Bruce Dickson on the 20th Party Congress

Bruce J. Dickson is professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University. His research and teaching focus on political dynamics in China, especially the adaptability of the Chinese Communist Party and the regime it governs. His most recent book is The Party and the People: Chinese Politics in the 21 st Century (Princeton, 2021).
Pieter van Wingerden '24 interviewed Dr. Bruce J. Dickson on on November 22, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Bruce J. Dickson.

What does the makeup of the new Central and Standing Committee reflect about General Secretary Xi Jinping’s power and policy priorities moving forward? What should we make of the complete elimination of rival factions from the Politburo? 

It indicates that he's been able to have a complete lock on the top positions in the party, and in ways that a lot of observers, including myself, didn't think was possible. He did so by eliminating other factions and rival groups, symbolized most visibly by having Hu Jintao escorted off the stage while on camera. But even the people who are in current positions like Prime Minister Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, who was rumored to be the new Prime Minister, wereas simply pushed into retirement altogether. For the Politburo, and the Standing Committee of the Politburo, if you're not an explicit Xi supporter, you're not in any of the top positions. Most leaders would like to consolidate their authority and have that kind of control. But what's surprising was that there was still so little pushback, or if it was pushed back, it was so ineffective. Surely other people realize the benefits of having some semblance of a balance of power or different perspectives represented on these top bodies. And eliminating anyone who might look like a source of opposition, or at least a different viewpoint on things, is not a good sign for governance going forward. It's great for Xi himself, not so good for the party, and even less good for the country as a whole.

Several members of the new Standing Committee have ties/relations to Xi going back several decades. Is it a fair characterization to say that Xi’s inner circle is increasingly composed of allies and loyalists?  What are the trade-offs for Xi between a completely loyal team and a more diverse one? Do you see any potential fissures among Xi’s loyalists? 

When Xi became General Secretary he didn't have strong factional affiliations. He was known not to have ties and links with different factions when he held local positions and wasn't seen as someone who was fully in one camp or another. When he became General Secretary he didn't have a factional network to draw upon. He was building allies but also drawing upon people he had worked with in the past. ThatIt has become more apparent with the current membership of the Standing Committee in the full Politburo. It also shows not only getsting rid of any sign of a collective leadership or a balance of power between different groups, but also the idea that promotions should be based on merit, especially for the example of Li Qiang who had been Party Secretary in Shanghai. Some people expected him to get fired from his position for mishandling COVID so badly, and instead, he got promoted to the number two position and will likely be the prime minister. In situations where someone has a major policy failure and gets promoted, the past expectations that promotions would be based largely on merit seem to go out the window. Exactly what policy differences there might be between current members of the Standing Committee and the Politburo is hard to say. One of the most frustrating things about studying Chinese politics is information doesn't leak out, and they China’s leaders are really good at maintaining a united front in public about their policy views. One would be crazy to speak out against something that that Xi was in favor of. If there are differences, we're not likely to hear about them. There used to be a pretty effective rumor mill, but it's proven to be more wishful thinking than actual information, such as the talk of a potential coup against Xi which in hindsight was completely off the mark. We won't know much in publicly whether there will beare divisions among the leaders. If it happens privately it has to be done very delicately because almost every leader is vulnerable for allegations of corruption or other types of governance issues. If you were to challenge the boss and fail, it's likely that you end up being charged and maybe end up in jail. The stakes are quite high. If you're not fully on board, you probably wouldn't be in that position to begin with.

Xi broke two unofficial party rules by promoting Gen. Zhang Youxia to first vice-chairmen despite surpassing the Politburo informal retirement age of 68 and elevating Gen. He Weidong to second vice-chairmen despite no previous experience on the Central Committee. What does the composition of the new CMC reflect about Xi’s desires for a “world-class military” by 2027? 

He's less concerned about seniority and regular procedures than he is about his own agenda. I don't know whether Zhang and He were accomplished and good choices or if they had simply demonstrated their support for Xi along the way. Zhang is 72. In the past, that would have made him ineligible for this position. But among the changes at this party congress was that the usual limits on how many terms you could serve was eliminated and the age limit on new and renewed appointments didn't have much strength behind it. The fact that not just Xi but also Zhang are over 68 indicates this was a turning point of undermining the norm-based rules about promotions and appointments that we had come to expect given the past 20 or so years.

What are the factors that enabled Xi to achieve such dominance in the CCP at this congress? Not too long ago many observers of Chinese politics thought the party had established robust institutional safeguards against someone like Xi. How do we explain the ineffectiveness of the rules and norms established by Deng Xiaoping in preventing Xi from obtaining total dominance?

There had been a long standinglong-standing trend at the elite level in China where the top leader was weaker than the person he replaced. Deng was not as powerful as Mao, but was clearly the person in charge. Jiang Zemin came into office with fewer tools to work with and Hu Jintao even less so. Then there's a recognition that collective leadership is all well and good, but as a consequence you end up with a weak top leadership. There may have been a desire to reverse that pattern and have the General Secretary be a more authoritative and powerful figure. I don't know that any of them anticipated Xi would be able to consolidate power the way that he has. I thought there were people who recognized the benefits of a regular rotation of leaders and the system of term limits and age limits to allow for newer people to move into top positions and avoid some of the infighting that takes place otherwise. But if there some who was a recognizedtion of these benefits of, they were cowed into submission and not able to push back against Xi. When he came into office he wasn't known as someone with sharp elbows or someone seeking complete authority. But he's certainly become that over the years. One of the things preventing people from pushing back harder against him is fear of being charged with corruption or malfeasance of some kind. A number of people over the past five to eight years have been targeted that way. Even though collectively there may have been a desire to maintain that older system of rotation and collective leadership, no one wanted to stick their neck out and lead opposition against Xi. This is sort of a classic collective action problem where lots of people bid prefer for a different outcome, but nobody wants to be the one to bear the potential cost of mounting a challenge. He's been much more successful than most outside observers expected.

Has Xi’s dominance shown at the party congress complicated or facilitated the succession process in the coming decade? 

It's very complicated because we don't know if there is a successor that has been identified or even in mind. If something were to happen such as a debilitating illness or the sudden death of the top leader, who takes over? What's the process for deciding who the top leader would be? At this point, we don't know. In the past, we knew at least five years in advance who the next leader was going to be. It was a more orderly process. We're back in a situation now where the main options for a new leader are is either to have a coup against the top leader, which seems very unlikely, or that he will die in office. It's not clear if he will ever retire. That creates all kinds of uncertainty and instability because there'll be a vacuum of power were he to either be overthrown or die in office, both of which are not good for the party. That's the situation we're in now. It's because he's been so successful at hand picking the different people for top positions, and also able to avoid or preempt any pushback against them.

Pieter van Wingerden CMC '24Student Journalist

Dong Fang, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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