March 31, 2023

Every year, the Russian public is becoming more and more interested in China’s internal political life. If earlier the domestic media were limited only to stating the facts – who and for what position was elected at the next political forum of the PRC, now both the Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP), and the so-called “two sessions” of the news agencies and telegram channels that followed six months later covered literally a day day by day, gradually analyzing the features of Chinese political ceremonial.

What will be the foreign policy of Beijing after the XX Congress of the Communist Party of China

The very name “two sessions” (“lianghui”) is a tribute to this ceremony. One session is a meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the parliament. The second session was a meeting of the All-China Committee of the People’s Political Consultative Council of China (CPPCC), a kind of “public chamber”, which at one time formally “established” the People’s Republic of China itself. It is noteworthy that the CPPCC starts work one day earlier. At the same time, this structure does not have a real impact on the political process in the country, remaining a symbolically important element of a specific Chinese democracy.

NPC sessions are much more important, but for the most part they remain only guides to the implementation of decisions taken at party forums. From a procedural and legal point of view, there is nothing surprising here – the majority in the National People’s Congress are members of the CPC. Loyal to party discipline, they support the guidelines set down by the leadership. It is no coincidence that the plenum of the Central Committee of the Party, at which all the main layouts were recorded, was held in the last days of February, shortly before the start of the “two sessions”.

These are Chinese “political ceremonies.” However, only a few insiders from the very beginning were aware of exactly how all the moves and layouts were scheduled. The rest learned about it in portions, and some intrigue still remained. In addition, no less important were the press conferences and reports delivered by the first persons of the state during the “lianghui”. What are the main results of the “two sessions” and what happened during them from the point of view of the interests of our country?

Third term

At first glance, the main result is the re-election of Xi Jinping for a third term as President of the PRC. Many media were quick to note that this is an unprecedented event in the history of China, marking a new stage in the development of the country.

Third diploma for Xi Jinping

Formally, this is true, but the fact is that the post of chairman of the PRC is not so important for the Chinese political system. Mao Zedong was in power for 27 years, of which he was the chairman of the PRC for only five. Deng Xiaoping led China for 11 years, but he was never the chairman of the PRC at all. For China, it is much more important who is at the head of the party and the army – both there and there, Xi Jinping is now in the highest posts. After being re-elected for a third term at the CPC Congress last October as Secretary General of the Party’s Central Committee and Chairman of the Party’s Central Military Council, Xi’s election as President of the People’s Republic of China was a mere formality.

Five-year-old constitutional amendments gave Xi Jinping such a right, and it would be strange if he did not use it. Moreover, the amendments affected only the post of the President of the People’s Republic of China. For example, the Prime Minister of the State Council, that is, the head of government, in any case, now had to retire, since there is a constitutional limit on the number of terms in this position: no more than two five-year terms.

And Xi Jinping will have a new deputy: 74-year-old Wang Qishan was replaced by 68-year-old Han Zheng. Both, by the standards of recent Chinese political practices, are at retirement age, and there is also a far-reaching calculation in this. The appointment of Han Zheng is another blow to the practice of appointing a future “successor” to the head of state to the post of deputy chairman. This is how Xi himself moved to the highest positions in the party and the state. So he knows firsthand how precarious the position of the leader, whose deputy is already traveling around the world, where he is met as the leader of the PRC without five minutes. There is nothing good in this for the stability of the system, and without stability, China, according to Beijing, cannot cope with the challenges that are written about so much in party and state documents. The main ones are the problems of transformation of the former socio-economic system in the face of falling economic growth rates and the risks associated with the uncertainty of the international situation.

New government

The development of a response to these challenges is the business of the entire Chinese leadership, but the implementation of specific political decisions will be carried out by the State Council of the PRC, a kind of “cabinet of ministers”. Usually every five years this “cabinet” is shaken up, so it’s time to talk about a new government. This year, the epithet “new” fits him only partly.

What has changed in China during the 10 years of Xi Jinping’s rule

On the one hand, the entire leadership of the State Council has been updated: a new premier (Li Qiang), new deputy premiers (Ding Xuexiang, He Lifen, Zhang Guoqing, Liu Guozhong) and five new members of the State Council (state councilors), some of whom also head the most important ministries ( defense, public safety and foreign affairs). On the other hand, out of 26 heads of ministries and state committees, which, in fact, make up the State Council, 24 remained in their posts. The ministers were asked to prove their ability to act effectively under the new head of the State Council, who is now a close associate of Xi Jinping, “person number 2” in the party hierarchy Li Qiang.

Let’s leave a detailed analysis of who is who in the State Council for specialized Sinology resources, but let’s focus on the most interesting personalities. Ding Xuexiang, ranked number one on the list of deputy premiers of the State Council (there is no official position of first vice premier), is perhaps the most remarkable figure among them. Ding, 60, is the youngest member of the Politburo Standing Committee and one of the closest politicians to Xi Jinping. During Xi’s second term, he headed the Chancellery of the Party’s Central Committee, which in terms of its political significance is roughly comparable to the position of the head of the Russian presidential administration. In the State Council, he will be responsible for the domestic political agenda, including, for example, the integration of Hong Kong. In fact, in the absence of other real candidates, all this makes him almost the only contender for the conditional role of Xi’s successor.

