In mid-October 2022, unless there is a major upset, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will, on the occasion of its five-yearly congress, reappoint its general secretary, who is also president of the People’s Republic of China. Xi Jinping will then begin his third term as head of the party and the country. This unprecedented event was made possible by the 2018 constitutional reform, which abolished any limitation on the number of presidential terms.
According to Jacques Gravereau, a China specialist and honorary president of the HEC Eurasia Institute, the procedure remains complex and not all the rules have necessarily been written down. “We must make a distinction between the party and the presidency. For the latter, the two-term lock has been broken, but the title is not everything. Deng Xiaoping, for example, was never officially president. He was ‘only’ chairman of the CCP central committee’s military commission,” says the China specialist.
As far as the party is concerned, Gravereau continues, “there was a precedent for the ‘Great Leader’ to serve two terms and then step aside at the age of 68. Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin complied with this, but since then everything has changed. Thanks to his great anti-corruption campaign, Xi Jinping, who turned 69 in June and yet remains in power, has got his hands on all the levers. We will have to watch the composition of the Central Committee, which will be appointed at the congress, and especially see who the seven members of the Standing Committee will be.”
While Jinping is due to be re-elected to the CCP summit in October, he will only theoretically be re-elected to a third term as president next March, even though in practice one function generally goes hand in hand with the other. The logic of the two renewals is the same: they complete and formalise the stiffening of the kind of regime that hasn’t been seen since the Mao era. It is no coincidence that, in addition to abolishing term limits, the 2018 revision introduced “Xi Jinping’s thinking” into the Constitution.
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Nevertheless, behind this apparent political and institutional stability, China is going through troubled times that the president will have to take into account. The days when GDP grew by 8% to 10% per year seem long gone. Many sectors of activity are showing worrying signs of slowing down, starting with real estate: Evergrande, one of the main groups, has accumulated nearly $300bn in debt and has been on the verge of bankruptcy for months. The technology sector, which has long flourished, has been undermined by increasingly stringent regulations and government-issued warnings to its managers.
On the diplomatic front, Jinping’s first two terms in office were marked by new claims made about the China Sea and Taiwan, the desire to gain a foothold on other continents – Africa in particular – and a certain aggressiveness. All these were symbolised by the famous generation of “fighting wolves”, who are young diplomats responsible for asserting Beijing’s point of view more firmly.
China, however, faces obstacles on all these fronts. At a time when Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine are proving that no war is easy to fight, no matter how unequal the balance of power, it faces unwavering support from Washington for Taiwan. The UN recently released a report on Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur minority, which evokes “possible crimes against humanity” and tarnishes the image of the world’s second-largest power, just like its inconclusive management of the Covid-19 pandemic did. Finally, the “New Silk Roads” project, spearheaded by Jinping himself and supposed to symbolise China’s global ambitions, is no longer omnipresent in official discourse and seems to be stalling.
Beijing’s position in Africa also seems less assertive than it was five or 10 years ago. Nonetheless, many grand declarations were still made at the Sino-African summit (Focac) in Dakar at the end of 2021. Jinping – who sees himself as the “great leader of the Third World” – proclaimed the “unwavering friendship in the fight against colonialism”, the “unfailing solidarity” and the “shared future community” between the continent and China. Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who hosted the event, went on to salute “a long tradition of cordial friendship”, while DRC’s Félix Tshisekedi, the then AU Chairperson, praised “a partnership that is exemplary in many respects”.
However, there was a hint of disenchantment behind the diplomatic declarations. The African side insisted that the Chinese market open itself up more to the continent’s products and better manage loans in order to avoid future problems linked to over-indebtedness. The Chinese side clearly thought it was time to hand it over to private companies, as the government felt that the financial effort made in previous Focac programmes had been more than substantial. “The last problem that should not be minimised,” says a diplomat, “is that the Chinese gateway to Africa has long been Ethiopia. And, given the events taking place there, it is becoming very complicated for them.”
Writing off African debts
However, several recent announcements prove that the link remains strong. In recent months, three senior Chinese diplomats have crisscrossed the continent, visiting 14 countries, while two China-Africa conferences on peace and security issues were held. On 18 August, Wang Yi, the minister of foreign affairs, withdrew his demand that 23 loans granted to 17 African states be repaid. He also announced that $10bn in special drawing rights (SDRs) would be redirected towards the continent. A few days earlier, customs duties on imports from nine countries on the continent had been abolished.
Diplomatically, Africa remains a major issue for Beijing, which hopes to be able to count on the support of as many countries as possible within international bodies. Following the declarations of African capitals of their attachment to the “one China principle” – that is to say, to the attachment of Taiwan – the Chinese authorities responded with calls to give Africa a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a place in the G20.
The composition of the Standing Central Committee that will emerge from the CCP congress will also be measured with this yardstick. Are they hawks or doves? Apparatchiks or diplomats? “Xi is tough and dogmatic, but he is aware of the situation. Now that he has control over the party, I bet that he will nominate more pragmatic figures,” says Gravereau.