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Xi Jinping Consolidates Power at Party Congress
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Xi Jinping Consolidates Power at Party Congress

The autocratic leader continues to fill top party roles with yes-men.

Happy Tuesday! Two words: Justin Fields.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Russia’s defense ministry doubled down yesterday on claims it made over the weekend, alleging once again that Ukrainian forces are preparing to detonate a “dirty bomb” and blame Moscow for the resulting radiation. The ministry said it had activated a special military unit equipped to protect against chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, but Western governments—including the United States—continue to view the Kremlin’s comments as a potential false flag or as a pretext to escalate the conflict.
  • As demonstrations over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody entered their sixth week on Monday, Iranian law enforcement officials announced charges against hundreds of people who allegedly had significant roles in organizing the protests. As many as 516 people will be brought to trial this week, and four reportedly face charges that carry the death penalty. “These individuals will be punished and this punishment will be a disincentive,” said Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, Iran’s chief justice.
  • One day after North and South Korea exchanged warning shots at their disputed western sea boundary, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol told members of the country’s National Assembly on Tuesday that his administration believes North Korea has completed preparations for what would be its seventh nuclear test, and first since 2017. White House spokesman John Kirby offered the same warnings, telling reporters Kim Jong-un “could conduct a nuclear test at any time.”
  • The Justice Department on Monday unveiled three criminal cases involving covert activity by alleged Chinese Communist Party operatives, charging 13 people in total—two of whom were arrested this week—for “alleged efforts to unlawfully exert influence in the United States.” Seven Chinese nationals were indicted for their participation in a scheme “to cause the forced repatriation of a [Chinese] national residing in the United States,” two Chinese intelligence officers were charged with “attempting to obstruct a criminal prosecution in the Eastern District of New York,” and four Chinese nationals—including three intelligence officers—were charged “in connection with a long-running intelligence campaign targeting individuals in the United States to act as agents of the PRC.” The two officers charged with obstructing a criminal prosecution were reportedly working on behalf of Huawei Technologies to unearth information about an investigation into the Chinese telecommunications giant, and unwittingly paid bribes to an FBI agent in the process. 
  • Rishi Sunak will formally be appointed British prime minister later today after his last remaining rivals for the role dropped out of the running on Monday. Sunak, who is of Indian descent, will be the first nonwhite prime minister in U.K. history. “The United Kingdom is a great country but there is no doubt we face a profound economic challenge,” he said Tuesday in brief remarks. Sunak, who served as chancellor of the exchequer in Boris Johnson’s government and lost this summer’s leadership race to outgoing Prime Minister Liz Truss, added: “We now need stability and unity and I will make it my utmost priority to bring our party and our country together.”
  • S&P Global on Monday released its U.S. Composite PMI Output Index for October, finding business activity in the manufacturing and service sectors contracted for a fourth consecutive month. Any reading below 50 on the index reflects an economic reduction, and October’s tally of 47.3—down from 49.5 in September—represented one of the fastest monthly rates of contraction since the financial crisis in 2009.
  • The National Center for Education Statistics released its latest National Assessment of Educational Progress reports for mathematics and reading this week, finding the average scores in both subjects—among both 4th- and 8th-grade students nationwide—declined over the course of the pandemic. Not a single state saw average scores improve on either of the standardized exams—billed as the “nation’s report card”—and the backsliding was particularly acute in mathematics, which saw the steepest score declines since the tests began being administered more than thirty years ago. “I want to be very clear: the results in today’s Nation’s Report Card are appalling and unacceptable,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said. “They are a reminder of the impact this pandemic had on our learners, and the important work we must do now for our students.”
  • Justice Clarence Thomas issued an order Monday granting an administrative stay that will temporarily block an Atlanta grand jury subpoena seeking testimony from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham as part of an investigation into potentially criminal efforts to overturn the 2020 election from former President Donald Trump and his allies. Graham asked the Supreme Court to intervene on Friday after a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit declined to step in, and the request went to Thomas because he has jurisdiction over emergency appeals from the 11th Circuit.
  • A shooter armed with a long gun and multiple high-capacity magazines killed a teacher and a student at a St. Louis high school on Monday, wounding several others as well before being shot and killed by police. Law enforcement officials identified the suspect as a recent graduate of the school—Central Visual and Performing Arts High School—and said the tragedy could have been a “whole lot worse” had his gun not jammed and police not been so quick to arrive at the scene.

