the five years of the 19th Congress, China achieved its first centenary goal of building a moderately prosperous society in 2021 by eradicating absolute poverty in China. Xi Jinping mentioned that China has also achieved relocation of 9.6 million people from inhospitable areas which helped them access better economic opportunities.  This was made possible by the rise in China’s GDP coupled with progress in the manufacturing sector. food security, infrastructure connectivity, scientific innovations and environmental protection. Xi Jinping stressed upon these achievements along with challenges faced by China in the last decade. These challenges were present not only within the Party, but also in Chinese economy, national security, environment and in governance.

The work report mentioned that these challenges have been successfully tackled under the leadership of Communist Party of China (CPC). To achieve this, China has mainly focused on ‘Five-sphere integrated plan’ (五位一体) and ‘Four-pronged comprehensive strategy’ (四个全面), which were introduced for the first time during 18th Congress and also find reference in the last work report. These strategies cover political, socio-cultural, environmental as well as governance reforms. According to Xi, China’s ‘The peaceful China initiative’ has also achieved success in rooting out ‘three forces’. China’s vaccine diplomacy was also praised by Xi Jinping which indicated the success of its great power diplomacy.

Despite these achievements, as Xi mentioned, the work report highlighted some pressing issues which confront China’s progress. These issues include imbalanced development, financial risks, lack of security in terms of food, energy and supply chains. Similarly, Chinese people continue to face difficulties in accessing basic civic facilities which is intensified due to governance and ideological shortcomings among the officials. On the external front, efforts to contain China through ‘blackmail’ and ‘blockade’ have also created a challenge for China’s national interests. Further, overall economic slowdown caused by the pandemic and rising trend of protectionism in the world are also mentioned as factors affecting China’s growth trajectory. The report at the 20th Party Congress made no major departures from the report delivered at the previous Congress in terms of Party policy. Xi emphasised Party building in a new era, citing emerging challenges and threats facing the Party. These challenges largely emerged from the period before Xi’s ascent to power. Thus, Xi Jinping is being portrayed in work report as the one who lifted China out of these challenges and ushered in a ‘new era’ for China. He reiterated the centrality of the Party in all aspects of life and its goal of building a modern military loyal to the CPC. Promotion of people’s democracy (人民民主) is highlighted as the core of socialism and thus, an integral part of achieving second centenary goal.  

Xi Jinping noted that the most distinctive characteristic of the Party was its ability to carry out self-reform and self-governance. Like the report of the previous Party Congress, Xi maintained his emphasis on political education and anti-corruption efforts. Through these efforts, he aims to build a team of leaders having competence to achieve national rejuvenation of China. This qualification is expected to be percolated in the lower levels of administration as well. Furthermore, the work report also mentions expanding the Party base in the private sector, indicating the overarching authority enjoyed by CPC in Chinese society.

China’s high quality development pattern

China’s second centenary goal is largely dependent on sustained high quality economic development and thus, the theme is repeatedly mentioned in the work report. This requires, as suggested in the report, positive interplay between domestic and international economies. However, looking at China’s efforts for self-reliance and overall global backlash against Chinese investment patterns, this interplay is difficult to achieve for China. Although China’s GDP has doubled in the last 10 years, it is also true that China’s growth rate has been constantly falling in the same period. China’s focus on deepening supply-side reforms combined with increasing domestic demand stem from China’s growing reliance on consumption-driven economy.

The work report also focused on creating a favourable environment for the growth of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) as well as the private sector. However, China’s recent crackdown on technology companies and overall bias towards SOEs may not help China’s aim of turning these companies into ‘world-class outfits.’ In light of the recent Henan bank incident and rising systemic risks in the banking sector, the work report expectedly emphasised strengthening financial regulations by introducing structural reforms.

China’s aim to achieve self-reliance was also highlighted in the work report. Cultivation of emerging industries like AI, biotechnology as ‘new growth engines’, promotion of smart manufacturing and modern agriculture and development of digital economy coupled with RMB internationalization are mentioned as some of the key elements of China’s self-reliance initiative. Rural revitalization is another important target of Xi Jinping which is also intricately linked to China’s food security, poverty alleviation and to resolve urbanisation issues.

