China hopes to flaunt the merits of its political system over America’s
The Communist Party congress will contrast with America’s mid-term elections
If all goes to plan for China’s Communist Party, 2022 will offer a study in contrasts that humiliates America.
China’s leaders abhor free elections but they can read opinion polls.
They see headlines predicting a drubbing for the Democratic Party in America’s mid-term congressional elections in November, condemning the country to the uncertainties of divided government, if not outright gridlock.
Should those polls prove accurate, China’s propaganda machine will relish a fresh chance to declare that China enjoys order and prosperity thanks to one-party rule, while American-style democracy brings only chaos, dysfunction and decline.
In contrast, the year in Beijing will be dominated by the 20th party congress, a tightly controlled display of power staged amid the marble columns, red carpets and blazing chandeliers of the Great Hall of the People.
That gathering, likely to be held in the autumn, will mark Xi Jinping’s first decade as China’s supreme leader.
It may also suggest how much longer Mr Xi intends to stay in office: for five more years, or another ten, or (a less likely scenario) that he prefers to head into some form of semi-retirement, to rule from behind the scenes.
Remarkably, it is possible that Mr Xi’s future plans will become visible only at the end of the congress, when he (or just possibly an unexpected successor as party chief) leads the new Politburo Standing Committee onto a carpeted dais in order of rank.
Should Mr Xi wish to signal that he will step down after another five years, he will need to be followed onstage by one or two plausible successors.
There are, for now, no obvious candidates with the right combination of experience, age and close ties to Mr Xi.
He may feel bound to remain in charge until at least the congress of 2032, when he will be 79 years old.
That version of events will be signalled if Mr Xi is trailed onstage in November by a line of unthreatening men in dark suits: long-standing loyalists or fast-rising protégés who will be either too old or too young and inexperienced to succeed their current boss at the party congress of 2027.
Party congresses are held every five years.
The meetings have been used in modern times to stage orderly transfers of power between generations of leaders.
Because such high-level moves are, by custom, signalled five years ahead of time, Mr Xi has already broken with recent precedent by declining to anoint a successor at the party congress of 2017.
That refusal to present an heir challenged a consensus established after the death of Mao Zedong that no single leader should amass too much power or stay too long in office.
In a further assault on those norms, Mr Xi had China’s constitution amended in 2018 to abolish term limits for the post of president—one of three powerful offices that he holds, alongside the far more important ones of party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission, and the only one, until then, bound by a two-term constraint.
Mr Xi’s supporters say he must stay in office as long as he sees fit to push through vital reforms.
His critics, a muted and fearful bunch in today’s China, see a dangerous weakening of institutions needed to prevent one-man rule.
Whichever path Mr Xi chooses, the next congress is likely to resemble the communist equivalent of a coronation.
China’s leaders see ever more reasons to be confident about the advantages of their political system.
Until recently, they were rather defensive about their model of governance.
Chinese diplomats worked in bodies such as the United Nations or the World Trade Organisation to tweak international norms or global rules to make the world more accepting of their country’s version of state capitalism and autocracy.
Today, Chinese envoys are on the offensive, ready to promote their model as one that delivers better outcomes for more people than the West’s fractious individualism.
At the same time, officials in Beijing see threats at every turn.
They are sure that America and its allies are bent on containing China.
They are impatient with any criticism by foreigners, and quick to argue that Western governments chide China only to distract from their own failures.
The mood in Beijing is a strange mix of confidence, hubris and paranoia.
This strengthens Mr Xi. Describing the current world order, he likes to talk about “changes not seen in 100 years”.
In such a moment, the Communist Party is betting that continuity at the top is the safest course.
The gulf between America and China has been growing for some time.
It will yawn shockingly wider in November.