OPINION – China’s 20th Party Congress, Constitutional Amendments and Personnel Change: Implications for the Mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan

The amendments made to the constitution of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on October 22 and the new personnel arrangements of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) have immediate implications for not only China’s politico-economic development in the coming years but also the politics of Hong Kong and Macau as well as Beijing-Taipei relations in the immediate future.

First and foremost, the amendments passed to the CPC constitution contain significant ideological legitimization with significant meanings to the party’s development and leadership, its socialist democracy, the military’s self-strengthening movement, and China’s developmental strategy from now to the years beyond 2035, when it will be expected that the country will become “affluent, democratic, civilized, harmonious and beautiful, and strong.”

In terms of ideological legitimization, the amendments emphasize the Sinification of Marxism and the insertion of “Chinese-style socialist thought and development in Xi Jinping’s new era” into the CPC constitution. Compared with the 18th Party Congress which incorporated “scientific development” as the Party’s guiding thought and the 19th Party Congress that “adapted the content of the preliminary stage of  socialism” to the Party constitution, the amendments made to the Party constitution during this  20th Party Congress explicitly raises the banner of “Chinese-style socialism” in “Xi Jinping’s new era.” The message is very clear: socialism is proceeding in a very Sinified way and Xi Jinping’s leadership and socialist thought are heavily emphasized and ideologically legitimized. As China remains a strong socialist state under the leadership of the CPC, the current amendment that stresses ideological legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s new era socialist thought is laying down the foundation of political development of China from the first one hundred years to the next one hundred years. The underlying message is to ensure the longevity of the CPC in the coming decades.

Newly reelected General Secretary of Communist Party of China meeting the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 23, 2022. (Xinhua/Li Xueren)

As such, the contributions of the Party have been emphasized in the Party constitutional amendment, including its “great achievements and historical experiences,” and embracing its task of promoting “Chinese-style modernization” and the “Chinese renaissance” through “the main entity of public ownership” with “multiple ownerships in economic mutual development” – a mixed economy with mainly socialist features combined with marketized means, although the word “capitalist” is not used at all in the party amendments. Instead, the drafters of the amended constitution skillfully used the term “domestic and international double circulation” to promote China’s high-quality development, economic efficiency and sustainability. The choice of terms and words in the Party amendment was very skillful and deliberate with the objective of emphasizing the utilization of mainly socialist combined with marketization in China’s economic development.

Unlike the Party amendments in the 18th and 19th Party Congresses, the amendments in this 20th Party Congress unprecedently emphasize how the military can be established as “first class in the world” by emphasizing “politics,” “revolution,” “scientific technology,” “talents,” “the rule of military by law,” and most importantly the “resolute opposition to and curb on ‘Taiwan independence.’” At the same time, China promotes “peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, freedom and the common values of the mankind.” The messages are very clear again: the military has to continue to reform itself to prepare for its task of achieving “complete reunification,” as CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping’s report of the Party Congress said on October 16. At the same time, China attaches priority to a peaceful resolution to deal with Taiwan’s political future, but if peaceful means are exhausted, Beijing therefore cannot renounce the use of force to cope with Taipei. Therefore, a strong military for China to protect its sovereignty, national security and “complete reunification” is and will be necessary.

The messages to Taiwan, and the US, are very clear: a minority of Taiwan “separatists” will have to reconsider their attitude and strategy, and the US is actually warned of any intervention in China’s domestic affairs. The report delivered by Xi Jinping to the 20th Party Congress on October 16 stroke an important chord with the content of the new White Paper on Taiwan published in August, shortly after the provocative Nancy Pelosi visit to Taipei. The White Paper no longer mentioned that the Chinese military would not be stationed in Taiwan after reunification, but it proposed a stage-by-stage process of negotiations with Taiwan if the Taiwan side accepts the 1992 consensus. Taken together the political messages on Taiwan during the 20th Party Congress, Beijing’s position on Taiwan is now very clear – peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue is a priority, stage-by-stage negotiations over the content of the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems” will be promoted if the Taiwan side accepts the 1992 consensus, but military force to deal with the “complete reunification” with Taiwan will be the last resort. It can be anticipated Xi Jinping’s third term of office as CPC General Secretary will likely witness more gestures from the Beijing side to settle the Taiwan question, as the report to the 20th Party Congress has stressed that China must take the leading initiative in dealing with Taiwan’s political future.

