Photo: Great Hall of the People, Beijing. By Zheng Zhou – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
This is the first in a series of commentary provided by Pivot to Peace on the documents from the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China
The Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded in July 1921 in Shanghai, at a meeting which came to be seen as the First Party Congress. In the century since then there have been nineteen subsequent congresses, roughly once every five years. Since the 1990s the congresses have been held on a regular five-year schedule. The twentieth congress, held in October 2022, was considered especially important because it marked the centennial of the party’s work and provided an occasion for reflection on the past as well as planning for the future.
The CPC is the preeminent political force in China. There are other parties, but they are small in membership and play an essentially advisory role in the political process. They meet under the auspices of the Chinese Peoples’ Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which was formed in 1949 in conjunction with the establishment of the People’s Republic as part of the creation of what the Chinese call their New Democracy. It also meets on a five-year cycle, synchronous with the CPC congresses.
It is the established practice at the beginning each CPC congress for the leader of the party, designated as the Chairman or the General Secretary at different periods, to present a report to the elected delegates covering the work which has been carried on since the previous congress, and to outline the challenges facing China in the coming years and the proposed plans to meet those.
The report is of course a document which is written in a rather specialized language which is often somewhat opaque and misunderstood by non-specialist readers in the West. It is addressed to members of the party who have been elected as delegates to the congress, and to the full membership of the CPC, which is currently about 98 million people. As such it assumes a level of familiarity with both the long-established rhetoric of Chinese Marxist discourse and with contemporary issues, policies, and practices within the party and in Chinese society. In some ways it resembles a conversation among old friends, who understand each other and share a lexicon of terms and concepts not familiar to others. Most people outside of China will not have anything like this level of understanding or appreciation for the context and background of the points presented in the report. The purpose of this discussion is to elucidate the contents of Xi Jinping’s address, to present, bit by bit, the fifteen sections of the report in language which will be more accessible and comprehensible for ordinary readers interested in the current affairs of China and the political ideas of the CPC.
- The Work of the Past Five Years and the Great Changes in the First Decade of the New Era
This section reviews both the developments since the last congress in 2017 and provides a longer analysis of the period since the 18th party congress in 2012, which is referred to as the New Era. This term is meant to express the idea that in the last decade China has entered a period when it has achieved some of its basic goals in development and has become more prosperous, more self-confident, and better able to follow its own path in world affairs. This is in contrast to the preceding period, when China often had to accommodate its actions to the interests of the United States and other capitalist powers in order to be able to complete the initial phases of economic development through the acquisition of productive technologies and through the expansion of trade relations with other countries. While China still pursues these objectives it now feels more secure in its own accomplishments and less willing to subordinate itself to American dominance.
Xi refers here to some key concepts in the rhetoric of the CPC. Two of the most important are the “strategy of national rejuvenation” and the “system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
National rejuvenation is the process by which the Chinese people are restoring the position of their country in global affairs and reviving the quality of life in their society. China suffered what is called the Century of Humiliation, between the 1840s and 1949, when Western industrialized powers invaded and dominated the country. The impact of modern products from England and other countries, as well as the opium trade which reaped huge profits for the British and American dealers, hollowed out what had been the most prosperous pre-industrial economy in the world, drastically depressing incomes and quality of life for hundreds of millions of Chinese. As China has developed its modern industrial economy over the decades since 1949 the livelihoods of its people have steadily improved. Life expectancy has risen from around 40 to 76, infant mortality has dramatically declined, education, health care, and other social services have been built up, and more than 800,000,000 people have been lifted out of absolute poverty. China has also gained increasing respect in the world, and has sought to develop new relationships of mutual benefit with other developing countries to move away from the global dominance of American-led capitalism. This is the dynamic articulated in the concept of national rejuvenation.
