The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 20th Party Congress, held from October 16-22 in Beijing, is likely to go down in history as the watershed moment that saw the complete abandonment of the norms of collective elite leadership established by the party in the 1990s, and which fixed in place the one-man rule of Xi Jinping (習近平) as the “core of the party center” (為核心的黨中央). On its own, this would be worrisome enough, as Xi’s assertive and nationalist temper have been fully on display—in an escalating manner, from “wolf warrior” diplomacy to the August 2022 military exercises around Taiwan—since his ascension to power in 2012. However, narrative themes both preceding and unveiled during the party congress further reinforce the increasing rigidity and bellicosity of the CCP, particularly as it pertains to policy towards Taiwan. Observers of political developments in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) should take seriously these signs of an increasingly aggressive posture by Beijing—one that is likely to grow even more assertive now that Xi has secured a third term as CCP general secretary, and either eliminated or sidelined any significant domestic opposition.
Xi’s Speech Before the Party Congress
The CCP has signaled a more assertive stance towards Taiwan throughout 2022—in measures ranging from military flights across the Taiwan Strait centerline to China’s provocative military exercises around the island. The CCP’s 20th Party Congress showed no signs of relaxing either the rhetorical or actual pressure that Beijing continues to direct against Taiwan—and several aspects of the narrative messaging surrounding the event suggest that this pressure is likely to only increase in the future.
As is customary for a party congress (and as is now de rigueur for any significant CCP gathering), Xi—in his role as party general secretary—delivered the keynote address to the assembled body, in the form of an official “work report.” Under the title of “Hold High the Great Banner of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, Unite and Struggle for the Comprehensive Construction of a Modern Socialist Country” (高舉中國特色社會主義偉大旗幟 為全面建設社會主義現代化國家而團結奮鬥), the speech contained little that was substantively new, although it did drive home with repeated urgency themes contained in Xi’s previous public statements and recent authoritative CCP documents.
“High Winds and Perilous Waves” in Xi’s Speech
Xi’s address was predictably positive about the party’s achievements during his tenure, but the speech was also noteworthy for its predictions of troubled times ahead for China and the CCP. The word “struggle” (奮鬥), which has a long history in CCP discourse—including Xi Jinping’s own emphasis on the “concept of struggle” (奮鬥觀)—was used 27 times in the text of the speech, in addition to its inclusion in the title. Xi cautioned party members regarding the need to safeguard stability, and to keep on guard against “black swans” (黑天鵝) and “gray rhinos” (灰犀牛) (i.e., unexpected dangers, and known dangers that are left unaddressed). Perhaps most strikingly of all, Xi called upon party members to “prepare for the major test of undergoing high winds and perilous waves” (準備經受風高浪急甚至驚濤駭浪的重大考驗) in the years to come. Such statements could perhaps be written off as the sort of hyperbole that has long been featured in CCP discourse. However, in conjunction with Xi’s personnel appointments and other developments from earlier this year, they portend an even more confrontational course for China in the future.
Discussion of Taiwan in Xi’s Speech
In the official Chinese-language transcript of Xi’s speech, Taiwan is mentioned 17 times. This includes four mentions of opposing “Taiwan independence” (台獨), sometimes described as associated with “a small number of ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist elements” (極少數“台獨”分裂分子); four mentions of opposing “interference by foreign forces” (外部勢力干涉) in relation to Taiwan; and two mentions of the “Party’s Comprehensive Plan for Resolving the Taiwan Problem in the New Era” (新時代黨解決台灣問題總體方略), a vague set of guidelines first unveiled in late 2021. Xi’s extensive comments about Taiwan, which repeatedly asserted the PRC’s resolve to achieve unification while lambasting alleged US interference, included these statements:
In response to separatist activities aimed at “Taiwan independence” and gross provocations of external interference in Taiwan affairs, we have resolutely fought against separatism and countered interference, demonstrating our resolve and ability to safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and to oppose “Taiwan independence.” […] Taiwan is China’s Taiwan. Resolving the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese, a matter that must be resolved by the Chinese. We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary. This is 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.
Amendments to the Party Constitution
The redoubled assertions regarding PRC sovereignty over Taiwan were further codified in amendments to the CCP party constitution (黨章程)—arguably, a far more significant document than the PRC state constitution—which added language to assert that the party would “resolutely oppose and restrain ‘Taiwan independence’” (堅決反對和遏制“台獨”). In tandem with this, language was added to further assert the party’s rigid adherence to the “One Country, Two Systems” (一個國家、兩種制度) framework for unification. Specifically, the added text averred that the party would “comprehensively, exactly, and unswervingly implement” (全面准确、坚定不移贯彻) this formula, in order to “complete the great enterprise of unification of the ancestral nation” (完成祖國統一大業).
