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Takeaways from China's historic Party Congress

November 01, 2022
topics: Democracy
by: Sasha Kong
located in: China, Hong Kong, Taiwan
tags: China, climate change, democracy, freedom of speech, Taiwan, Xi Jinping

Chinese leader Xi Jinping reiterated his intention to bolster his version of security, including the controversial zero-COVID policy and a hawkish stance against self-ruled Taiwan. Experts doubt that opposition voices would gain more space despite the appearance of anti-Xi protest banners.

The seemingly forced exit of former Chinese president Hu Jintao at the Communist Party’s 20th National Congress has made headlines and stirred much debate about the politics in Beijing’s top-down system. China’s state media Xinhua News claimed that Hu was "not feeling well," but that statement only heightened concerns over his safety. 

To China’s critics, this might come as no surprise, as Chinese leader Xi Jinping has taken on a strict approach against voices critical of the central government and further cemented its power and security-focused policies ahead of his third term. 

A protest banner against "dictator Xi" that hung above an overpass ahead of the Congress meeting was swiftly taken down by the authorities, and the internet in the mainland has censored any mention and visuals of the protests. That, however, did not stop similar banners from spreading across the country in corners hidden from security cameras. 

Between stability and repression 

Such protests, however, have been rare and will remain isolated, according to Dr Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore specialising in governance in the Greater China region. 

"[Xi] stressed a lot on regime stability [in his opening speech]," Dr Wu told FairPlanet. "He put a lot of effort into silencing people against him, so he doesn’t have a lot of opponents in China nowadays after brutal crackdowns." 

Xi insisted on maintaining a controversial "zero COVID policy" that involves continuous lockdowns, stating the measure "protects people’s safety and health." But Dr Wu said that the policy, which limited access to mainland China and adversely affected foreign businesses based in the country, has also neglected the mental cost for people

"I am tempted to believe that the zero COVID policy brings some good benefits, particularly in terms of lowering the death toll," Dr Wu explained, "but they don’t outweigh the mental costs.University students have no face-to-face lessons, children can’t go to school. It took many in China a long time to get out of poverty, but now they can slip back into it under the policy."

Dubbed by some media as China’s new Mao Zedong - the dictator who organised the disastrous cultural revolution - Xi announced that the focus of his upcoming term will be on "regime security," and touted Hong Kong’s "stability" following the large-scale pro-democracy protests in 2019 as a successful example of patriotic governance. 

"From his perspective, no protesters [on the streets] is a success, and that everyone agrees to one person. He never cares about whether we have checks and balances," Dr Wu said. 

A Chinese invasion of Taiwan?

Hong Kong’s one-country, two systems framework was first initiated by former Chinese President Deng Xiaoping before its handover from Britain to China, with the aim to ultimately promote the concept of unification to self-ruled island Taiwan. 

Tensions between Beijing and Taipei have worsened in recent months, with both sides performing military drills, after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a high-profile visit to Taiwan in August this year. 

Xi reiterated the Communist Party’s stance against "foreign intervention," and claimed that the Taiwan issue is China’s "domestic affair." He added that Beijing would not rule out using violence against Taiwan, particularly for "extreme pro-independence activists."

The recent bottleneck between the two sides has sparked concerns over a potential invasion of Taiwan by China’s military, and Taiwan’s top security official said that if this happened, Xi would become a "sinner" of the Chinese race. 

Dr Wu said, however, that Xi’s rhetoric is nothing new, and he does not expect a war to erupt in the near future. 

"He always talks about this, but his Taiwan policy doesn’t change a lot," he said. "Xi wants many terms to come, and he doesn’t have the incentive to fight a war because he’s now very safe [in his power]."

"If he’s very confident about getting Taiwan in a few days he might, but in the Ukraine war we can see that’s not the case. Xi is probably very cautious about being able to win the war, so he won’t be eager," he predicted.

Climate agenda takes a back seat 

China severed its cooperation with the US on climate change after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and it is expected to make a decision on whether to resume it or not during the upcoming COP27 in Egypt. But Dr Wu has reservations about the resumption.

"Xi doesn’t prioritise climate change policies, although he talks about a lot of beautiful things," he said. "I doubt how much he actually understands climate change. I don’t think they are eager to resume the [climate] talks, as they don’t need to care about that with the US."

Xi did not make any new green pledges at the National Party Congress, instead reiterating the need to “speed up” a green transition, which would include developing low-carbon industries, boosting green consumption, mitigating air pollution, protecting biodiversity and enforcing a fishing ban, among other policies. 

Image by Yan Ke.

Article written by:
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Sasha Kong
Author
China Hong Kong Taiwan
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has taken on a hardliner approach to voices criticising the central government.
Protests have been rare and will remain isolated, according to Dr Alfred Wu.
"Xi doesn’t prioritise climate change policies, although he talks about a lot of beautiful things."
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