Headshot of a confident, embolden Xi Jinping prior to being confirmed to a third presidential term, or is that emperor?
Xi Jinping Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What A More Powerful Xi Jinping Means for Chinese Foreign Policy

The Chinese Communist Party Congress is always a key moment on the Chinese political calendar. Every five years, party delegates select party leadership. This includes the selection of the top most ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, including its General Secretary. Being a one party state, the head of the Chinese Communist Party is also the President of China.

Over the last several decades, General Secretaries of the Chinese Community Party serve at most two consecutive five year terms, but Xi Jinping is bucking this trend. He is widely expected to be installed for a third term — demonstrating that he is the most powerful individual leader in China since the time of Chairman Mao.

In this episode, we are joined by Jessica Chen Weiss, professor of China and Asia-Pacific studies at Cornell University to talk about the significance of this Party Congress, and to shed some light on what a more ensconced and more powerful Xi Jinping might mean for China and its relationship with the rest of the world, including the United States, as well as discuss the significance of this Party Congress.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity 

What is the Chinese Communist Party Congress?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:00:01] Basically as they see it, time is on China’s side. One of the biggest applause lines was when Xi Jinping said that the wheels of history are rolling on toward China’s reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:57] Can I have you explain: What is the Chinese Communist Party Congress? Generally speaking, why is it a significant moment on the political calendar? And what makes this particular party conference so unique?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:03:11] So this is the Chinese Communist Party’s highest political event every five years. And this one is particularly important because we expect that Xi Jinping will secure a third term following changes to the constitution that had previously been enacted but this will essentially elevate him beyond the kind of stature that previous party leaders have held in recent memory. So, some are calling Xi, you know, emperor for life. We don’t know if that’s actually going to be true, literally but nonetheless, this is a precedent breaking Congress.

Will Xi Jinping have a third term as China’s president?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:44] What has the lead up to this Congress looked like inside of China? Like, how anticipated is it and what has been like the narrative going into it?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:03:57] It’s been an extremely important and highly anticipated event. And one way, you know, somebody described it is that the Chinese Communist Party has been in sort of campaign season and the whole country is essentially on its best behavior with the approaching of the Congress. And in particular, that’s been manifest in the continuation of China’s zero-covid policy and the desire to have everything buttoned down so that everything looks successful in the lead up to the Congress.

What did Xi Jinping say in his Communist Party Congress speech?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:28] So what have we seen thus far from the Congress? Xi Jinping gave a major speech a few days prior to recording this. What were your key takeaways from that speech?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:04:43] Well, we didn’t really hear anything that we have never heard Xi Jinping say before. So, there is a lot of continuity signaled in his report to the party Congress. That said, I think it codified some of the changes that we have been seeing and how the Chinese Communist Party views the world as one that is going through major changes and is importantly as fraught with risks as well as opportunities for China’s continued development. There are a couple of different things that people have been paying attention to. There is a lot of expectation that there might be new language, for example, on Taiwan policy. This was sort of anticlimactic. In fact, I think some of the changes were rolled out ahead of the Congress in terms of the new white paper on Taiwan that was released in the aftermath of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August. And, in fact, I think there is important continuity in Xi Jinping’s remarks on Taiwan to continue to emphasize China’s commitment to pursuing, quote unquote, peaceful reunification with the utmost sincerity, I think he said. And then also to continue to affirm that basically as they see it, time is on China’s side. One of the biggest applause lines was when Xi Jinping said that the wheels of history are rolling on toward China’s reunification and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, in his words.

What is the current political strategy of the Chinese Communist Party?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:09] Well, what kind of time frame are we looking at? Time is on China’s side, what does that mean?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:06:17] That’s a great question, and it’s a very controversial. I think there’s been a lot of breathless speculation about timelines and timetables that I don’t really think are warranted. I think when Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders talk about, you know, the East is rising, they’re talking and I about a broad, epochal shift, one that might take decades to realize. So, this is about, I think, really an effort by Xi Jinping to proclaim that basically things are going well, and nobody needs to get too impatient. And that actually this sort of over the long view, China expects to be successful in its various goals so that even as there are a lot of risks and challenges in the near term, that over the long haul he’s telling his domestic audience that, look, stick with the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese Communist Party is not going to change its color or change its stripes. This is a horse you want to bet on, I think is essentially his argument.