Xi’s speech and the amended language to the party constitution were largely consistent with previous CCP messaging, and did not present either specific threats or a timetable for “reunification.” However, they did strengthen previous statements, and appeared to further elevate the importance of Taiwan as a policy priority. Furthermore, they follow in the wake of other, more assertive official statements on Taiwan made over the past twelve months: in particular, the resolution on party history issued in November 2021, as well as a revised white paper on Taiwan policy that was released in the immediate wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. (The latter was particularly ominous in the way it praised Hong Kong as a successful example of “One Country, Two Systems” in action, and as a model for Taiwan.) Taken together, these documents represent a clear attempt by the CCP leadership under Xi to more forcefully assert an unyielding stance on Taiwan.
Personnel Appointments at the 20th Party Congress
Such narrative messaging was bolstered by the clean sweep that Xi made in filling the ranks of the CCP’s senior-most bureaucratic bodies with officials personally loyal to him. This included a purging of senior officials connected with former CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) Communist Youth League faction (團派, Tuanpai). Prior to the congress, some media forecasters had predicted that Hu’s protégés Wang Yang (汪洋) and Hu Chunhua (胡春華) were both candidates for promotion to state premier (see here and here). However, both men were ejected from the Politburo, alongside fellow Hu protégé Premier Li Keqiang (李克強). This has resulted in the apparent wipe-out of Hu’s Tuanpai patronage network, whose members had appeared to be relatively pragmatic on Taiwan in relation to the more assertive and ideological posture taken by Xi and his supporters. (For more on this latter point, see discussion of the promotion of Wang Huning, and its implications for Taiwan policy, in our previous issue.)
This has been accompanied by the leapfrog elevation into the party’s top ranks of security officials aligned with and loyal to Xi. In fact, some commentators have even gone so far as to describe Xi’s latest round of appointments as representing a “war cabinet” formed in the expectation of conflict. Chen Wenqing (陳文清), who since 2016 has served as the director of the Ministry of State Security (國家安全部), has been appointed to the Politburo and to the position of party secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (中央政法委員會), which will place him in a supervisory role over the PRC’s intelligence and domestic security bureaucracies. On the military side, two other Xi loyalists, General He Weidong (何衛東) and General Zhang Youxia (張又俠), have been appointed and retained, respectively, for vice-chairman positions on the CCP Central Military Commission (中央軍事委員會). (For a more detailed discussion of the significance of these and other military appointments, see “Military Implications of the CCP 20th Party Congress for Xi’s Taiwan Policy” by Eric Chan, elsewhere in this issue.)
Furthermore, as indicated by Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), this latest round of personnel reshuffling has seen the demotion of PRC officials with long-standing experience on Taiwan policy, in favor of Xi loyalists. This sidelining of “Taiwan hands” has been accompanied by concurrent promotions of ideological loyalists to the united front bureaucracy. The resulting policy echo chamber will likely further isolate Xi and other top leaders from information and advice that conflicts with their existing assumptions, reinforcing a potentially dangerous environment of groupthink at the uppermost echelons of the CCP.
The developments of the 20th Party Congress bear ominous implications for Taiwan. While there were no major new announcements related to Taiwan, and the messages conveyed were largely consistent with previous statements on Taiwan policy, both the steadily hardening tone of CCP narratives and the nature of Xi’s personnel appointments augur ill for the future of cross-Strait relations. CCP policy-making in the wake of the 20th Party Congress increasingly looks to be a one-man show, with the senior organs of the CCP operating less as venues for policy formulation and consultation, and more as institutional tools for implementing the decisions of the “core” leader of the party. The outcomes of the party congress are but the latest sign of Beijing’s increasingly rigid policy orientation towards Taiwan—one that threatens “high winds and perilous waves” for the island and its people in the years ahead.
The main point: Both the narrative themes and personnel appointments unveiled during the CCP’s 20th Party Congress reinforce the increasing rigidity and bellicosity of the party leadership, particularly as it pertains to policy towards Taiwan. Observers of political developments in the PRC should take seriously these signs of an increasingly aggressive posture on the part of Beijing.