China’s Twentieth Communist Party Congress kicked off Sunday with a major speech from Xi Jinping, as he prepares to assume a third five-year term as party general secretary. How should the world read his approach to the economy, Taiwan, and more? Experts from across the Atlantic Council are weighing in throughout the congress.
This post will be updated as more news breaks from the quinquennial gathering in Beijing and more reactions roll in.
While Xi’s speech declared economic development to be his “top priority,” there was no sign that he was concerned about—let alone prepared to ameliorate—the deep problems that have undermined China’s economy over the past two years. He gave no ground on the zero-COVID policies that have squelched domestic consumption and destroyed small businesses. There was no mention of soaring youth unemployment, which hovers near 20 percent in China’s cities. And he offered no hint of concerted policies that could ease the country’s deep property downturn and prevent that crisis from damaging the banking system.
What Xi ignored could make it more difficult to achieve the economic goals that his speech emphasized. This includes the “dual circulation” policy and “self-reliance,” which give greater weight to domestic demand-driven growth and higher, technology-driven productivity. Moreover, failure to revitalize the economy will undercut Xi’s lofty goal of “common prosperity,” which his speech elaborated upon to include the need to “standardize the order of income distribution and standardize wealth accumulation mechanisms.” It will be hard to divide the economic pie more evenly if it’s not growing.
—Jeremy Mark is a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoEconomics Center and former International Monetary Fund official and Asian Wall Street Journal correspondent.
Chairman Xi is not signaling any greater sense of urgency over Taiwan. We see the usual rhetoric that reunification is of the utmost importance, while asserting a long-established policy adhering to the one-China principle and the 1992 Consensus.
According to Xi, “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan,” and only China and Taiwan can resolve the Taiwan question. In line with his thought, other powers should mind their business. He states that he will never abandon the use of force and maintains that he will use “all measures necessary” to carry out “complete reunification.” He also mentions that these means are “directed solely at interference by outside forces and the few separatists seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ and their separatist activities; it is by no means targeted at our Taiwan compatriots.” Xi recognizes that, especially in recent years, Taiwan’s unique successes have drawn global acclaim—from its containment methods during the pandemic to its mastery of semiconductor manufacturing. Xi wants to temper those accomplishments as much as possible to keep other powers from aligning with Taiwan.
There is no imminent threat from China to take Taiwan militarily. Understandably, President Tsai Ing-wen and the Taiwanese people are not surprised by the speech. It is wise to keep a close eye on more than just military movements: Watch cyberspace and China’s daily use of psychological warfare, legal warfare, and public opinion warfare against Taiwan.
—Shirley Martey Hargis is a nonresident fellow at the Global China Hub and Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Xi’s opening report at the Twentieth Party Congress follows very similar lines to the Nineteenth Party Congress report, including on the environmental sustainability front. Section X on “Pursuing Green Development” has been coupled with “Promoting Harmony Between Humanity and Nature.” This is an important coupling because it states up front that “nature provides the basic conditions for human survival and development.” One could read into this that the Chinese Communist Party does not put much stock into fanciful carbon capture and storage innovations that are as yet untested. This is because Xi indicates that “ecological conservation” and “natural regeneration” will address concerns around people’s livelihoods and the security and sovereignty of resources, while also tamping down pollution and meeting China’s carbon-reduction goals.
Overall, the emphasis on harmony, livelihoods, conservation, efficiencies, and low-carbon ways of production and life will speak to China’s masses who are angered by the excesses of the rich, particularly in the West. It will also appeal to many developing nations that feel climate injustice ever more acutely each time they are hit with a climate catastrophe. In keeping with the party’s model of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” the multiple references to efficiency and to the need to better control energy consumption are likely a prelude to belt-tightening for those who are used to abundance.
The four subsections of Pursuing Green Development are roughly the same as the Nineteenth Party Congress report, with an implementation focus on “accelerating the model of green development”; “intensifying the prevention of pollution”; “enhancing diversity, stability, and sustainability in ecosystems”; and “working prudently to reach peak carbon emissions and carbon neutrality” [italics added]. Notably, there was also emphasis on “establishing mechanisms to realize the market value of ecosystem goods and services” as well as “strengthening biosafety and biosecurity management, and making efforts to prevent and treat harm caused by the invasion of exotic species”—no doubt a strong line to ward off future risk of the outbreak of zoonotic disease.
There is much to digest in the section on Pursuing Green Development, with more explicit indications than in the Nineteenth Party Congress report, for example in the protection of the marine environment, as well as on continued exploration of petroleum and gas coupled with the carbon absorption capacity of ecosystems. Setting this alongside Section V on Science and Technology, which sees science and tech as the country’s primary productive forces, talent as the primary resource, and innovation as the primary driver of growth, China is showing its leadership in green development in a number of ways.
Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is China’s promise to “get actively involved in global governance in response to climate change.” That raises the expectations for Beijing’s moves at next month’s United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP27) in Egypt.
—Thammy Evans is a nonresident senior fellow at the Council’s GeoTech Center.
The speech shows that Xi is continuing his centralization of power over the Chinese state, and that China is likely to continue its more aggressive foreign policy. This means that the United States and its allies need to continue their more confrontational approach to China. They should selectively decouple their economies from China’s and secure supply chains. They should continue to build new frameworks and attract new allies and partners to balance the threats posed by China. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they need to build a military force capable of defeating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Over the long term, more cordial relations between Beijing and Washington would be welcome, but Xi’s speech shows that relations will get worse before they get better.
—Matthew Kroenig is the acting director of the Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and a former US Department of Defense and intelligence community official.
Xi used his keynote speech to signal an increasingly bold and aggressive Chinese foreign policy. On Taiwan, Xi stated that Beijing is willing to “take all necessary measures” to “oppose Taiwanese independence.” Xi’s refusal to “renounce the use of force” leaves little room for strategic ambiguity when it comes to China’s willingness to go to war with the United States over Taiwan. Rather, Xi continued to prioritize the creation of an “innovation-driven” society that will enable China to become “technologically self-reliant.” Xi also called for the country to “resolutely win key core technology battles” and “modernize military weapons.” Xi’s remarks signal the party’s resolute belief that science and technology innovation is a key enabler for China’s broader political objectives, to include economic growth, military modernization, and Taiwan reunification.
—Kit Conklin is a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoTech Center and former US national-security official.
Economic priorities for China look broadly unchanged with no major shifts in direction. Beijing continues to be deeply concerned about its fractured relations with the world. As Xi stated in his speech, while China’s global power has increased, it is also facing an unstable international environment and must be prepared for “strong winds and high waves and even dangerous storms.” Xi emphasized the need for “self reliance,” particularly in technology, referring to the sector as a “prime driving force” in China’s development, one that of course is facing tremendous pressure from US-led sanctions. While developing China economically continues to be a defining goal, ensuring its security at home and abroad is also of paramount importance.
Domestically, China’s leaders know they are facing formidable headwinds, with Xi calling for the “spirit of… frugality across the entire society.” Xi signaled continued emphasis on a fairer economic system, saying China will regulate wealth accumulation. COVID-zero, China’s stringent pandemic policy, is unlikely to change anytime soon—which is bad news for China’s struggling economy and for the long-term, high-priority goal of transitioning to a more sustainable growth model, one less reliant on investment and debt, and more on household consumption.
—Dexter Tiff Roberts is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Asia Security Initiative and former China bureau chief for Bloomberg Businessweek.