Experts react: Xi solidifies his power at China’s Communist Party Congress. What should the world take away?

This post was updated on Monday, October 24.

China’s Twentieth Communist Party Congress closed on Saturday with Xi Jinping securing a third term as party general secretary and packing top leadership posts with loyal lieutenants. This followed Xi’s major speech opening the congress in which he vowed to press ahead with his goals despite economic headwinds. Just how powerful is Xi now? How should the world read his approach to the economy, Taiwan, and more? Experts from across the Atlantic Council weigh in.

This post will be updated as more reactions roll in.

Jump to an expert reaction

Reactions to the leadership appointments and the end of the party congress

David O. Shullman: Power in China now unquestionably flows through one man

Michael Schuman: Xi strengthens his rule while weakening his nation

Johanna Kao: The brittle Chinese regime is afraid of its own people

Dexter Tiff Roberts: Xi packs top posts with loyalists unprepared for reform

Kit Conklin: Xi’s ‘self-reliance’ means decoupling from the US and Europe

Ngor Luong: China commits to moving away from global engagement

Reactions to Xi’s opening speech

Jeremy Mark: What Xi ignored on the economy will cost him

Shirley Martey Hargis: Xi’s rhetoric indicates no imminent threat against Taiwan

Thammy Evans: Xi lays down a strong marker on fighting climate change

Matthew Kroenig: Xi’s speech shows US and its allies must keep up confrontational approach

Kit Conklin: Xi leaves little room on strategic ambiguity on Taiwan

Dexter Tiff Roberts: Xi stays the course, which is bad news for the economy

Power in China now unquestionably flows through one man

The conclusion of the Twentieth Party Congress leaves the world simultaneously struck by the lack of major surprises coming out of the conclave and the raw demonstration of power politics represented by Xi Jinping’s ability to “run the table” at this Congress. As widely predicted, Xi garnered a third term as general secretary, stacked the Politburo with allies, and removed potential challengers to his agenda. Xi went even further than most expected to build a Standing Committee lineup of reliable supporters and smash any remaining hope for the survival of norms around the official retirement age or for processes to ensure an orderly succession in place since Deng Xiaoping. Power in China now unquestionably flows through one man—and that man has no plans to leave the scene anytime soon.  

Xi’s work report at the beginning of the congress indicates that he will use his power to largely stay the course on China’s increasingly repressive policies at home and aggressive foreign policy abroad, with a focus on “security” of all forms trumping all other concerns—including economic growth. Xi underscored his commitment to China’s rigid zero-COVID approach that has significantly dampened economic growth and the necessity of vigilance in protecting China’s interests abroad—specifically, ensuring economic and technological self-sufficiency amid an increasingly dangerous external security environment and mounting “foreign interference” in Taiwan issues.  

The notable exception to a scripted congress marked by resounding unity around Xi’s vision was the high drama around former leader Hu Jintao’s abrupt removal on the final day of the congress in full view of cameras and the world. Was it a result of Hu’s declining health? That official explanation remains most likely, although it was admittedly remarkable timing right after the Central Committee vote highlighting Xi’s utter decimation of Hu’s remaining network of allies, including the dropping of Premier Li Keqiang from the committee. We will have to wait for the rumor mill to work itself out, but intentional or not, Hu’s removal was highly symbolic of Xi’s utter control over the party and of China.  

Any lingering hopes that China will divert from the troubling direction in which it is heading under Xi have been dashed. The United States and its allies must now double down on the hard work of forging common strategies for protecting their interests in East Asia, their democratic values, and the liberal global order while avoiding a potentially catastrophic conflict with a China resolutely committed to its current course under General Secretary Xi.

David O. Shullman is the senior director of the Global China Hub and former deputy national intelligence officer for East Asia on the US National Intelligence Council.

Xi strengthens his rule while weakening his nation

Xi Jinping emerged from the Twentieth Communist Party Congress stronger than ever, with a leadership line-up packed with his loyalists and supporters. The sheer scope of his victory shows how adept a politician Xi is. More Xi means more of Xi’s policies—more “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, more aggressive attempts to alter the “rules-based” international order, more state-led economic policy, more zero-COVID, and more domestic ideological indoctrination. For the United States, Xi’s grip on power likely means greater superpower competition. However, the outcome is not necessarily bad for the United States. Xi’s policies are undercutting economic vibrancy at home and alienating most of the world’s major powers abroad. That means Xi is weakening, not strengthening, China as a global competitor to US primacy.

Michael Schuman is a nonresident senior fellow at the Global China Hub and a veteran journalist covering China. He is currently a contributing writer at the Atlantic.

The brittle Chinese regime is afraid of its own people 

As the congress concludes, I’m pessimistic about the future of the people who are subject—with no choice in the matter—to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Xi Jinping. Under Xi, the CCP perpetrated crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, led a brutal crackdown on Hong Kong, tightened the space available for China’s once-vibrant independent civil society, and severely curtailed opportunities for people to voice their criticism of government at any level or to defend their rights. These are the actions of a brittle regime, fearful of its own people. With the new echo chamber of senior party leadership, these trends are likely to get worse.

