“Two Sessions” Conclude with Xi, CCP Further Consolidating Power

The story of this year’s Two Sessions was that it has become ever more scripted by the Party, with Xi Jinping at its core. At the annual gatherings of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) and advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the premier’s traditional post-meeting press conference was eliminated, and online censors targeted criticism of Xi and references to self-serving representatives. Even before the end of the meetings, The Economist noted that although “Mr Xi has no high-profile role in the congress […,] it was made abundantly clear that this was to be his show [….] The point is clear: only one personality is now allowed in Chinese politics. It is Mr Xi’s.” When the Two Sessions closed on Monday, Elaine Kurtenbach and Ken Moritsugu from the AP concluded that the Two Sessions were “a show of unity behind Xi’s vision for national greatness”:

The weeklong event, replete with meetings carefully scripted to allow no surprises, has highlighted how China’s politics have become ever more calibrated to elevate Xi.

[…] In brief closing remarks, Zhao Leji, the legislature’s top official, urged the people to unite more closely under the Communist Party’s leadership “with comrade Xi Jinping at its core.”

[…] The contrast with polarized politics in the U.S. and robust debate in other democracies could not be more stark: China’s political rituals, void of any overt dissent, put unity above all. [Source]

Underlining that assessment, Kenji Kawase from Nikkei Asia stated that there were “[n]o digressions from the Xi Jinping line”:

President Xi’s name was mentioned 16 times in Premier Li [Qiang]’s maiden government work report, two more than in the final report by Li Keqiang last year.

According to Li Qiang, China’s accomplishments over the past year are owed “entirely” to “General Secretary Xi Jinping leading the navigation and steering the boat.” This was just one example of increased flattery of the president, in both documents and rhetoric.

Top regional officials from across China displayed their loyalty publicly, including at provincial-level “breakout sessions” that were open to the media for the first time since the pandemic. At the close of the NPC on Monday, all seven items put to vote passed easily. [Source]

One notable outcome of the Two Sessions was the NPC’s passage of the revised State Council Organic Law, granting the CCP more power over the State Council, which serves as the Chinese government’s cabinet. The revision passed with 2,883 delegate votes in favor and only eight against, with nine abstentions. Among the newly added articles is one stating that the State Council must uphold the leadership of the CCP and follow the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. 

William Zheng from the South China Morning Post highlighted some of these specific changes to the law:

The latest amendment would be the first change to the State Council law since 1982 – when it was formally introduced and passed.

[…] One article stipulates that the council shall uphold the leadership of the ruling party and be guided by Marxism-Leninism, as well as the political doctrines of previous and current party leaders.

The article also says that the State Council shall resolutely safeguard the authority and centralised and unified leadership of the party’s decision-making Central Committee led by Xi, and resolutely implement its decisions and instructions.

Another newly added article stipulates that State Council members shall “resolutely safeguard” the authority and leadership of the party Central Committee, and abide by the Constitution and laws when performing their duties. [Source]

Mei Mei Chu and Laurie Chen from Reuters shared reactions from experts who saw the revision as a formal redistribution of power and authority from the state to the Party:

“This is a significant shift in the reorganization of executive authority in China,” said Ryan Mitchell, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “While it is always clear that the head of the Party is the most influential figure in the overall hierarchy, the exact division of labour in policymaking and, especially, oversight of policy execution, can be opaque.”

[…] “It is yet another sign that the Party is both increasing its overt control over state organs and wants to be seen as fully in charge,” said Thomas Kellogg, professor of Asian law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

“Politics is in command, and both Party cadres and government bureaucrats are meant to pay ever-closer attention to the Party’s dictates and ideological directives as the key guide for day-to-day decision-making,” he added. [Source]

Harold Thibault from Le Monde relayed the opinions of other experts who described how the revision places the State Council in the position of merely implementing policy decided by the Party, with an emphasis on Xi’s role at the center:

This law is unlikely to change the way China’s institutions operate overnight, but it does add, eleven years after Xi Jinping’s ascent to the pinnacle of power, to an obvious trend: the Party is getting stronger and making decisions, while the state is merely implementing them.

[…] “With the adoption of this text, the superiority of the Party vis-à-vis the state is further reinforced, with a Party that decides and state institutions that merely execute,” notes Alice Ekman, [senior] Asia analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies.

[…] “Of course, everyone already knows that supreme power lies with the Party, but Xi Jinping has a need to clarify this again and again, in black and white,” says Willy Lam, China specialist at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation.

[…] “The state is becoming a minor player in relation to the Party, which is the major player, and the ministries are junior partners around the table, especially if Mr. Xi himself is at the center,” explains Jérôme Doyon, professor at Sciences Po’s Center for International Relations. [French]

As for the consequences of this revision, some experts commented on its potential to adversely affect the Chinese leadership’s efficiency. Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, told VOA that the CCP’s “decision-making could become slower because everything needs to pass through Xi, but I suppose policy implementation might become faster since once an order gets into the hands of someone at the state council, they don’t have to think about it other than how to implement the order.” Zooming out to the Two Sessions as a whole, Brian Spegele at The Wall Street Journal noted that these shifts toward the centralization of power and away from transparency have created a dissonance between rhetoric and reality:

[T]he meetings also highlighted how the gap between Beijing’s words and reality is growing wider. The government pledged openness and transparency while going to ever-greater lengths to stage-manage the press. Li’s press briefing was axed with little explanation. Officials celebrated the economy’s prospects while glossing over the hazards it faces. The congress itself touted its votes as democratic even as decision-making in the country is increasingly concentrated in Xi’s hands. 

To some extent, that dissonance has long been a feature of Chinese politics. But it is growing stronger as fundamental weaknesses in China’s economy grow more apparent.

Chinese TV and state-run social-media accounts collectively devoted dozens of hours to the congress over the past week. But the biggest issues facing the economy—a cratering population, soaring debt levels, souring relations with some of its biggest trading partners and falling housing prices—were barely mentioned, if they came up at all. [Source]

Noting the shrinking information space for those on the outside of government meetings, AFP described how VPNs have had trouble functioning during the Two Sessions:

[A]s thousands of delegates gather in Beijing this week for the annual “Two Sessions” meeting, VPN software has increasingly struggled to circumvent the censorship while outages have become much more frequent, even when compared to during previous sensitive political events.

“Currently, there is increased censorship due to political meetings in China,” a representative of the Liechtenstein-based service Astrill — one of the most popular VPN services for foreigners in China — confirmed to AFP.

“Unfortunately, not all VPN protocols are functioning at this time,” they said.

“We are working intensively on bringing all services back to normal, but currently have no ETA.” [Source]


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