Xi Consolidates Power

Xi Jinping meets with delegates of the 20th CPC National Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing this week. (Photo by Ju Peng / Xinhua via Getty Images.)

Everyone knows hard work is a lot more fun when you’re doing it with friends, so who can really blame Chinese leader Xi Jinping for stocking China’s highest governing body with loyalists? Together, the members of the newly reconstituted Politburo Standing Committee are sure to have a great time on their quest to do whatever Xi thinks will make China the world’s premier superpower—all while systematically quashing dissent and repressing ethnic and religious minorities at home.

China watchers fully expected Xi to walk away from the Chinese Communist Party’s twice-a-decade congress last week with an unprecedented third term as top political leader, and he didn’t disappoint on that score. But many were surprised by just how thoroughly Xi swept the field of CCP power. A Sunday photo op showing off the new membership lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee—the upper echelon of officials responsible for running China—featured Xi flanked by six allies smiling for the cameras.

An official account of the committee selection process said officials were picked partly for their loyalty to Xi, and that they should follow him “in thinking, politics, and action.” The standing committee lineup reflects that requirement—its members all have ties to Xi, many having worked for him at various points in his career. Wang Huning, for instance, advised Xi’s predecessors but has since become the leader’s ideology czar, writing up Xi’s thinking for consumption by party members and Chinese schoolchildren.

Xi also promoted Li Qiang—the Shanghai party secretary responsible for that city’s much-criticized COVID-19 lockdowns—in a sign of support for severe COVID-19 mitigation measures. Li doesn’t have experience in national governance but is expected to be named premier—China’s second-highest position—in March.

Almost as significant as who made the committee roster is who didn’t. Policymakers more willing to embrace free markets—and less beholden to Xi—got the drop, including Premier Li Keqiang and top economic adviser Liu He. Also missing: anyone young and prominent enough to look like a successor to Xi. In a striking symbol of how thoroughly other leaders have been pushed aside under Xi’s rule, former party head Hu Jintao was publicly escorted out of a party congress session. Leaders later claimed he’d had a health scare.

In case it wasn’t obvious enough that the CCP has chosen one basket for all its eggs, the party also amended its constitution last week to enshrine Xi as a “core” leader.

Xi’s been collecting power in various areas of Chinese life for some time now—he’s been dubbed “chairman of everything”—but some analysts thought economic pragmatists might survive this party congress in positions of power as a counterbalance to the leader. Instead, Xi’s finished hollowing the orderly succession traditions and power-sharing structures that were adopted in the 1980s to prevent the rise of another dictator like Mao Zedong.

But with everyone else relegated to backup-singer status, the blame for missing a beat is that much more likely to fall squarely on Xi. “He’s made himself the point person on almost every significant policy in China right now, the most salient and controversial policies,” Ian Johnson, a China expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Dispatch. “If things go right, of course, [he] can claim great successes and victories. But if they don’t go well, or things stagnate, he set himself up to be the focal point of dissatisfaction inside and outside the party.”

That’s a vulnerable position for Xi as China increasingly faces economic headwinds which—based on his track record of ideologically-driven economic management—Xi and a team of sycophants aren’t prepared to overcome. Rather than embracing reforms to encourage free enterprise and aid China’s transition to a consumer spending-based economy, Xi has hammered private companies with increasingly close political oversight. His assault on tech companies as part of the crackdown on free speech has been particularly bruising, contributing to China’s near-20 percent youth unemployment as the companies shed workers. Already facing the economic weight of a slowing birthrate and ballooning debt—particularly in an over-leveraged real estate sector—Xi seems intent on doubling down on economically punishing COVID-19 lockdowns. China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported Monday that gross domestic product grew 3.9 percent year-over-year in the third quarter—better than expected, but flagging well behind the official target of 5.5 percent growth.

“He has a lot of political goals, [and] he’s willing to accept probably slightly slower economic growth” to push his ideology and maintain control, Dexter Roberts—a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “The Myth of Chinese Capitalism”—told The Dispatch. “But I don’t think he necessarily realizes just how south things could go.”

The markets seem to agree with Roberts. The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index slid 2 percent Monday, despite measuring a tightly controlled domestic market. The Hang Seng Tech Index—which tracks major firms listed in Hong Kong—dropped about 6 percent, its biggest one-day fall since the global financial crisis. Chinese tech giants including Alibaba and Tencent plummeted more than 10 percent. The onshore Chinese yuan also fell, hitting its weakest level since January 2008.

