What was really new was not what most media reported. Xi mentioned “security” and “Marxism” more often than economy, and promised to make the rich less rich.
by Massimo Introvigne
After months, if not years, of rising expectations for the “historical event,” the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was a disappointment of sort for many foreign observers. One senior China watcher in the U.S. called the last seven days “the week in which nothing happened in Beijing.”
Of course, something happened. Xi Jinping was reconfirmed as CCP’s General Secretary for an unprecedented third term, but this was expected. So was the fact that Xi packed the Central Committee of the CCP and its Standing Committee with loyalists, ignoring seniority rules and using personal devotion to the General Secretary as the main test.
Western media focused on threats to Taiwan, and the statements that if needed it will be reunited to Mainland China by force, but this was also not new. So, we were left with anecdotes, such as Hu Jintao, Xi’s 79-year-old predecessor as General Secretary, being escorted out of the Congress despite having a place with his name tag prepared next to Xi Jinping. The most credible explanation is that Hu is notoriously senile. His possible erratic behavior would have inappropriately caught some attention, distracting the audience from Xi’s triumph.
All this was not very important. What really mattered is Xi’s report, which had a short version delivered at the beginning of the congress and a long version delivered at the end. It is there that we find something (comparatively) new.
Without criticizing Deng Xiaoping, not to mention measures Xi introduced himself during the first years of his tenure, all what is new in the report rotates around a criticism of the primacy of the economy. Reversing the order of previous important speeches by Xi Jinping, the most mentioned word in the report is not “economy.” It is “security.” The second most recurring word is “Marxism.” “Economy” only comes in the third place.
The point Xi wanted to make is that the CCP would protect security at all costs, even at the expenses of economy if necessary. Xi tried to convey a sense of urgency. China, he said, is not attacking anybody but is under attack by the West.
The General Secretary is obsessed by the old “color revolutions” and the possibility that the U.S. would organize the next one in China. To be on the safer side, he listed religions as part of the possible problems, and insisted that they should be strictly controlled and guided to become more “Socialist” in their orientation. But he devoted to religion just one sentence of his report, despite the fact that the Congress coincided with the signature of the second renewal of the 2018 agreement with the Vatican. The agreement was never mentioned at the Congress.
The apology of the “Zero COVID” policy was also part of the general theme of security’s primacy over economy. Yes, the economy suffered because of “Zero COVID.” So what, asked Xi Jinping? A different policy, with the Chinese health system in crisis because of the sheer numbers of those hospitalized, would have been much more dangerous for security.
Perhaps the most significant consequence of the non-primacy of the economy, and one immediately noted by the stock markets, which reacted negatively, is a stronger-than-usual criticism of the Chinese rich who are too rich. It was also the most significant change between the first and the second version of Xi’s report, as if it wanted to taste the waters and then deliver the final blow.
The rich engaged in “money worship” were denounced as the source of corruption and of many social problems in China. This was not just rhetoric. The most alarming part of the report for some was the announcement that laws “regulating wealth accumulation” will be introduced, targeting those who “accumulate too much wealth, and too quickly.”
This has again to do with stability because the super-rich might have believed that they could operate independently of the CCP. But it also has to do with Marxism, another key theme of Xi’s report—and of many of his most recent speeches and writings. It is not an exaggeration to state that Xi is mightily annoyed by criticism at home (from “Maoist” intellectuals) and internationally that he is not a real Marxist, because China has one of the highest number of billionaires in the world.
He has repeatedly proposed a pedantic exegesis of texts by Karl Marx aimed at persuading the word that Socialism, the early phase of a Marxist revolution before Communism and the one China is in now, is fully compatible with billionaires. Since many continue not to be persuaded, it seems that Xi is now left with the alternative of downsizing the billionaires to mere millionaires, which again may be bad for economy and the stock markets but good for security and ideology.
Xi’s report also signals the final failure of Kissinger’s strategy of making China less internationally aggressive and less authoritarian internally through capitalism and commerce. This did not happen, and will happen even less after the 20th Congress. There are some in the United States, and more in Europe, who still believe that China will become more “moderate” for the sake of economy. Xi, on the contrary, praised the wolf warrior diplomacy and the repression in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. He indicated he is willing to pay significant economic prices to keep China as it is, an authoritarian and aggressive police state.
The more he says it, the more he discovers that some in the West refuse to believe him—just as they refused to believe Vladimir Putin when he started proclaiming his willingness to attack his neighbors in 2019.