However, the label “Xi’s successor” can play a cruel joke on its bearer. Proof of this is the fate of Hu Chunhua, 59-year-old Vice Premier in the former State Council. For a long time, he was predicted to be among the leaders of the “sixth generation of leaders,” that is, those who, under the previous order, were supposed to come to power in 2022–2023. It is believed that Hu Chunhua was originally associated with Hu Jintao, the previous leader of China. Already during the reign of Xi, who gradually began to uproot the legacy of Hu Jintao, the talented official continued to occupy high positions.

Foucault in the service of Xi Jinping

In the last five years, as Deputy Prime Minister, he oversaw regional policy, and was also, for example, co-chairman of the intergovernmental commission for the development of the border regions of Russia and China. Based on his experience and age, many expected that he would be the next prime minister. However, in the fall, Hu Chunhua sensationally was not elected to the Politburo, and now he lost his place in the State Council, becoming only the vice chairman of the CPPCC Central Committee – one of 23. The sad end of a brilliant career clearly shows that in the current political system it is not enough just to be loyal, you also need to have an impeccable biography that will be linked to Xi Jinping and not to his former opponents.

Among the “state advisers” (they occupy a position between vice-premiers and “ordinary” ministers), let’s dwell on the personality of Shen Yiqin. Shen, 63, is the highest-ranking woman in China’s current rather masculine power configuration. However, her predecessor in this role, Sun Chunlan, occupied a higher position: she was the second in the list of vice-premiers and a member of the CCP Politburo. They say about Shen that her career advancement is helped not only by getting into the conditional “female quota”, but also by the status of a representative of a “small nationality” – she is from the Bai people. However, everyone notes that this is an extremely hard-working and disciplined manager who made a career in his provincial native province of Guizhou, having worked his way up to the secretary of the party committee. Now Shen Yiqin is working at the Center for the first time, which, perhaps, explains some distrust towards her. At the same time, given her background, it is likely that she will oversee such important areas in the State Council as national policy and the development of peripheral regions of the country.

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu (right)

New Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu (right), March 11, 2023

GREG BAKER/Pool via REUTERS

Among the ministers, the personality of Li Shangfu, the new head of the Chinese Ministry of Defense, is of the greatest interest. Many analysts were quick to draw far-reaching conclusions from the fact that since 2018, Li Shangfu has been under US sanctions for purchasing Russian weapons (Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 missile systems). However, in the Chinese army hierarchy, the Minister of Defense is only the fourth person (the first three are the chairman of the Central Military Council and his two deputies) and deals more with technical issues than with army management. Moreover, Li Shangfu himself, an engineer in his competence, served for a long time at the Xichang cosmodrome in the southwestern part of the country. It is believed that he received the ministerial chair for success in the modernization of the armed forces as head of the Arms Development Directorate. His appointment should not be seen as an anti-American (or, if you like, pro-Russian) gesture, nor as a sign of Beijing’s hardening of the “Taiwan issue.”

Conclusions for Russia

The “two sessions” also adopted a plan for the socio-economic development of the country for 2023, a new budget, an administrative reform plan, and amendments to the Law on Legislative Activity. To summarize, these decisions are not revolutionary, but rather, on the contrary, they emphasize continuity with the course pursued by Xi Jinping in recent years. And for Russia, this is an encouraging moment.

Reaching out to 200: Russian-Chinese trade set a record

It was under Xi that the course towards strategic partnership between the two countries was consolidated, which withstood the test not only of the coronavirus pandemic (now, after the lifting of most of the relevant restrictions, this is already obvious), but also of the global crisis of 2022-2023. China’s non-alignment with the “anti-Russian bloc” thwarted the West’s plans for the international isolation of Moscow. Beijing adopted a position of benevolent neutrality, which allowed Russia to largely compensate for the loss of Western markets and suppliers and, as a result, keep the economy afloat.

New Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said at a press conference during the “two sessions”: “Chinese-Russian relations are a driver for the development of a multipolar world and the democratization of international relations, a guarantee of global strategic balance and stability. The more stability the world lacks, the more important it is to strengthen the Sino-Russian bond.” And Xi Jinping’s intention to visit Moscow immediately after the “two sessions” is a powerful signal of the readiness of the two countries to develop cooperation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with his Chinese counterpart Qin Gang on the sidelines of the G20 in New Delhi, India, March 2, 2023

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY/AFP/EAST NEWS

At the same time, China is in no hurry to aggravate the dialogue with the United States. The statements made at the “two sessions” rather indicate the opposite. Thus, Li Qiang, the new Premier of the State Council, expressed confidence in the possibility of further development of trade and economic relations between the two countries. Minister Qin Gang once again stressed that China does not seek to replace the United States as the world’s hegemon, but simply speaks of sovereign development and multipolarity. And Xi Jinping, in his concluding speech, although he gave a harsh rebuke to “external forces” trying to prevent the reunification of the mainland and Taiwan, nevertheless emphasized the priority of a peaceful scenario for resolving the “Taiwan issue” and declared China’s commitment to openness to the outside world.

In other words, although the rhetoric of the Chinese leaders has clearly marked notes of concern about the unpredictability of the international situation, the PRC’s reaction to them is still the same. Beijing is interested in maintaining the status quo on most international issues and is trying, if not to prevent the “shedding” of the former world order, then at least to slow it down. And this is also a conclusion for Russia. China will support us, but at the forefront of the struggle “for a new world” we will fight alone for now.

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