The 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party wrapped up its weeklong, twice-a-decade meeting over the weekend with Chinese President Xi Jinping securing his third five-year term.
“The third term was not a surprise at all [but] the extent to which he consolidated his power was,” Michael Cunningham, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, says of Xi’s grip on the Chinese Communist Party. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)
Xi “managed to get to force people to retire prematurely who were not his proteges and to replace them with proteges, his own handpicked people,” Cunningham says. “So now he controls essentially the entire Politburo Standing Committee. There are very few checks on his power now.”
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., warned on “Fox News Sunday” that Xi “has become the most powerful Chinese dictator since Mao.”
“The amount of power consolidation that [Xi] accomplished this time, it really shows that … there are very few checks to his power now,” Cunningham says, adding:
It’s hard to say for sure what extent that power will be until we see it in action, but just based on the past 10 years, we’ve seen that even without controlling the entire leadership lineup as he does now, he managed to push through his preferred policies.
Cunningham joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss what the U.S. should expect during Xi’s third term, how Taiwan will be affected, and the state of U.S.-China relations.
Read a lightly edited transcript below or listen to our interview.
Samantha Aschieris: Joining the podcast today is Michael Cunningham. He is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center here at The Heritage Foundation. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.
Michael Cunningham: Thanks for having me, Samantha.
Aschieris: Of course. Now, I just want to dive right in here. The 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress had its weeklong meeting last week and it wrapped up over the weekend. [Chinese President] Xi Jinping was given a third five-year term, which wasn’t really surprising to anyone. If you were giving a briefing to President [Joe] Biden right now, what, in your opinion, was the most significant development or outcome from the week?
Cunningham: Yeah. I would say that it’s the consolidation of power that Xi managed to accomplish was actually—the third term was not a surprise at all, as you said. But the extent to which he consolidated his power was.
He managed to get to force people to retire prematurely, who were not his proteges, and to replace them with proteges, his own handpicked people. So now he controls, essentially, the entire Politburo Standing Committee. There are very few checks on his power now and so I would say that’s the first one.
Second, if I were a briefing, say, President Biden as you said, I would just emphasize the amount of rhetoric in Xi’s work report and in the various other documents and official reports that came out of the congress. The amount of rhetoric that was about struggle and about the hostile intentions of—or I guess I’d say the hostile environment that Xi sees China as being and that he very much sees the U.S.-led international order as hostile to China and to China’s interests.
That says a lot, really, further the direction that China is taking under Xi. That it will further intensify its struggle against the U.S.-led international order, against U.S. leadership in the international community, and against the norms that really hold up our international system.
Aschieris: Yes, a lot came out of this weeklong meeting and I wanted to get your thoughts on something that Florida Rep. [Mike] Waltz said on Sunday. It was on “Fox News Sunday.” He said that Xi has become the most powerful Chinese dictator since Mao. Is this an accurate assessment of Xi?
Cunningham: I would say it is. He definitely, the amount of power consolidation that he accomplished this time, it really shows that he is, as I said, there’s just very little, there are very few checks to his power now.
It’s hard to say for sure what extent that power will be until we see it in action, but just based on the past 10 years, we’ve seen that even without controlling the entire leadership lineup as he does now, he managed to push through his preferred policies. I would say he’s definitely the most powerful Chinese leader that we’ve seen since Mao.
Aschieris: You talked about this a little bit earlier with his Politburo and he just announced this new Standing Committee, what’s its role and who’s on it and also, who’s not on it?
Cunningham: Yeah, OK. The Politburo Standing Committee is, really, the top lineup of leaders. Currently there are seven people. There have been seven throughout Xi’s time in office.
Five years ago or up until yesterday or yeah, a couple days ago, there were about three people, including Xi himself, that were core allies of Xi. There were a couple that weren’t really aligned with anyone, and then there were two that were factional opponents to Xi. These were very important people, including the premier himself. Now they’re pretty much all Xi’s proteges.
There’s one, Wang Huning, who was already on the Standing Committee last term and he didn’t really rise under Xi, but he has been a protege of whoever is in power, we could say.
I guess the most important things, people that I guess are new to the Standing Committee, one of them is Li Qiang. He was the party secretary of Shanghai. So he was responsible, really, for that fiasco with the COVID lockdowns a few months ago.
