Bonny Lin, Brian Hart, Matthew P. Funaiole, Samantha Lu
October 19, 2022
President Xi Jinping loomed large over the opening of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress on October 16, 2022. He is all but guaranteed to emerge from the party congress with a history-making third five-year term, and he is widely expected to tighten his hold over the party by placing political allies in key positions.
Xi kicked off the party gathering with a landmark speech that stretched for nearly two hours. His address, an abridged version of the full party congress report, focused heavily on domestic issues but also provided a useful glimpse into how Xi and the party leadership view the world and China’s place in it. Xi’s address (and the full report) struck a different tone from the last one Xi delivered at the 19th Party Congress in 2017. While Xi still voiced confidence that China’s power and prospects are on the rise, he also doled out stark warnings about the growing threats and challenges that China faces.
China’s Worsening External Environment
In his 2017 report to the 19th Party Congress, Xi took a triumphant tone, proclaiming that China “stands tall and firm in the East” and asserting that China’s soft power and international influence were on the rise. That speech was seen at the time as presaging a more assertive and activist Chinese foreign policy. Those predictions panned out. The last five years witnessed Beijing ratchet up pressure on Taiwan and take steps to crush Hong Kong’s autonomy. Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats also aggressively ramped up their rhetoric and tactics in defense of Chinese interests.
Xi’s 20th Party Congress report begins with a summary of work over the last five years, and it expectedly gives China high marks on its handling of foreign policy. Just like the 19th Party Congress report did, Xi’s new report once again claims that “China’s international influence, appeal, and power to shape have risen markedly.”
Yet Xi paired his confident tone with dark warnings of looming threats for China. He shared that China is entering a period “in which strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent.” The full report notes that China is facing “drastic changes in the international landscape, especially external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China,” though Xi omitted this from his speech. The report goes on to describe China’s challenges, including a “sluggish” global economy and “regional conflicts and disturbances”—a veiled reference to Russia’s war in Ukraine. The report continues by warning of the risks of “black swans” (unforeseen and unlikely events with high impact) and “gray rhinos” (obvious and high-impact threats that tend to be neglected). According to previous statements by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, one such gray rhino would be Taiwan independence.
Adding to these warnings, the report predicts that “external attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time.” While the report never mentions the United States or the West, its bleak assessments of China’s external environment are a clear reflection of Beijing’s concerns over growing tensions and pushback from Washington and many of its democratic allies.
The report further indicates Beijing’s pessimistic outlook about U.S.-China relations in calling for China “to enhance coordination and positive interaction with other major countries to build major-country relations featuring peaceful coexistence, overall stability, and balanced development.” This represents an important change from the 19th Party Congress report in two ways. First, the word “cooperation” (合作) has been replaced with a less ambitious target of “positive interaction” (良性互动). This suggests that Beijing may assess the prospects for cooperation to be grim and is at most hoping for positive engagements. Second, the report added an additional feature of major-country relations: “peaceful coexistence” (和平共处). This is a common phrase, but its insertion into descriptions of major-country relations likely reflects growing concern in Beijing that U.S.-China relations are trending negatively and that there is a growing risk of a crisis or conflict.
A Growing Focus on National Security
The rest of the report makes clear that Beijing’s answer to managing a worsening external environment is a doubling down on the current approach with an intensified focus on protecting national security.
The report features an all-new section on national security that centers on a “multidimensional” and expansive conception of national security, which is described as a “bedrock of national rejuvenation.” The report urges Chinese cadres to “promote national security in all areas and stages of the work of the Party and the country” and to uphold “centralized, unified leadership over national security work.” Tellingly, the report contains 91 mentions of the word “security” (安全), a significant leap from 54 mentions in the 19th Party Congress report.
Many of the efforts outlined in the new national security section would position China to better withstand a range of unforeseen emergencies or circumstances—including an external crisis or conflict—and to control or rally the Chinese population. The report advocates “[ensuring] the security of food, energy, and resources as well as key industrial and supply chains.” It notes the importance of “extensive public communications” and the need to “raise the people’s awareness and readiness regarding national security.”