(221022) — BEIJING, Oct. 22, 2022 (Xinhua) — Delegates attend the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 22, 2022. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)

Internally, the amendments made to the Party constitution emphasize the need for the CPC to engage in “self-revolution” – a key word referring to the need for Party’s permanent renewal, ensured longevity, continuous anti-corruption campaigns, and incessant grassroots-level consolidation. CPC members must shoulder the responsibility of strengthening the Party cells in the county, village, community and even hospital levels While CPC sends inspection teams to check the performance of cadres and party officials, anti-corruption is a must to ensure the longevity and enhance the crisis consciousness of all Party members. As Xi’s report put it clearly, anti-corruption campaigns are a conscientious move to all Chinese citizens even though thousands of corrupt Party members have been antagonized – a clear message that anti-corruption a sine qua non for the Party’s rejuvenation, permanent survival and continuous self-revolution and self-legitimization.

CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered a powerful speech in his report to the Congress on October 16 – a report that mapped out China’s developmental strategies very clearly. China remains a very strong state committed to achieving sustainable development, economic modernization, social poverty alleviation and most importantly a great power diplomacy. The Party resolutions on October emphasized the objectives of achieving “peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy and freedom as the common values of the mankind, openness and tolerance, and clean and beautiful world” can be seen as messages to countries in the world that China is a peaceful country committed to equality, sustainability and the common values of democracy and freedom.

However, as the October 16 report indicated, China also objected to hegemonism, protectionism and unilateralism, implying that it rejects any country to impose its values universally and unilaterally on other countries, not to mention the world. Clearly, the message to the Western world is that the world is composed of different values in varying cultures and countries, and that hegemony in the form of imposing a particular set of values onto China and other countries is rejected. As a matter of fact, China has been adopting a liberal external policy emphasizing multilateralism, equality in international relations and non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs.

(220623) — HONG KONG, June 23, 2022 (Xinhua) — A sailboat with celebratory posters marking the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland sails at the Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, south China, June 23, 2022. July 1 this year marks the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland. (Xinhua/Lo Ping Fai)

The messages on Hong Kong and Macau in the report delivered to the Congress on October 16 are clear. The early part of the report stressed that the central government had to respond to the chaos in Hong Kong by implementing its “comprehensive jurisdiction” and ensuring “patriots governing Hong Kong.” The result is to turn Hong Kong from “chaos to governance” – a point already stressed by President Xi on July 1, 2022 when he visited the city. In the middle part of the report, Macau was mentioned, saying that both Hong Kong and Macau must maintain long-term stability and development through the realization of the principles of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” and “Macau people ruling Macau.” In the last part of the report, Hong Kong and Macau are asked to “develop the economy, improve livelihood, and solve the deep contradictions and problems in the process of economic and social development,” while encouraging both cities to “better integrate into the national development” and to “function better in the process of realizing the Chinese renaissance.”

Hong Kong and Macau governments are asked to deal with economic integration with the mainland, especially the Greater Bay Area, in a strategic manner, and to address deep contradictions in the economy and society. In Hong Kong, Chief Executive John Lee has delivered his first policy address on October 19, addressing the urgent livelihood issues of increasing the supply of public housing units and acquiring more land for housing construction – a move in the right direction along the Chinese national planning strategy. Obviously, Macau will have to do the same thing amid excessively tight restriction on entry from foreigners and Hong Kong visitors. Of course, several days before the Party Congress convened on October 16, the mainland media had asserted the necessity of retaining the “dynamic zero-Covid policy.” Given Macau’s nature of being obedient to the mainland’s anti-Covid policy, it will take some time to envisage a more open-door policy to be adopted by the Macau government toward the entry of foreign and Hong Kong visitors.

