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Xi Jinping is stronger than ever, but China’s future is uncertain

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The 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will start on Sunday, October 16, 2022, in Beijing. CCP General Secretary and China’s President Xi Jinping is all but guaranteed to stay at the helm for a third term after the congress.

Yet while he will emerge from the congress more powerful than ever by placing more loyalists in the party’s apex bodies, the Politburo and its Standing Committee, both Xi and the CCP face difficult questions that have no answers at the moment.

The extent to which Xi is able to reshape the CCP’s leadership group and bring major changes to policy directions depends on how much support he has among the 2,296 delegates attending.

What is clear is that no heir apparent to Xi will be identified at the congress. Such a succession void may increase uncertainties for a future power transition — an issue central to the power play that guides Chinese elite politics.

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Ahead of the congress, China has tightened travel restrictions and information flow around Beijing. However, the outcomes of the summit, held once every five years, will resonate far beyond the capital city.

At the 19th CCP Congress in 2017, Xi successfully had his political vision, officially worded as Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, written into the CCP’s constitution. That made him only the third leader — after Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping — to have his political doctrine incorporated in the party charter.

Over the next few days, Xi’s effort to further consolidate power and set up what he has described as a “new normal” for China’s economy and politics will determine the future path of the world’s second-largest economy in his “new era”.

The new ‘new normal’

Since coming to power at the 18th CCP Congress in 2012, Xi has shaken up China’s politics, including through a relentless anti-corruption campaign, stern ideological control and crackdowns on tech and property gurus.

Still, though Xi Jinping Thought was included in the CCP’s fundamental documents at the 19th congress in 2017, he at that time appeared to have made compromises with other party elders. Among those accommodations was the continued strict adherence to an informal age criterion, which required new members of the Politburo and Standing Committee to be younger than 68 when the congress is convened.

As a result, the new Standing Committee in 2017 was filled with leaders from diverse political backgrounds — including the Communist Youth League, coastal regions and inland provinces — not all of whom owed their political rise to Xi.

This time Xi has set the stage to break with that pattern. In September, the CCP published new regulations on the promotion and demotion of leading party cadres, which removed the mandatory retirement ages and term limits for the appointment of senior officials.

The new rules play down the importance of age limits significantly and open the door to the promotion and retention of leaders older than 67 in the Politburo. This has added more uncertainties to the final line-up of top leaders on the eve of the CCP Congress as all the seven incumbent Politburo Standing Committee members could, in theory, stay on.

However, a new set of promotion criteria is in play to reshape the leadership team and avoid disruptive power struggles, with the following apparent order of priority — loyalty to Xi, performance, technocratic backgrounds and age.

Succession void

Under this approach, Xi’s loyalists will gain in numbers in the Politburo and its Standing Committee. However, no clear successor to Xi will be anointed. That could set the stage for future uncertainties — and potential tensions.

The issue of successions has affected the country’s political stability since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In particular, power succession in the 1980s did not go smoothly, as evidenced by the ousting of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, leaders who were seen by the party orthodoxy as being too politically liberal in the face of a rising tide of student protests.

Since then, the party leadership has made enormous efforts to institutionalise elite politics. Many formal institutions have been established, but informal rules continue to play a role in handling power succession.

By breaking with those rules, Xi now must use his personal authority to eventually set up a “new normal” for the selection of his successor. That won’t necessarily be a smooth process and might be challenged by intense intra-party competition.

The next Number Two

In the meantime, the CCP will not totally dismantle its collective leadership model at the top, despite Xi’s ever-growing power.

Economically liberal candidates who are not linked to Xi may still join the Politburo Standing Committee. Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, a Politburo member with a Communist Youth League background, is well-positioned to be a candidate for next premier, with incumbent Li Keqiang already making clear that he does not expect to stay on. Hu may favour further marketisation and the opening up of the economy.

Another vice premier, Liu He, trusted by Xi and supportive of market reforms and opening up, also has the chance to become the next premier.

What’s next for China?