To achieve balanced regional development, the work report suggests that western, central and northeast regions of China must be prioritized for large-scale development. China’s efforts to be a leader in the global logistics system are indicated by mention of various projects under ‘One Belt One Road’ and other domestic projects like Hainan free trade port. In this way, China aims to achieve high-quality domestic development which can only help them sustain as a global economic power. Moreover, issues like common prosperity and global trade bottlenecks also occur in the report as key economic issues.

China’s ‘Great power diplomacy’ (大国外交)

China’s great power diplomacy relies on its belief of cultural uniqueness marked by socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is viewed as China’s cultural soft power which is used for promoting Chinese civilization. This theme was highlighted in the work report as one of the goals of China’s foreign policy. Xi mentioned that ‘peaceful coexistence will remain a key feature of China’s major power diplomacy, although not seen in practice given China’s recent military postures in East China Sea and India-China border. Along with this, Xi Jinping highlighted China’s efforts to integrate Hong Kong and Macau through ‘One Country, Two Systems’ (OCTS) which was hailed as one of the greatest manifestations of socialism with Chinese characteristics. The focus on ‘rule by patriots’ has been reiterated in the work report and Xi Jinping reaffirmed that anti-China elements and external interference in Hong Kong and Macau will not be tolerated. Further, the work report reiterated China’s attempts to apply OCTS to convince Taiwanese people for reunification.

However, Xi Jinping did not reject the possibility of forceful reunification in the future, thus creating uncertainty about China’s actions vis-à-vis Taiwan. Moreover, China’s efforts to attract pro-reunification citizens in Taiwan through economic and cultural exchanges were also mentioned in the work report. The report introduced a new phrase ‘strategic initiative’ (战略主动), signalling Beijing’s confidence in shaping cross-strait dynamics in its favour. Thus, the work report highlighted China’s comprehensive measures adopted to complete its reunification with Taiwan. Xi’s speech and the report also indicated continuity in China’s Taiwan policy but reiterated Beijing’s desire to alter the status quo and its growing confidence in its chances of success.

The report also acknowledged China’s deteriorating relationship with US and EU, replacing the word cooperation (合作) with positive interaction (良性互动), but persisting with the assertive foreign policy of China. Xi Jinping clearly stated attempts made by external powers to “blackmail, contain, blockade” China’s rising global influence. The work report ultimately warned the West regarding hegemonic acts and maintaining a cold-war mentality without directly referring to them. China believes that these “coercive powers” not only influenced China’s bilateral relations but also China’s role in multilateral institutions.  Xi opposed this mentality which is reflected through rising protectionism, decoupling, disruption of supply chains and unilateral sanctions. Most of these challenges directly affect China’s global rise and thus, find notable mention in the Party work report.

Emphasis on loyalty in military

The 20th Party Congress report promises to achieve the strategic task of elevating the armed forces to world class standards by 2027, the centenary year of the PLA. The report emphasises political education and loyalty in the military while executing reforms through science and technology and personnel training. The report discusses improving institutions to enhance political work of the military to tackle corruption and enforce discipline and loyalty to the Party core. Xi has promised to increase training under combat conditions, emphasised joint-training and plans to expand technological advances into combat capabilities. Focus on establishing strategic deterrence is also one of the key takeaways in terms of China’s military actions in the future.

In a nutshell, Xi Jinping’s speech and work report presented at 20th Party Congress ensures continuity rather than drastic changes. Thus, China’s current policy and actions in domestic politics, economy, foreign policy and military arenas will continue at least for the next five years. However, as Xi attains more centralization of power, these actions are likely to intensify and thus, affect the world with far-reaching consequences. 

Rahul Karan Reddy is an international relations analyst with a Masters degree from O.P Jindal Global University in Diplomacy, Law and Business. He is the author of ‘Islands on the Rocks’, a monograph detailing the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan. His research focus is China and East Asia. He was a research analyst at the Chennai Center for China Studies (C3S) and an intern at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), writing articles and reports on China’s foreign policy and domestic politics. His blog, Asian Drama, follows the rise of India and China as they navigate the Asian Century.

Omkar Bhole is a Research Associate at Organization for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). He is a Chinese language student and completed Masters in China Studies from Somaiya University, Mumbai. He has completed the HSK 4 level of Chinese language proficiency and works as a Chinese language instructor. His research interests are China’s foreign policy in Asia, China’s economic transformation and China’s domestic politics. He has previously done an internship at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS). He has also presented a paper at the 1st All India Conference of East Asian Studies. He can be reached @bhole_omkar on Twitter

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