Johanna Kao is a nonresident fellow in the Global China Hub.

Xi packs top posts with loyalists unprepared for reform

The Twentieth Party Congress has ended with Xi Jinping not only staying on for a third term as party general secretary, but with a Politburo Standing Committee of six other men who owe allegiance to Xi and can be expected not to stray from whatever orders he gives them. As China faces the daunting challenges of moving from its old and outgrown model of debt- and investment-driven growth, and trying to become a much more innovative and domestic consumption-reliant economy, all the while trying to avoid outright hostilities with the United States and other countries, the ideologically minded and power- and stability-obsessed Xi seems singularly unsuited to be the leader in charge. And the rest of the Politburo Standing Committee, promoted for their loyalty to Xi rather than any technocratic ability, also seem very unprepared to push through the tough reforms needed. Where the new leadership, now even more under the thumb of Xi, takes China and its people next is deeply uncertain. 

Dexter Tiff Roberts is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Asia Security Initiative and former China bureau chief for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Xi’s ‘self-reliance’ means decoupling from the US and Europe

China’s long-term economic growth depends on scientific innovation and Xi used the Twentieth Party Congress to prioritize science and technology as a cornerstone of China’s national economic and military “self-reliance” strategy. This newly defined policy of national “self-reliance” will further economic decoupling with the United States and Europe. Western businesses and policy makers should view Xi’s comments on “secure and reliable supply chains” as the opening salvo for further market restrictions and prepare accordingly.

Kit Conklin is a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoTech Center and former US national-security official.

China commits to moving away from global engagement

The Twentieth Party Congress concluded with further consolidation of power under the party’s leadership with Xi Jinping’s third term, the removal of leaders associated with the “liberal” faction, and a Politburo Standing Committee filled with loyalists. This power consolidation comes during a time when China is grappling with slow economic growth and other headwinds due to the zero-COVID policy and rising tensions in US-China relations. In his speech, Xi pledged to accelerate efforts to achieve self-reliance in science and technology. In doing so, China’s leadership has already started to shift China’s economic model from one that focuses on growth through global engagement to one that centers on the secularization of economic and technology governance. Whether or not Xi will succeed in this transition remains to be seen, but the conclusion of the Party Congress makes it clear that Xi will likely lead the CCP to achieve this ambition at all costs.

Ngor Luong is a nonresident fellow in the Global China Hub.

What Xi ignored on the economy will cost him

While Xi’s speech declared economic development to be his “top priority,” there was no sign that he was concerned about—let alone prepared to ameliorate—the deep problems that have undermined China’s economy over the past two years. He gave no ground on the zero-COVID policies that have squelched domestic consumption and destroyed small businesses. There was no mention of soaring youth unemployment, which hovers near 20 percent in China’s cities. And he offered no hint of concerted policies that could ease the country’s deep property downturn and prevent that crisis from damaging the banking system.

What Xi ignored could make it more difficult to achieve the economic goals that his speech emphasized. This includes the “dual circulation” policy and “self-reliance,” which give greater weight to domestic demand-driven growth and higher, technology-driven productivity. Moreover, failure to revitalize the economy will undercut Xi’s lofty goal of “common prosperity,” which his speech elaborated upon to include the need to “standardize the order of income distribution and standardize wealth accumulation mechanisms.” It will be hard to divide the economic pie more evenly if it’s not growing.

Jeremy Mark is a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoEconomics Center and former International Monetary Fund official and Asian Wall Street Journal correspondent.

Xi’s rhetoric indicates no imminent threat to Taiwan

Chairman Xi is not signaling any greater sense of urgency over Taiwan. We see the usual rhetoric that reunification is of the utmost importance, while asserting a long-established policy adhering to the one-China principle and the 1992 Consensus

According to Xi, “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan,” and only China and Taiwan can resolve the Taiwan question. In line with his thought, other powers should mind their business. He states that he will never abandon the use of force and maintains that he will use “all measures necessary” to carry out “complete reunification.” He also mentions that these means are “directed solely at interference by outside forces and the few separatists seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ and their separatist activities; it is by no means targeted at our Taiwan compatriots.” Xi recognizes that, especially in recent years, Taiwan’s unique successes have drawn global acclaim—from its containment methods during the pandemic to its mastery of semiconductor manufacturing. Xi wants to temper those accomplishments as much as possible to keep other powers from aligning with Taiwan.

There is no imminent threat from China to take Taiwan militarily. Understandably, President Tsai Ing-wen and the Taiwanese people are not surprised by the speech. It is wise to keep a close eye on more than just military movements: Watch cyberspace and China’s daily use of psychological warfare, legal warfare, and public opinion warfare against Taiwan.

Shirley Martey Hargis is a nonresident fellow at the Global China Hub and Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Xi lays down a strong marker on fighting climate change

Xi’s opening report at the Twentieth Party Congress follows very similar lines to the Nineteenth Party Congress report, including on the environmental sustainability front. Section X on “Pursuing Green Development” has been coupled with “Promoting Harmony Between Humanity and Nature.” This is an important coupling because it states up front that “nature provides the basic conditions for human survival and development.” One could read into this that the Chinese Communist Party does not put much stock into fanciful carbon capture and storage innovations that are as yet untested. This is because Xi indicates that “ecological conservation” and “natural regeneration” will address concerns around people’s livelihoods and the security and sovereignty of resources, while also tamping down pollution and meeting China’s carbon-reduction goals.

