The 20th Communist Party Congress and future direction of China

A central idea within the new type of international relations proposed by Chinese leaders is the notion that all humanity shares a common future. This ‘common future’ formulation is designed to contrast with the pursuit of narrow national interests as the defining feature of Western-led international relations.

Xi Jinping, as general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), presented a report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on the inaugural day of the Congress. Even as the changes to the core leadership of the Party continue to be speculated upon, Xi’s report provides clear indications of the direction the country is expected to be steered in over the next five years.
Unsurprisingly, a central theme running through Xi’s report was the centrality of the CPC. Not only is the leadership of the CPC characterised as the “defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics” but also “the greatest strength of the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Clearly then, the means as well as the ends of the entire endeavour of Chinese nation building remains geared towards entrenching the leadership of the CPC. Xi’s report assessed the situation facing the party a decade ago as one of “a slide toward weak, hollow, and watered-down Party leadership” where “misguided patterns of thinking such as money worship, hedonism, egocentricity, and historical nihilism were common, and online discourse was rife with disorder”. The CPC under Xi’s leadership has sought to remedy these. The primary contradiction in Chinese society identified in Xi’s report is “that between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life”. What does this mean for domestic policy? First, the space for challenging policies enacted under the guidance of the central leadership will be further constrained. Second, the relative freedom of expression and intellectual freedom enjoyed by China’s population in the first decade of the new millennium is unlikely to return. Third, greater government control of economic activity is likely to become a feature for the foreseeable future.
While the report is primarily aimed at the domestic audience laying out the achievements as well as the tasks towards creating a modern socialist country, two endeavors highlighted in it merit special attention for the international community. The first is with regards to the development and deployment of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Xi’s report states that the country will establish a “a strong system of strategic deterrence, increase the proportion of new-domain forces with new combat capabilities”. The reference to strategic deterrence suggests that there is some rethink regarding the sufficiency of China’s current deterrence capabilities and these continued to be strengthened. As has been reported previously, since 2019 China’s nuclear arsenal is believed to be expanding and diversifying as exemplified in the delivery of new mobile launchers to combat units and the expansion of the navy’s ballistic missile submarine fleet. Although China continues to adopt a No-First Use nuclear policy, the expansion of its nuclear capabilities would certainly have a bearing on any scenario of confrontation or conflict. Efforts to increase “new-domain forces with new combat capabilities” is also noteworthy since these can be reasonably expected to encompass not only the cyber and information domain but also the new frontier of space. These capabilities across new domains, along with autonomous intelligent combat systems long under development, would be a force multiplier for the PLA especially for operations in difficult terrain. They would also enhance the PLA’s ability to undertake grey-zone warfare. Xi’s report also stated that China would become more adept at deploying its “military forces on a regular basis and in diversified ways”. This indicates that the involvement of the PLA in tasks deemed critical for national security and development will only increase and will likely also include greater PLA involvement in overseas missions. Whether this will also entail a more bellicose Chinese military remains to be seen. However, the report’s focus on “external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China” and the need to safeguard “Chinese dignity and core interests” suggests that at the very least, the PLA will be an increasingly visible symbol of Chinese state power.
The second important endeavour discernible from the report is China’s continued quest for international leadership. This is expected to only gain momentum since a key task for the CPC identified in the report is “becoming a country that leads the world in terms of composite national strength and international influence by the middle of the century”, even though it is assessed that “external attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time”. The focus on building a “human community with a shared future” based on China’s articulation of a “new type of international relations” has been a recurring theme in China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping. Through these China has sought to establish unique normative foundations for its pursuit of international leadership. These formulations emphasize equality among states by providing space for differences in cultural interpretations of concepts such as democracy and human rights, effectively negating any universal interpretations of these ideals. A central idea within the new type of international relations proposed by Chinese leaders is the notion that all humanity shares a common future implying that all states have shared interests and must work together to achieve these. This ‘common future’ formulation is designed to contrast with the pursuit of narrow national interests as the defining feature of Western-led international relations. Thus China attempts to position itself as a champion of the developing world by prioritizing inviolable national sovereignty, equity in benefit sharing and cultural sensitivity. The idea of a human community with a common future enables the portrayal of any national success as a win for the entire world. Hence the report portrays China’s achievements in eliminating absolute poverty within the country as a significant global milestone in poverty reduction. Similarly, the Belt and Road Initiative that brought various existing and planned infrastructure and connectivity projects in China under one umbrella is also once again projected as a global public good rather than investment activity that began with the aim of addressing overcapacity with Chinese industry.
For the international community the report represents a China that is less sanguine about its external environment than it was five years ago but also one that is more confident, assertive and less open to compromise. The China challenge to the existing international order seems poised to strengthen.
Rukmani Gupta is an independent analyst specialising in Chinese military and foreign policy.