Last month’s Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress brought a moment of high visual drama, when former president Hu Jintao was suddenly escorted by ushers from the carefully-scripted proceedings, as current President Xi Jinping looked on.
The former Chinese leader Hu Jintao was abruptly escorted out of a highly choreographed meeting of the Communist Party elite.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 28, 2022
State media said 79-year-old Hu was “not feeling well,” but a close analysis of the video by The New York Times seems to indicate that, as he was being removed, other officials were trying to prevent him from seeing a document that listed the new members of the powerful Central Committee, which was about to be announced.
While Hu dominated headlines, he wasn’t the only official to nudged away from the center of power: Hu Jintao’s protege, 59-year-old Hu Chunhua, was demoted from the Politburo Standing Committee. He’d long been considered as a potential future Chinese leader.
The standing committee is now dominated by Xi loyalists, leaving China-watchers debating over what it portends for the future of Chinese governance and foreign policy — and tensions over Taiwan.
Some have interpreted it to mean Xi is angling for perpetual leadership of the country. However, Nikkei Asia‘s Ken Moriyasu, is skeptical: “China is not North Korea. It is hard for a politician like Xi, with little to show in terms of achievements, to stay atop the country for so long.”
Moriyasu likewise doubts that Xi’s maneuvering portends an invasion of Taiwan. Rather, he think Xi has some unpopular policies in mind, and wants a team around him that will see those policies through the controversies that accompany them.
“That’s a reform cabinet in disguise. It’s a common prosperity cabinet,” Lauren Johnston, associate professor of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, tells Moriyasu.
Common prosperity is a term Xi uses to encapsulate a policy agenda focused on reducing income inequality, writes Moriyasu:
At an August 2021 meeting of the party’s committee for financial and economic affairs, Xi spoke of raising the pay of low-income groups, promoting fairness, making regional development more balanced and stressing people-centered growth.
Any governmental emphasis on ending income inequality carries an implicit threat to reduce higher incomes, either via taxation or outright caps. Xi’s rhetoric implies he’d like to use both avenues. He’s promised to “reasonably regulate excessively high incomes and encourage high-income people and enterprises to return more to society.”
“Xi wants young, hardworking people to be able to get somewhere as the middle class, getting a job, buying a home. If 85% of a youth’s wages is going to rent,” Johnston says, “it’s not sustainable.”
Li Qiang has emerged as Xi’s number-two. He’d previously demonstrated his loyalty to Xi by strictly carrying out Xi’s draconian zero-Covid policies as party chief of Shanghai. “Li Qiang showed himself willing to take on the rich elites in China’s richest city,” says Johnston.
The same resilience will be essential when Xi goes after “excessively high incomes.” Worries over such an agenda have already taken a toll on Shanghai stocks.
Between the Biden administration’s assault on China’s semiconductor market to high youth unemployment, real estate woes and the lingering effects of zero-Covid policies on the Chinese economy, the five years between now and the next Chinese Communist Congress will be challenging for Xi, according to Zhu Jianrong, a professor at Toyo Gakuen University in Tokyo.
“Xi now has his back against the wall. He got his team and will now have to deliver,” says Zhu. Otherwise, a fourth term as party chair will be unlikely.
Zhu says a war over Taiwan doesn’t make sense in the context of Xi’s broader agenda:
“The unification of Taiwan and the effort to build a modern socialist country contradict each other. The goal is to win without fighting. China will prioritize catching up with the U.S. in overall national power while avoiding a full-front conflict until then at all costs. It’s a new version of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘biding time’ strategy.”