For many Chinese, the fundamental key to success in this process has been the creation of a socialist system, one which is still very much in the process of formation and development, but which has as its core value the priority of seeking the just and equitable distribution of the fruits of the labor of the working people. Various forms of state and collective ownership play a strong role in the economy, alongside private capital and foreign investment. Under the leadership of the CPC the guiding principle has been that, in order to rapidly develop the productive economy to improve the livelihoods of the people, market mechanisms would be used, but that the negative effects of marketization would be restrained and countered by the oversight of the government and the CPC. The creative adaptation of socialist principles to the concrete realities of Chinese social and economic conditions is what is meant by Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. It is not the simple copying of some abstract theoretical model nor the blind emulation of the experience of the Soviet Union, but rather the effort to build of future for China which reflects both the fundamental insights of Marxist theory and the practical application of those general ideas to the varied and complex challenges along the path of modern development.
Xi cites several major accomplishments since the last Party congress. The terms used in referring to these are not always familiar to Western readers, so here are some which recur regularly in Chinese political discourse. China has sought to achieve a “moderately prosperous society”, in Chinese this is xiaokang shehui 小康社會, a term from classical political philosophy which simply means a society in which people have enough of the basic needs of life, such as food, clothing, housing, and access to things like education and health care, to be comfortable, though not quite rich. For a significant portion of its population this has indeed been achieved. In tandem with that has been the “critical battle against poverty” which has in the last year or so, achieved the remarkable feat of lifting several hundred million Chinese above the United Nations standard of absolute poverty. This has been a massive campaign carried out in village and remote areas across the country, largely by volunteer workers in some ways similar to American initiatives like VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) or other “war on poverty” efforts since the 1960s, though with rather more success.
Xi refers to what he calls “whole process democracy”, which is one of the more difficult ideas for Westerners to easily understand. While China does have elections, both for the legislative institutions of the government at the local, provincial, and national levels, and for the delegates to the Communist Party congresses, whole process democracy refers to a more comprehensive and inclusive form of political engagement. It encompasses a range of ways in which citizens can communicate their concerns and needs to officials, including petitioning, the use of hotlines and other forms of reporting abuses of power or problems in of corruption, as well as the exercise of rights to express grievances and demands through public demonstrations or legal procedures. China has a lively culture of political activism, and while this can on occasion result in tensions or conflicts with authorities it is nonetheless an important component of the political system, which leaders at all levels of government must take into account. It should also be recalled that the CPC itself has almost 100,000,000 members, roughly one of every seven adults in the country, a significant level of daily political engagement.
China has made “a big push to enhance ecological conservation”. This rather modest statement in fact refers to major accomplishments in dealing with problems of pollution, climate change, In embracing the use of market mechanisms to develop the economy the Chinese leadership had to accept that this would also generate certain contradictions, problems which would arise from the actual operations of the market, including increasing inequality, corruption, and perhaps most seriously in the long run, environmental damage. The challenge for the CPC is to try to mitigate the corrosive and destructive effects of market forces while gaining the enhanced technological and organizational productivity which has allowed for the dramatic improvements in the livelihoods of the people. The environment has been a critical arena for action by the government and the CPC. China has succeeded in reducing air and water pollution and has become the world leader in the development and utilization of alternative energy, including wind, solar, and hydropower. For many people and governments around the world China has become a model of climate and environmental activism, and is making great ongoing investments in research and development to address the existential challenges of our times.
Xi rounds out the opening section of this part of the report with comments about some of the major challenges specific to the past five years, including the Covid pandemic, but also some political issues which have become the focus of a lot of attention by media and politicians in the West, such as the “turbulent developments in Hong Kong” and the “separatist activities aimed at ‘Taiwan independence’. These points deserve some further elucidation.