While the party will continue to exercise its strict ideological control after the congress, the crackdown on businesses might subside for a while to urgently boost and stimulate a sagging economy. Some restrictions over the property, finance and tech sectors may be relaxed.

Although there are few signs to suggest that China will ease its draconian zero-COVID policy soon, the conclusion of the CCP Congress will make the leadership more confident about cross-border travel. Xi and his colleagues will go abroad more often to seek international influence, while lower-level visits to other countries may gradually resume after the composition of the State Council, China’s cabinet, is approved by the annual parliamentary sessions in March 2023.

Xi’s signature diplomatic strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), will continue unabated. However, in recent years, China has emphasised the improvement of people’s livelihoods more than the scale of infrastructure projects in participating countries.

Xi himself has highlighted issues like climate change, sustainable development and digital connectivity along the Belt and Road. New slogans such as “green silk road” and “digital silk road” will likely emerge for the promotion of the BRI after the party congress.

Despite Xi’s unprecedented power at the 20th CCP Congress, the “road” ahead for China might be more than green, silky or digital — it might also be uncertain as its once-institutionalised politics and economy have entered uncharted waters.

The new rules on promotion and demotion of cadres have made leadership reshuffling less predictable, while the unabated anti-corruption campaign in the name of “self-revolution” is paralysing millions of bureaucrats into risk aversion and may dampen their enthusiasm for economic growth.

Xi can’t afford that in his third term. If enough officials opt for “lying flat” — or tangping — they could send China’s development drive into a similar state of stupor.

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Teams focused on politics performed worse at World Cup – FIFA’s Arsene Wenger

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AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Speaking in his capacity as FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development, Arsene Wenger insinuated that teams which made political statements early in the World Cup saw their on-field performance suffer as a result.

The comments came at a media briefing for FIFA’s Technical Study Group, in which Wenger and Jurgen Klinsmann shared the group’s findings from the group stage.

 

In response to a question about the impact of the truncated preparation period in advance of the tournament, Klinsmann spoke about the importance of being able to “mentally and physically” adapt to the challenges of playing during a break in the European season and in the Middle East.

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“If you struggled to adapt, to come here and for whatever reason — especially mentally — were not able to adapt yourself to everything you find here and how dynamic this World Cup is, you will struggle,” Klinsmann said. “And you will get a negative surprise like we saw with Germany, we saw with Denmark and other teams.”

Those comments prompted Wenger to jump in.

“I would just add that the teams who were not disappointing with their first game performance — because when you go to the World Cup, you know not to lose the first game — are the teams who have experience,” Wenger said. “They have results in former tournaments like France, like England, like Brazil. They played well in the first game. And the teams, as well, who were mentally ready, like Jurgen said, that [had] the mindset to focus on competition and not on the political demonstrations.”

Though Wenger did not mention Germany by name, it was a clear reference to Klinsmann’s home country, who lost their opening game to Japan, before which the players placed their hands over their mouths during the pregame on-field photo. The gesture came in response to threats from FIFA to seven European teams that they would face sanctions if they wore the “OneLove” armband symbolising diversity and tolerance.

Wenger did not expand upon how he reached that conclusion, nor did he clarify if the comments represented his personal opinion or that of the committee he was on stage representing.

“Of course it’s important for us to do a statement like this,” Germany striker Kai Havertz told ESPN postmatch. “We spoke about the game, what we can do, and I think first it was the right time to do to show the people that — yeah we try to help wherever we can. Of course FIFA makes it not easy for us but we tried to show with that thing.”

Added Germany coach Hansi Flick: “It was a sign from the team, from us, that FIFA is muzzling us.”

After losing the first match, 2-1, despite outshooting Japan 26-to-12, Germany responded with a 1-1 draw against Spain and a 4-2 win against Costa Rica, but did not advance.

Earlier in the briefing, Klinsmann assigned blame for Germany’s elimination to the lack of a productive No. 9.

