While politics in China has always been difficult to interpret, events in 2022 felt especially inscrutable. At times, China analysis seemed like an endless guessing game: What did Beijing know about the Kremlin’s plans to invade Ukraine? How long would China continue its “zero COVID” policy? Why was former leader Hu Jintao removed from the 20th Party Congress?
These contentious topics spoke to the turbulence that loomed over China last year, from the effects of zero COVID to a stagnant economy and a fraught geopolitical landscape. Rather than bring about a calm political reshuffle last November, Beijing made policy miscalculations that helped to stoke significant tensions at both the elite and grassroots levels.
But now that COVID-19 and Party Congress issues are largely resolved, will 2023 be a less turbulent year for politics in China? One certainty is that policymakers can now focus their attention on non-COVID-19-related issues. Recent weeks have indeed seen a clear dialing down of pandemic-era priorities in favor of the goals of renewing economic growth and resetting China’s soured foreign relations.
The country’s politicians can also worry less about jockeying for promotions, since key provincial and central government positions for the next five-year term have mostly been settled. And there is scarcely any room for factional competition now, following Xi Jinping’s extreme consolidation of power at the top of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
On the one hand, the appointment of all-Xi teams to both the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee and State Council leadership teams should streamline the party-state machinery. This reduces the likelihood of any major elite disagreement, like that which became apparent last year between Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, who is soon to make way for Xi ally Li Qiang.
On the other hand, this state of “maximum Xi” may also foster greater unpredictability, as decision-making becomes increasingly personalistic and dissent from other senior officials increasingly non-existent. It follows that another zero COVID-style policy misstep is not unfathomable.
Even as Beijing seeks to normalize its economy and foreign affairs, we should not expect a return to the pre-Xi “old normal” defined by greater economic pragmatism and friendlier ties with the West. Rather, China is now emerging into a post-COVID “new normal,” one in which growth will remain subdued and geopolitics continue to be strained.
On the economy, the worst of Beijing’s regulatory campaigns may be over, but the effects of those crackdowns are not going to be reversed. The Chinese government’s decisions over recent years have fundamentally altered the country’s industrial power balance, in a way that may continue to place a cap on its economic dynamism.
In foreign policy, too, the slight thawing of China-U.S. tensions since the G-20 Bali summit does not equate to a reversal of the antagonism that has characterized the Xi era. There could be no better illustration of this fact than the “Balloon-gate” saga that has (quite literally) blown up since late January.
While more information is starting to emerge, an initial absence of facts leads us back to that favorite guessing game played by China watchers: Why would Beijing have flown a surveillance balloon over the mainland United States, not least when it already has an extensive satellite network? Was it timed (or rather mistimed) as a prelude to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit?
Or was the balloon in fact a stray civilian “airship” used for weather research purposes, as the Chinese government claims? Why, then, have there been reported sightings of similar balloons in numerous other locations since 2017, including most recently over Latin America?
In any case, what might initially have seemed like an innocuous affair has developed into a significant geopolitical flashpoint. More conclusive evidence of China’s spying activities would cause serious damage to Beijing’s international credibility. The fallout from the incident could also incur a further loss of prestige for Xi after last year’s policy missteps.
Above all, this balloon episode shows the potential for continued turbulence in Chinese politics in 2023. To be sure, the removal of COVID-19 and Party Congress uncertainties should make the Year of the Rabbit less politically eventful than its Tiger predecessor. But if Beijing was looking for a good omen at the start of a new lunar cycle, the sinking of its balloon seems anything but auspicious.