Overall, the emphasis on harmony, livelihoods, conservation, efficiencies, and low-carbon ways of production and life will speak to China’s masses who are angered by the excesses of the rich, particularly in the West. It will also appeal to many developing nations that feel climate injustice ever more acutely each time they are hit with a climate catastrophe. In keeping with the party’s model of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” the multiple references to efficiency and to the need to better control energy consumption are likely a prelude to belt-tightening for those who are used to abundance.

The four subsections of Pursuing Green Development are roughly the same as the Nineteenth Party Congress report, with an implementation focus on “accelerating the model of green development”; “intensifying the prevention of pollution”; “enhancing diversity, stability, and sustainability in ecosystems”; and “working prudently to reach peak carbon emissions and carbon neutrality” [italics added]. Notably, there was also emphasis on “establishing mechanisms to realize the market value of ecosystem goods and services” as well as “strengthening biosafety and biosecurity management, and making efforts to prevent and treat harm caused by the invasion of exotic species”—no doubt a strong line to ward off future risk of the outbreak of zoonotic disease.

There is much to digest in the section on Pursuing Green Development, with more explicit indications than in the Nineteenth Party Congress report, for example in the protection of the marine environment, as well as on continued exploration of petroleum and gas coupled with the carbon absorption capacity of ecosystems. Setting this alongside Section V on Science and Technology, which sees science and tech as the country’s primary productive forces, talent as the primary resource, and innovation as the primary driver of growth, China is showing its leadership in green development in a number of ways. 

Perhaps most noteworthy, however, is China’s promise to “get actively involved in global governance in response to climate change.” That raises the expectations for Beijing’s moves at next month’s United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP27) in Egypt.

Thammy Evans is a nonresident senior fellow at the Council’s GeoTech Center.

The US and its allies must keep up their confrontational approach

The speech shows that Xi is continuing his centralization of power over the Chinese state, and that China is likely to continue its more aggressive foreign policy. This means that the United States and its allies need to continue their more confrontational approach to China. They should selectively decouple their economies from China’s and secure supply chains. They should continue to build new frameworks and attract new allies and partners to balance the threats posed by China. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they need to build a military force capable of defeating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Over the long term, more cordial relations between Beijing and Washington would be welcome, but Xi’s speech shows that relations will get worse before they get better.

Matthew Kroenig is the acting director of the Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and a former US Department of Defense and intelligence community official.

Xi leaves little room for strategic ambiguity on Taiwan

Xi used his keynote speech to signal an increasingly bold and aggressive Chinese foreign policy. On Taiwan, Xi stated that Beijing is willing to “take all necessary measures” to “oppose Taiwanese independence.” Xi’s refusal to “renounce the use of force” leaves little room for strategic ambiguity when it comes to China’s willingness to go to war with the United States over Taiwan. Rather, Xi continued to prioritize the creation of an “innovation-driven” society that will enable China to become “technologically self-reliant.” Xi also called for the country to “resolutely win key core technology battles” and “modernize military weapons.” Xi’s remarks signal the party’s resolute belief that science and technology innovation is a key enabler for China’s broader political objectives, to include economic growth, military modernization, and Taiwan reunification.

Kit Conklin is a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoTech Center and former US national-security official.

Xi stays the course, which is bad news for the economy

Economic priorities for China look broadly unchanged with no major shifts in direction. Beijing continues to be deeply concerned about its fractured relations with the world. As Xi stated in his speech, while China’s global power has increased, it is also facing an unstable international environment and must be prepared for “strong winds and high waves and even dangerous storms.” Xi emphasized the need for “self reliance,” particularly in technology, referring to the sector as a “prime driving force” in China’s development, one that of course is facing tremendous pressure from US-led sanctions. While developing China economically continues to be a defining goal, ensuring its security at home and abroad is also of paramount importance. 

Domestically, China’s leaders know they are facing formidable headwinds, with Xi calling for the “spirit of… frugality across the entire society.” Xi signaled continued emphasis on a fairer economic system, saying China will regulate wealth accumulation. COVID-zero, China’s stringent pandemic policy, is unlikely to change anytime soon—which is bad news for China’s struggling economy and for the long-term, high-priority goal of transitioning to a more sustainable growth model, one less reliant on investment and debt, and more on household consumption.  

Dexter Tiff Roberts is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Asia Security Initiative and former China bureau chief for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Further reading

Related Experts: Jeremy Mark, Shirley Martey Hargis, Kit Conklin, Dexter Tiff Roberts, and Matthew Kroenig

Image: People watching China's President Xi Jinping speaking on a screen during an event to view the live broadcast of the opening Ceremony of China Communist Party Congress on October 16, 2022 in Hong Kong. Photo by Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto via Reuters.