China’s handling of the Covid pandemic has gone through several stages, beginning with the initial efforts to understand the virus and to establish protocols and procedures for coping with its spread. China mobilized both official resources and private activism by citizens in the first months of the crisis. Information on the structure and functioning of the virus was developed and shared with the WHO and other governments. China pursued a campaign of research and development to produce vaccines, which it then shared as public goods with other countries, without seeking to generate profits for pharmaceutical corporations, which seemed to be the priority in the West. A second phase of Covid policy was put in place by the summer of 2020, which came to be known as Zero Covid, which aimed to totally contain and control the virus. This involved lockdowns in areas where the virus began to spread, ranging from particular neighborhoods to whole cities. These sometimes resulted in hardships for the residents of lockdown areas, but their needs and concerns were addressed as quickly and effectively as possible within the constraints of actual conditions in the economy and the state of medical services. At the time of the 20th Party Congress this phase of Covid policy was still in place, though in the wake of the Congress the new policies of managing Covid as an endemic disease have been put in place. China’s Covid policies have saved millions of lives, and the present state of affairs suggests that in China as in other parts of the world the pandemic is winding down and a new era is getting underway.
The situations in Hong Kong and Taiwan have received extensive attention in Western media. These are both complex topics, but they have one fundamental feature in common, which is that they are each integral parts of China, which is recognized in international law and has been explicitly acknowledged by the American government. Hong Kong was held as a colonial possession by Britain after it was seized during the Opium War between 1839 and 1842. Under the terms of treaties dating to the 19th century Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and Britain and the People’s Republic reached an agreement on the transfer, which took place in July of that year. Since then Hong Kong has been administered under what is called the Basic Law, in effect a local constitution. The Basic Law gave Hong Kong citizens the first democratic rights they had ever held, and envisioned a process of transition which will go on over 50 years, during which time Hong Kong will be a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, under the policy of One Country, Two Systems. There have been various stages of development in the legal and legislative system in Hong Kong, and the franchise has been expanded step by step. There has also been some contention and political agitation along the way. But Hong Kong is unquestionably a part of China, with a high degree of local autonomy. China has been very sensitive to the interference of outside forces, especial both overt and covert actions by the United States, which has sought to disrupt local society and destabilize the administration. Violent protests in 2021 and 2022 gained much sympathetic media coverage in the West, but were in fact handled with great restraint by the Hong Kong police and government. The political turbulence there has subsided and Hong Kong has returned to its normal state of affairs, still under the One Country, Two Systems policy, which is set to continue at least through 2047.
The matter of Taiwan is likewise an internal affair of the Chinese people on both sides of the Strait of Taiwan, which separates the island from the rest of the country on the mainland. The Taiwan situation is one which, as the Chines say, has come down from history. It is the legacy of the outcome of the Civil War in China from 1945-1949, which culminated in the establishment of the People’s Republic in October 1949, while the remnants of the former regime led by the Guomindang under Chiang Kai-shek withdrew to the island of Taiwan. Protected by the intervention of the U.S. Navy, the Guomindang set up a government on the island, first having violently repressed protests by the local population at the cost of thousands of lives, and declared martial law, which remained in effect for some forty years. Today Taiwan is administered by a local authorities who continue to refer to their government as the Republic of China, and who claim to be the legitimate government of the entire country. Until 1971 the Taiwan authorities held China’s seat in the United Nations General Assembly and on the Security Council. The People’s Republic assumed that position upon the vote of the General Assembly in that year as the actual existing and legitimate government of China. The next year, after President Nixon’s visit to China, the U.S. and China signed the Shanghai Communiqué, in which the U.S. acknowledged that there was only one China and that Taiwan was part of China. The position of the CPC and the Chinese government has always been that the status of Taiwan is a question to be resolved by the Chinese people on both sides of the Strait in their own way and in their own time, without the interference of any outside forces. They decline to renounce the possible use of force in the event that anyone should attempt to separate Taiwan from China, but have remained clearly dedicated to seeking a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the situation. Xi Jinping made this crystal clear in the course of the 20th Party Congress.
Having reviewed developments since the last Party Congress, Xi devoted the rest of this opening section of his report to discussing the longer perspective of the New Era, referring, as noted above, to the decade since his election to the leading positions in the Party and the government. We will present this material in the next installment.