He’s controversial here and throughout much of the world for the draconian response to the COVID lockdowns. But in China, it would’ve killed anyone else’s political career that that COVID outbreak even happened. That’s why if he were anyone else, if he were not a Xi ally, … his political career would be over.
He is in there. He has never been a vice premier. That breaks a precedent that, from the founding of the People’s Republic of China until now, it was always one of the vice premiers that becomes the next premier.
The person that it should have been—so, you asked who is not on the Standing Committee. The one person who was a vice premier that was not supposed to retire this time was a man by the name of Hu Chunhua and he is a protege of Hu Jintao, the previous general secretary of the party. It’s his faction that pretty much got dismantled this time around. It’s been a work in progress since Xi came to power, but we very much saw how they got made, essentially, irrelevant during this party congress.
Aschieris: It really seemed like a purge of anyone who would seem as a threat to Xi Jinping or offer any sort of opposition to his leadership and to his values. Is that accurate?
Cunningham: Yeah, to an extent. I’d hesitate to say purge because in China when we talk about purge, we’re generally referring to people literally being purged from the party and then thrown in prison. I don’t expect we’re going to see that with the previous leaders that were retired early. But it very much is a takeover of the party, I would say.
Aschieris: Interesting. I wanted to also ask you about former President Hu Jintao. He appeared to be forcibly removed from the Great Hall of the People on Saturday, according to some video that we’ve seen circulating on Twitter. I can include it in the show notes for people who want to take a look at it. Can you walk us through what happened, what we can guess what happened? Obviously, there’s a lot of speculation out there and what it says about Xi’s leadership.
Cunningham: Yeah. Well, I mean, as far as what happened, nobody really knows. Well, some people know, but unfortunately, by the time the journalists got into the Great Hall of the People and started recording, we see at that point Xi is already—there were already people talking to him trying to coax him out of his chair and move him.
The official explanation, of course, was that it was a health issue and that Xi finished attending the rest of the session from an adjacent room. Very few people that I have spoken to buy that story. In fact, even people in China, your average urbanite does not buy that explanation either.
I would say here, from one angle, it doesn’t really matter what happened, just the fact that our initial response is, “Oh, it must be political,” that says quite a bit about the Chinese Communist Party, about the kind of organization it is.
I think there’s a lot of people want to see the CCP or the Chinese government as, I guess, want to compare it with other governments, other emerging markets or developing countries or other dictatorships even. But what we saw there very much was just a public, I guess, showing of the true nature of the CCP. That is, if there’s any country right now that we can really compare it to, it would be North Korea or it would be the Soviet Union, right?
Now, what were the reasons for Hu Jintao being taken out? Probably has something to do with something that happened before the video started rolling. But most people believe it was political. I mean, that just goes to show, I guess it really was a symbolic gesture of what we saw happening, that Xi did very much take over the party during this congress.
Aschieris: Yeah. I want to get your thoughts on, similar to what we had talked about earlier with Xi Jinping continuing to remain in power. It was no surprise to anyone. The former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, tweeted on Monday that “Xi Jinping seizing total power is no surprise. He’s a brutal communist dictator. This is the real threat and this is what our military needs to focus on.” What does Xi’s third term mean for the U.S. and for our relationship with China?
Cunningham: Yeah, well, we can’t really expect things to get any less tense, let’s just put it that way. Xi’s third term, as you said, was expected. I don’t think there’s any surprise to what Pompeo said. There’s not really any surprise about the direction that the course that Xi laid out in the party congress.
Things are going to be increasingly bumpy for the U.S. and China. The reason being that the CCP does see the U.S. and our leadership of the world as a threat.
Forty years of engagement, we tried so hard to—I mean, we embraced China, we helped, we facilitated their rise. We tried so hard to develop a healthy and a good relationship with them and help them develop into a member of the international community that was responsible and was contributing. Forty years of this engagement did not stop who China, really, or not China, but who the CCP really is.
It’s unfortunate, but I think one thing that I like about Pompeo’s quote and about, frankly, his stance on China generally, which is absolutely correct, is that, look, the enemy is not China. It’s not the Chinese people. The enemy isn’t even Xi. The enemy is the CCP and this is their system. Xi is as much a product of that system and a continuation of past policies and the long-term direction of the party as he is charting a not-so-much new but accelerated course.