When might China make moves to absorb Taiwan?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:13] On Taiwan specifically, does that imply that there is perhaps no urgency towards the, you know, quote, peaceful reunification of Taiwan, that Xi Jinping doesn’t see it in his near-term plans to peacefully reunify Taiwan, but rather it’s something that will happen inevitably as the east rises, as you say, as China gains in power and stature?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:07:40] That is the narrative that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to spin and to the extent that it continues that narrative, it is better, and it suggests, you know, a degree of patience that allowed the status quo to remain. I will say that, you know, Xi Jinping has linked reunification to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, which is associated with 2049. So that’s a long way off, but it is a date: of course, for what exactly reunification might mean, it could mean many different things. But regardless, it’s pretty far off and then that too isn’t a firm timetable. And so, there was a recent CSIS poll of experts on this that I thought was really useful and confirming that most experts don’t see that Xi Jinping has set a timetable, certainly not in the near term, for achieving this goal.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:28] What else stood out for you from this speech beyond the Taiwan issue?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:08:34] I would say that the challenges and risks that Xi Jinping sees the country facing really came out in this report to the Congress. And basically, he was continuing to exhort his audience and the Chinese people to prepare for kind of worst-case scenarios, even as he expects and hopes for continued peace and development. So, I think it was a full-throated recognition of the challenges that China faces domestically as well as internationally, but also an effort to rally people to prepare for these stormy seas ahead.

What national and international challenges face China?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:10] What were some of the stormy seas that he’s suggesting might be ahead?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:09:14] On the domestic front, there is continuing inequality. You have acute environmental challenges, and there were those domestic international challenges linked. He said that China’s capacity for scientific and technological innovation is not yet strong enough. And of course, this is taking place against the backdrop of new U.S. export controls to prevent China from acquiring the most advanced semiconductors and semiconductor producing equipment. So, you know, the challenges are both ones that China faces in its own development, but also the severe international headwinds that China faces, particularly although it wasn’t explicitly referenced in its relationship with the United States.

What is the Belt and Road Initiative?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:55] So in light of these headwinds, is there any indication one way or another how China will pursue the Belt and Road Initiative in the coming years? Was this given mention during Xi’s report to the party Congress? And if so, what did he have to say about Belt and Road?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:10:16] It’s important to notice the context here, which is that the Belt and Road has gone through many different iterations and permutations. And as China is the domestic driver of this kind of exporting surplus capacity or there’s financing, as that has dwindled, they have really pulled back on this kind of outbound investment in infrastructure and lending. And so, while there was still mention and, of course, celebration of the Belt and Road Initiative as something that China has contributed to the world. That’s to be expected but we didn’t see anything new coming out on this front.

What is the Politburo Standing Committee?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:55] So I do want to talk about Xi and Xi’s foreign policy going forward. Before we get there, though, I would be interested in having you explain if there’s any major foreign policy significance to the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee. I take it that in the coming days, the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee, which is the uppermost echelon of the Chinese Communist Party, will be decided. Are there any particular names or who might be included or excluded that will suggest to you one way or another anything about Chinese foreign policy going forward?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:11:34] You know, we’ll have to see who ends up being named. I think the general expectation is that what we were looking for is to what extent are these folks really dependent on Xi for their elevation to the pinnacle of power and to the extent that they are then one implication for Chinese foreign policy is that there would be even less potential room for a disagreement within the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee so that many predict as a result that he may emerge from the party Congress a little bit more emboldened and less constrained. But we’ll have to see whether or not that bears out.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:11] But it is like a strong possibility that the entire upper echelon of the Chinese Communist Party, the Politburo Standing Committee, will more or less be all yes men who owe their careers, their position there directly to Xi, and therefore are unlikely to, as you say, issue much critical feedback.

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:12:31] Yes, I mean, that has been a concern for quite some time now, and it may only become more pronounced if that is how the Congress works out.

