When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev went to Peking on an official visit in July-August 1958, chairman Mao Zedong chose an unusual venue for one of their meetings―his private swimming pool. “You look after Europe, and leave Asia to us,” Mao told Khrushchev. The Soviet leader, however, was not impressed. “No one has authorised us to look after Europe,” he replied. “Who authorised you to take care of Asia?” The encounter between the two communist leaders, described in A Diplomat’s Diary: The Tantalising Triangle-China, India and USA by T.N. Kaul, turned out to be prophetic as the Soviet empire collapsed three decades later. Khrushchev was a failure in the pool, but Mao was a proficient swimmer―he once swam across the mighty Yangtze. And President Xi Jinping is turning out to be a worthy successor to Mao.
Xi is on the cusp of asserting his ‘core’ lineage―only Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin enjoy the status so far―at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) being held in Beijing from October 16 to 22. The stage is already set with the factional balance in the politburo tilting in Xi’s favour. Members not loyal enough were purged over the last five years, dismantling the ‘one party, two factions’ mechanism introduced to make the system more democratic. With his loyalists dominating the party congress, the composition of the seven-member politburo standing committee will primarily be decided by Xi.
The injection of young blood is expected to gain priority, from the top echelons down to the composition of the new central committee. For a country which has an ageing population and significant economic challenges, Xi’s attempts at consolidation of power for stability have become attractive and even necessary.
Xi is both radical and nationalist in his ideology, a departure from the policies perfected by both Mao and Deng. Mao’s communist ideology might have shaped his initial years because of the Cultural Revolution, but he has mixed it with modern-day hypernationalism. On the other hand, Deng’s idea “to get rich is glorious’’ and his experiment with liberalising the economy is not Xi’s prescription for improving the economic status of the people. Xi has re-asserted state control over the economy and has plans to reduce the dependance on the dollar to ensure greater financial self-reliance.
“A month ago, before the party congress began, Xi gave a speech that was published in the CCP’s Seeking Truth magazine, where he cautioned the party against going the Soviet way. It meant that Xi wanted complete control over the party dispensation and the military,” said M.V. Rappai, China analyst at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. “The message was clear. Xi was going to choose party men and soldiers who were loyal to him.”
The battle within has been won. By October 24, the party congress will put its final seal of approval for an unprecedented third term for Xi―a departure from the three-decade tradition of limiting presidency to two five-year terms. After new amendments formalise his status as ‘core’ of the party leadership in the next few days, all eyes are now on Xi’s inner circle. Key changes are likely to occur in the CCP top brass with the retirement of important leaders. Li Keqiang, 67, is likely to retire from the post of premier in March. His power was visibly diminished under Xi; even his reforms-oriented approach did not seem to align fully with Xi’s vision. He may, however, get reappointed as chairman of the parliament that will allow him to remain in the politburo standing committee.
Two other members of the standing committee, first vice premier Han Zheng and vice premier Liu He―a close confidant of Xi―are also due for retirement having crossed the age of 68. Li Zhanshu (72), the oldest member of the standing committee, is also expected to step down. Most Xi acolytes are expected to be promoted. Top aide Ding Xuexiang (60), Chongqing party chief Chen Min’er (62), the party’s no 2 propaganda official Li Shulei (58) and top security official Wang Xiaohong (65) figure on this list. Foreign Minister Wang Yi (69), too, is expected to be promoted as the incumbent foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi (72) is due to retire. After the politburo, changes are likely in the central military commission, the top CCP organisation that oversees the armed forces and the military policy. Xi has always drawn his power from the military; he became CMC chairman even before he became president and he has focused heavily on military reforms over the past ten years.
Clearly, within China, Xi’s ideology has emerged as the priority solution to steer the country through its economic and security concerns. China, however, will continue to face formidable challenges in foreign policy and military superiority, especially from the United States and Russia, in its attempts to transform itself into a full-fledged superpower. The immediate military challenge for China during Xi’s third term will be to keep the pressure up on two fronts―the unification of Taiwan and the attempts to create prolonged stress on the Line of Actual Control with India, especially at a time when US-China relations have sunk to their lowest levels. These factors will determine whether Xi will be more ambitious and assertive on the international stage.
“While there is not a specific mention of India, Xi’s speech [at the party congress] alludes to security several times, about safeguarding China’s core interests and the PLA modernisation. It suggests that the outcome can impinge on India’s interests as well,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of China studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “Xi’s assertion that ‘zero Covid’ policy is needed to save lives means that border controls will not be relaxed anytime soon, resulting in hardship to Indian students and businesses. Despite the recent limited progress on visas, thousands are affected by China’s Covid policies.”
Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda (retd), former northern Army commander, said New Delhi had not forgotten the experience of the Galwan valley clashes and would have to adopt a cautious approach before celebrating the disengagement between the militaries in the Gogra-Hot Springs area of eastern Ladakh. “In Demchok and Depsang, patrolling by Indian troops has been denied so far. These areas are critical and any dilution can delay a resolution,” he said.
The deliberations at the party congress are critical to the future of Taiwan as well. “There is definitely a hardening of position around Taiwan. Xi has reiterated his stance about the use of force to unite Taiwan with the mainland, which cannot be ruled out in his third term,’’ said Rup Narayan Das, senior fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research. The mayoral elections in Taiwan are scheduled for November 26 and it will be held along with a referendum to reduce the age limit for voting from 20 to 18. “The proposal, if passed, will bring more young voters who are inclined toward democracy, which will disturb China. We cannot rule out more military drills,” he said. Tien-sze Fang, deputy director at the Centre for India Studies at the National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan, said the immediate challenge to Taiwan was huge as the US had its own interests in mind. “The US wants to maintain strategic ambiguity to maximise its interests,’’ he said.
There is growing unease in the Indo-Pacific region as the great jamboree unfolds in China. As Xi begins his third term, cyber intelligence teams are already witnessing an increase in Chinese tactics of psychological and informational warfare to win a war without fighting.