Aschieris: Then just to look through the eyes of a country that’s much closer to China than we are, Taiwan, what should we expect both in the short term and the long term regarding China’s threat toward Taiwan?
Cunningham: Well, that in part depends on us, I would say. In part, it depends on what happens in Taiwan politically and in part it depends on the CCP.
But Xi further consolidating his power and to the extent that he has, I guess, well, what that means is he is going to be further emboldened. He’s going to be more confident. But under-arching political dynamics that Xi operates in haven’t changed to the extent that he can just do whatever he wants and not worry at all about the consequences.
As far as war goes, I think the highest likelihood of war would be escalation. So as far as, there’s a lot of talk out there about Xi plans to take Taiwan in certain number of years, it’s more complicated than just taking Taiwan. We’re talking a Chinese military that does not really have any recent combat experience. It’s been decades. And China very much believes that the U.S. and Japan would be involved.
Not to mention it would be an amphibious landing that we’re talking about. So if they were to make a move, it probably would not be that all-out takeover at this point. The main reason being that an attempt and failure to take Taiwan by Xi would—that a failure to take Taiwan would result, essentially, in losing all claim to Taiwan. You don’t have power to back it up. You’ve lost that claim right. That is a huge political risk for Xi based on just the amount of emotion involved in China among the nationalistic public.
So I think Washington’s task here is make sure that China never feels like the power balance is in its favor. We need to stop neglecting our own military development because China under Xi is going to continue developing its military very quickly. You have to make sure that that doesn’t happen or that we’re always strong enough that China will think twice about that.
But at the same time, if Xi feels like he has to act or he has lost Taiwan in his eyes, then he will. And so there is that risk that as things escalate, that there will be this war that nobody wants.
So yeah, I think it’s unfortunate, but Xi is going to be increasingly bold. That risk will be there. Taiwan will continue to be a flashpoint and Xi will continue to use these military maneuvers to exert pressure on Taiwan.
Aschieris: Michael, before we go, is there anything else that you would like to add or that you think the media might be missing in the coverage of the Communist Party Congress or in Xi’s third term?
Cunningham: Yeah. I mean, I think another aspect of it that’s important is just to remember that probably the—well, two things I guess. One is, it’s easy to see it only in terms of doom and gloom, whereas there actually are some silver linings here. Not many.
I think the extent of Xi’s consolidation of power is actually frightening. But the fact of him staying in power, Xi is pushing the world, basically, the developed countries, the democratic countries closer to the U.S.
Europe, Asia, there’s so many countries that would love to chart their own course, benefit from greater economic engagement with China. We’re seeing under Xi, that’s not happening so much. They’re increasingly pivoting toward the U.S.
And at the same time, our own government, there was a lot of concern, is Biden going to change the policy from the more sensible policies that [former President Donald] Trump developed toward China? He hasn’t. He hasn’t been able to.
One reason is because there’s so many people that think that Xi is the bad guy as opposed to the party. They would love to engage more. So many people in the world would love to, but with Xi in power and continuing his policies, which Xi is going to do, it’s going to be really difficult. So it’s actually, in that case, it plays to the U.S.’ strategic benefit in that way.
I would say the other thing is just to remember who is the outcome of the party congress worst for? I would say it is the people in China. And China to an extent that probably we haven’t seen since 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre, although I would say it’s not yet at that extent. But there is a split in the way people, the educated people in China view the party under Xi.
Whereas Xi does have a wide support among the masses, but the educated people in China, they’re very much divided. Many of them are frightened about Xi and his power play. We saw the Chinese stock market, it plummeted after the results of the party congress. I personally know there are a lot of people in China that would like to see things change quite a bit.
So I think it’s good to keep in mind that China, it’s China’s economy that’s going to suffer from all of this. It’s the Chinese people that are going to suffer the most. I think that sometimes in our coverage of it, we miss, I guess, that human element, which is also, I think, important in the long term.
Aschieris: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, for sure. I really appreciate you joining us today to talk about such an important topic and hope we can continue this conversation moving forward. I’m sure we’ll only continue to, as you talked about, won’t get any less intense between China and the United States. Michael Cunningham, thank you so much for joining me today. Always a pleasure. Thanks so much.
Cunningham: Thanks for having me.
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