Will Xi Jinping leave this Communist Party Congress with more power than before?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:40] So if one of the outcomes of this Party Congress is that Xi is more firmly ensconced in power with fewer checks to that power, what trends might we see in Chinese foreign policy in the coming years?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:12:56] So there are different ways in looking at the impacts of domestic politics. We’ve just laid out one of them, which is that the information that he gets or the kind of deliberation is reduced. But there’s also, I think, a lot of evidence that domestic challenges, which Xi and his colleagues seem very well aware, may be a cause for actually more restraint or moderation in Chinese foreign policy. Historically, there’s little evidence that Chinese leaders have sought military conflict to divert attention from domestic challenges. Here, I’m referring to research by Taylor Vrabel and Andrew Chubb, which suggests that actually China’s foreign policy tends to be more cautious when its leaders are preoccupied with dealing with domestic challenges.

What do experts predict for upcoming Chinese foreign policy?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:41] What other trends might we see in the coming years with a perhaps more authoritarian Xi, a Xi with fewer checks on his power, in terms of the kinds of Chinese foreign policy decisions we can see being made in the coming years.

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:13:59] I think that, even though Xi may become more ensconced in power, he still can’t get everything that he wants. I mean, there are really these fundamental tensions between different objectives that he himself has set out, including continued modernization and economic development, versus the kind of maintenance, the insistence on zero-covid and concern about the public health and domestic stability consequences of moving away from that kind of a stance on COVID. So, I think that we’re going to have to see, you know, where does Xi Jinping come out on that in terms of how he balances across these different contending incentives and objectives.

Could Xi Jinping be the Chinese president for the rest of his life?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:43] To what extent does the fact that Xi may very well be president for life, does that provide the United States with a potential opportunity or inflection point to calibrate its approach to China? The Chinese U.S. relationship will be the dominant, the most important relationship in the world and will have ramifications on every aspect of international relations. The fact that Xi is now probably going to be in power for a very, very long time, if not the rest of his life, does that provide an opportunity now for the Biden administration today and perhaps other presidents going forward to reset or calibrate their relationship with Xi accordingly?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:15:31] I do think that after the Party Congress, there is an important opportunity to begin to discuss with China ways in which the United States and China can begin to take steps back from the brink. Because I think that the current trajectory is one that will bring heightened risk of a crisis and a conflict and will continue to put strain on, if not undermine, the very kind of foundations of an inclusive and encompassing international order. As both sides increasingly invest in smaller coalitions of the like-minded or the willing. And so, some may say, well, you know, Xi is so confident, there’s no partner there but I would say that the alternative, first of all, could be catastrophic, and second of all, I think the Chinese Communist Party under Xi realizes that China’s still weaker and that it depends just to a great degree on international technology and capital to continue to develop and modernize. And so, I actually think that this is an important period, you know, a dangerous period where both the United States and China could benefit from a more stable relationship. I’m not saying that this is going to lead to some kind of deep-seated friendship or Kumbaya, but I still think that these kinds of mutually coordinated, technically unilateral steps could give both countries the kind of breathing room to deal with really acute domestic challenges.

How might the United States pivot its approach to Taiwan with a more powerful Xi Jinping?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:00] So, for example, what might those steps look like on Taiwan?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:17:05] So I think that the military operations in the Taiwan Strait and around the island are a good place to start. Following Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, Beijing ramped up its maneuvers, including across the median line, which had served as sort of an unofficial guardrail to reduce the risk of conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Those maneuvers continue to this day and for its part, the United States is also looking for ways to push back and its sort of the one-way action reaction spiral that’s sort of heading, I think, toward some kind of showdown. And with elections on the island looming in 2024 and of course, in the United States as well, I think it would be important for the two sides to begin to think about ways that are not necessarily advancing the material capacity of Taiwan to resist a Chinese attack but are continuing to keep the temperature pretty elevated and precipitating kind of a tit for tat response. And in a classic security dilemma, these actions that each side takes to ostensibly build security actually end up precipitating an equal and opposite reaction that ends up leaving neither side better off. In the current atmosphere of really deep distrust, I’m not suggesting unilateral concessions, and I don’t think that would be politically palatable for either side, and so that’s why I think it’s important to think about what are the reciprocal steps that can be taken bounds on behavior that could begin to lower the temperature or at least stabilize the current escalatory spiral we find ourselves in.