The apex of the entire 20th Party Congress was the revelation of the seven members of the PSC on October 23. Premier Le Keqiang (67 years old), Li Zhanshu (72), Wang Yang (67) and Han Zheng (68) were excluded from the list of the Central Committee on its list published on October 22, meaning that they would step down. Their replacement in the PSC are Li Qiang (63 years old with a master degree in business management from Hong Kong Polytechnic University and with rich experiences in Zhejiang and Shanghai), Cai Qi (67 years old with rich experiences in Fujian, Beijing and National Security Commission), Ding Xuexiang (60 years old with rich experiences in engineering, Beijing, Shanghai and CPC General Office), and Li Xi (66 years with a master degree in management from Tsinghua University and rich experiences in Liaoning and Guangdong). Li Qiang, Cai Qi and Ding Xuexiang worked with Xi Jinping for some time in their careers, thereby regarding as Xi’s proteges. Li Qiang as a Shanghai party secretary did quite well in containing the spread of Omicron in mid-2022. He is likely to take over from Li Keqiang as the next Chinese premier. Yet, given the age profile of the new PSC members, it is likely that the youngest Ding Xuexiang would be one of the top Chinese leaders succeeding Xi Jinping in the long run.

The conventional rule of retiring at 68 has not been strictly implemented, depending on the needs, personal wishes and personal capabilities. Xi Jinping at the age of sixty-nine is continuing as the CPC General Secretary, ensuring his “core leadership” of the whole Party and the country – an affirmation made in the Party constitutional amendment and a practice that can be traced back to Jiang Zemin who also provided a core leader to his successor Hu Jintao. Xi’s trinity of positions as the Party Secretary, President and Chair of the Central Military Commission (CMC) ensures a stable leadership and successful transition of China under CPC rule from its first one hundred years to the second one hundred years.

Similarly, Zhang Youxia (72) is still in the CMC and remains the second ranked leader. He is a veteran of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war and the 1984 Sino-Vietnamese conflict in the battle of Laoshan. His experiences are clearly significant for China to deal with any contingency scenario in which the military would be deployed to defend the country and even to achieve “complete reunification.”

Furthermore, three officials managing Hong Kong affairs are not seen in the list of the Central Committee: apart from Han Zheng who is the chair of the Hong Kong and Macau Coordination Committee, Xia Baolong (70), the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and Luo Huining (68) are also absent in the list of Central Committee members. Personnel changes are inevitable as three of them reach at least 68 – the conventional age for officials to step down. Whoever will take over from them in handling Hong Kong and Macau affairs will not change Beijing’s already fixed and clear policy toward the two special administrative regions.

In conclusion, a new batch of younger Chinese leaders is in place in the CPC PSC and they will continue to work diligently for the path of achieving Chinese renaissance with a strong developmental state and clear strategic objectives. Ideological legitimization has been obvious in the ways in which the report to the 20th Party Congress was written and in which the CPC constitution was amended. The CPC is providing the necessary leadership for China’s renaissance with the process of signifying Marxism, while making the Xi Jinping’s new era of socialist thought entrenched firmly into the amended CPC constitution. Strong military continues to be a theme of China’s development, whereas economic development and reforms remain pragmatic. The mix of Chinese-style socialist ideology with economic pragmatism and great power diplomacy is apparent in the Party Congress report and its related CPC constitutional amendments. General Secretary Xi Jinping is providing the core leadership of the whole Party and PSC in opening the chapter for the CPC’s second one hundred years, continuing with China’s great power diplomacy and objective of achieving “complete reunification.” Taiwan is clearly becoming the next target of this process of “complete reunification,” while Beijing’s policy toward Hong Kong and Macau has been fixed clearly regardless of imminent changes in the top personnel handling Hong Kong and Macau affairs. The image and reality of a strong and successful CPC are clear outcomes from the landmark 20th Party Congress.