The report also calls for strengthening “[mechanisms] for countering foreign sanctions, interference, and long-arm jurisdiction.” Beijing has long been concerned about—and critical of—U.S. economic sanctions, but this is the first party congress report to directly mention sanctions in the context of China’s national security. The inclusion of sanctions in the report likely reflects the fact that Washington’s success in inflicting serious economic pain on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine has deepened Beijing’s desire to boost China’s self-reliance and shield the Chinese economy from the worst impacts of sanctions.
Continuity on Taiwan
On the issue of Taiwan, the report does not signal major shifts in Beijing’s approach. In line with the report of the 19th Party Congress and other authoritative writings, the new report describes Taiwan’s unification as “a natural requirement for realizing the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Since the party has laid out goals to achieve national rejuvenation by mid-century, many have interpreted this as Beijing’s deadline for resolving the Taiwan issue. However, like other authoritative documents, the report does not provide any detailed timeline for reunification.
Two subtle changes in the report are worth noting but do not reflect a major shift in policy. First, the report includes a statement that was absent in the 19th Party Congress report that China opposes “foreign interference” in matters related to Taiwan. This reflects growing Chinese concern of U.S. and international support for Taiwan.
Second, the report mentions that China has “strengthened [its] strategic initiative for China’s complete reunification.” The phrase “strategic initiative” is not new and has typically been associated with preventing and defusing risks, but it is the first time the phrase has made its way into a party congress report in the context of Taiwan. It represents China’s desire to drive cross-strait dynamics and make progress on unification.
It is unsurprising that the report does not herald a change in Taiwan policy. Beijing released a white paper on Taiwan in August 2022, which laid out its views and approach in much greater detail. It was unlikely that Beijing would signal a pivot on Taiwan so soon after releasing a dedicated white paper on the issue.
Doubling Down on Military Modernization
The report includes a revamped section on China’s military modernization and national defense that is longer and features notable changes compared to the 19th Party Congress report.
First, the section has been renamed to focus on “Achieving the Centenary Goal of the People’s Liberation Army” in 2027. This goal was first unveiled in October 2020 at the party’s fifth plenum, and it amounts to a new short-term goal for speeding up modernization so that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can achieve medium- and long-term goals of “basically achieving modernization” by 2035 and becoming a “world-class military” by mid-century. The full report specifically calls for “speeding up” (加快) modernization in four areas: efforts to elevate the PLA to “world-class standards,” “military theory,” development of “unmanned, intelligent combat capabilities,” and “development of modern logistics.” However, it is important to note that there have been repeated calls in the past to speed up defense modernization as part of the 2027 goal, so these statements should not be viewed as a push to compress the well-established overall timeline for modernization. Instead, they could reflect areas where the PLA faces the most acute challenges.
Besides this, the section on the PLA includes two other notable changes. First, it places greater emphasis on training, with a specific new acknowledgment that China “will become more adept at deploying our military forces on a regular basis and in diversified ways.” This has not appeared in previous party congress reports or other authoritative documents and suggests the PLA may be shifting its approach to enhance readiness and gain experience conducting operations. Second, the report gives a direct nod to China’s ongoing and rapid expansion of its nuclear forces with a previously unseen statement that it will “build a strong system of strategic deterrence.”
Taken together, the 20th Party Congress report heralds a continuation of more assertive and active foreign policies that have been Xi Jinping’s hallmark. The report does not give any indication that Xi intends to alter course in the face of considerable pushback from abroad. Instead, it blames China’s woes on external efforts to contain and undermine China. The report’s dire warnings and prioritization of national security suggest that Xi is trying to prepare the party and the people to batten down the hatches and trust in his leadership as he steers China through what he describes as “high winds, choppy waters, and dangerous storms.”
This article was originally published as CSIS commentary.