What can Taiwan and the United States do to cool down the tensions between China and the United States?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:47] So what are some of those reciprocal steps? The Chinese, you said, might reduce the kinds of military provocations and patrols in the Taiwan Strait. What might Taiwan and the United States do to reciprocate?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:19:02] So there’s a whole variety of actions that we take ostensibly to show support for the island or deter Beijing. I don’t know that it really makes a difference whether the United States military transits the Taiwan Strait four, eight, 12, or 24 times a year and so the frequency of these kinds of symbolic assertions are something that I think could be potentially modified without any real adverse impact on the fundamental situation. Similarly, the frequency of sensitive reconnaissance operations on the U.S. side and of course, I mean, this is all with an eye toward reducing the Chinese activity in and around Taiwan that really put a lot of burden on the island’s defenses and monitoring and ultimately will make it harder to resist whatever move the Chinese side might make in the event of some kind of real crisis. Similarly on the Taiwan side, most of what I think is limited in the political realm. And really the erosion of deterrence in this triangular relationship between Washington, Beijing and Taipei has really rested on assurances by all sides that if Beijing refrains from military coercion or attack, that Taiwan would also not use that to push the envelope on pursuing formal independence or permanent separation. And so, the kinds of assurances are likely to take the form more of what is the kind of political signaling and statements that politicians on the island make regarding Taiwan’s independence and sovereignty — those kinds of things, rather than the military component.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:58] In the coming, say, months or years following Xi’s coronation or whatever you might call it, as, you know, leader for life, are there any sort of near-term steps that you’ll be looking towards that he might take that will suggest to you broadly the trajectory of Chinese foreign policy going forward?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:21:23] I think the biggest thing that I would be looking at is, again, this question of zero-covid, you know, to what extent is he able to, or willing to, find some kind of pragmatic path forward? Because that would really, I think, affect the sense that China’s economy will be continuing to grow versus one where we’re likely to see a prolonged period of slow economic growth and continued difficulty, really, I think, engaging internationally in terms of the back and forth of people and students and business. So that would be, I think, a pretty important indicator. It’s not directly a sign of what direction Xi might take Chinese foreign policy in, but it’s sort of, I think, the basis for drawing other conclusions about where is he likely to go? Is he going to return to the path of pragmatism, or is it going to be this kind of stability first approach?

What is Xi Jinping’s zero-covid policy?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:22] At this point, is the zero-covid policy like ideological?

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:22:27] In some ways, I think it — I hesitate to use the word ideological because it means so many different things to different people. I do think that he has really invested in zero-covid as the kind of secret sauce that has allowed in his telling and in the Chinese Communist Party telling, allowed China to do so well or did so well for so long during the pandemic. You know, you’ll recall that at the outset of the pandemic, the CCP was touting China’s COVID response as superior to that of the West and many other countries. And so, for him to move away from it now is tricky if it bears risks that the health system might be overwhelmed and you might have, you know, millions of deaths. So, this is very tricky, I think but, in many ways, it’s not clear what that path is out. And it’s in part because of the kind of expectations that have been baked in by prior decisions and propaganda stances.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:23:25] But if he relents from that zero-covid policy, it will be a demonstration that indeed Xi is able to be pragmatic in the face of a challenge like that, and that could suggest more broadly that he is perhaps less ideologically committed and is more able to be a pragmatic kind of politician.

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:23:49] I think so and I think it would also indicate that he is willing to take on certain kinds of risks, not risks of international confrontation, but risks domestically to, you know, once again return to a kind of more open approach to managing dynamic changes rather than kind of rigidly insisting on the sanctity of what’s come before.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:15] Jessica, this was very helpful. Thank you.

Jessica Chen Weiss [00:24:17] My pleasure.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:25] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.

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