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Ministers decline request to testify on Afghan aid blockade as desperation grows

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Three Liberal ministers have declined invitations to testify in the Senate as the upper chamber probes why Canada still won’t allow humanitarian workers to help in Afghanistan.

Aid groups say Ottawa has told them that paying people in Afghanistan or buying goods there could lead them to be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws.

Many of Canada’s allies have found carveouts so that aid workers don’t get charged with supporting the governing Taliban, which is designated as a terrorist group.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has no explanation for why Canada hasn’t fixed the issue.

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The Senate’s human-rights committee will launch hearings into the issue on Monday and invited three ministers to attend, but all of them said they had prior commitments at the time of the planned meetings.

The United Nations says six million Afghans are now categorized as being at risk of famine, while another fourteen million are in critical need of food.

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When politics wasn’t a team sport

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It has all been downhill in America since the first six presidents. Western civilisation was never the same after ancient wisdom gave way to the sentimental Gospel. Roosevelt should have stayed out of that damn fool war in Europe and the Pacific. People are breeding too much. The state must stop them.

I like Gore Vidal so much that I involuntarily smile when I see the spine of his essay collection, United States, in my bookcase. Even before his dotty late phase, though, he was a reactionary kind of liberal. If his 1968 debates with the conservative William Buckley Jr still grip us, it is because of the two men’s underlying oneness, not the superficial Democrat vs Republican framing.

Best of Enemies, James Graham’s otherwise fine play about the duel of the drawlers, might have made more of this. I fear much of the audience leaves with the sweet notion in their heads that Vidal would today have been a woke ally. The play wants to suggest that his showdown with Buckley was a trailer for the culture wars, the partisan spite, of now. I have come around to the opposite view.

The debates marked the end of something good, not the start of something bad. It was the last time being politically hard-to-place was normal.

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Put it this way. If you tell me what you think about, say, the return of the Benin bronzes, I can infer with some confidence your views on public spending, the EU, rail strikes, immigration, working from home, climate change, Meghan Markle and much else. Nothing connects these subjects. It should be possible to be a small-government Remainer who thinks imperial loot is better off in western museums and who loses sleep to visions of a burning planet. But such a person would stand out now. To take a more concentrated example, lots of people should be anti-lockdown and pro-vaccine mandate. How many do you know?

I have aired Ganesh’s First Law of Politics before, but allow me a recapitulation. People do not work out their beliefs and then join the corresponding tribe. They join a tribe and infer their beliefs from it. The sense of belonging, the group membership, is what hooks people, not the thrill of being right or pursuing a thought on its own terms. Politics has become a team sport, goes the line on this. But even that is too kind. Sports fans are sardonic and irreverent about their own team. It isn’t so central to their identity as to require consistent adherence.

We have lost all sense of how weird it is to seek connection with others through politics. And how new. Watching Buckley and Vidal is a reminder of a less needy age. The former had his own credentials as an apostate of the right: his loose line on marijuana, his Catholicism, his Spanish-speaking intellectualism. Nor was the audience at the time much easier to place. Millions of whites were pro-New Deal and anti-Civil Rights in a way that stumps modern notions of “progressive” and “conservative”.

Noting the change since then is simple enough work. Accounting for it is trickier. One theory suggests itself. The rise of politico-cultural blocs more or less tracks the decline of church membership, trade unions and marriages that go the distance. An atomised population began to cast around for other kinds of belonging, didn’t it?

The mid-20th century voter was heterodox, yes, but heterodox in the way that someone with strong roots could afford to be. With such a firm social anchor, there was less need to seek emotional security in a political tribe. As I’ve used two metaphors for the same thing there, let us keep them coming. A rudder, a bedrock, a cornerstone, a north star: people used to find these things in their personal relationships. In their church, family, factory or town. As modernity scrambled those things, mostly for the good, the need to subsume oneself into a group was going to have to be met some other way.

That turned out to be politics. We live with the wicked results all the time now. The perverse consequences of ostensibly desirable change: Buckley would call this a conservative insight. And I, though a Vidalist, always thought he won those debates.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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