Observers aren’t holding their breath for a course correction that would reassure markets. “Underlying problems keep growing—namely, debt in the economy, falling productivity—and at some point, they’ve got to deal with it,” Roberts said. “It’s particularly important right now that they have more capable people in charge, [and] I’m not optimistic about the people that have been put in charge.”

Worth Your Time

  • What do Joe Biden and Donald Trump have in common? They’re two of the weakest presidents since before the progressive era, Yuval Levin argues in the New York Times. “The administrative state—that tangle of agencies that compose the executive branch, some formally independent and others more answerable to the White House—remains a formidable force in this era. But its growth has not always strengthened our presidents,” Levin writes. “This is most obvious in Republican administrations, as the chief executive strains to wrangle career officials and independent regulators who often want to steer a course different from his. But those same agencies operate in Democratic administrations, and even if the course they steer better suits a left-leaning president, their autonomous strength can render him institutionally weaker. The same might be said of presidential appointees. One measure of a president’s administrative prowess is whether his midlevel political appointees can readily imagine what the president would do if he were in their jobs and act accordingly. This has been fairly easy to do under most modern presidents. But under both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, many appointees could be forgiven for having no idea how the president would want them to make key decisions — Mr. Trump because he was so unpredictable, and Mr. Biden because he so rarely has set clear goals.”
  • Americans frustrated with the country’s political leaders may be looking at the United Kingdom’s parliamentary system with envy as it tosses yet another unpopular prime minister overboard, but Dan McLaughlin made a pretty compelling case on Monday that—although there is “some truth” to the critiques that it’s not democratic enough, not efficient enough, and that it promotes a polarizing two-party duopoly—the United States’ form of government is still preferable. “Presidents can do things that may be necessary but unpopular in the short term, and they will not be brought down by scandals that are of far less consequence than the things they were elected to do,” he writes for National Review. “In a parliamentary system, Ronald Reagan would likely not have survived the 1982 recession, and the Iran-Contra affair might have driven him from office before he could give his Brandenburg Gate speech and see the victory in the Cold War through to the handoff to George H. W. Bush. Abraham Lincoln’s government might have collapsed after the first battle of Bull Run or at several successive points between the summer of 1862 and the fall of 1864. Voters were not without tools to punish those governments in midterm congressional elections, but the president was given the chance to finish the job he started. Our system may be democratic, but it is also deliberative.”
  • On the latest episode of the “How to Build a Happy Life” podcast, Arthur Brooks speaks with Harvard Business School happiness researcher Ashley Whillans. “Eighty percent of working adults report feeling time poor, like they have too many things to do in a day and not enough time to do them,” Whillans says. “This affects our relationships, our physical health, our ability to feel like we’re making progress in personally important goals. These are the time traps that can make us time poor. One of them is this busyness as a status symbol—this cult of busyness that’s pervasive in the United States in particular, where if we feel like we have any time in our calendar, we feel like a failure. We feel lazy. When we see our colleagues having a lot of things in their calendar. We confer to those people high status. Wow—if they never have a spare moment, they must be really important and valuable to society. [But] my data suggests that the most time poor among us are in fact those who are struggling to make ends meet.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • In Monday’s edition of Boiling Frogs (🔒), Nick imagines a second Trump term and shudders. “If [Trump] and his team are willing to purge rank-and-file federal employees, it’s a cinch that they’ll be thinking big for his next Cabinet too,” he writes. “No more James Mattises and Rex Tillersons. The next Cabinet will be all velociraptors—a Cabinet of spite, in [Maggie] Haberman’s words. And if the Senate won’t play ball with him on that, he’ll just have to work around them.”
  • This week’s Wanderland (🔒) features an extended riff on democracy in the United States. “The problem with American politics isn’t that there is some kind of obstructive mediating institution keeping We the People away from the ‘common sense solutions’ that the very smart people have prepared for them,” Kevin argues. “The problem is that We the People don’t want those common-sense solutions.” Plus: thoughts on Andrew Yang and the Forward Party, Kanye West’s demise, how free trade agreements work, and Diwali.
  • On today’s episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah discuss the cheating scandal ravaging the chess world, take a look at a recent ruling on the constitutionality of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, and break down a court case on a fast path to the Supreme Court.
  • It’s Tuesday, which means Dispatch Live (🔒) returns tonight at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT! Keep an eye out for an email later today with more details on how to tune in.
  • On the site today, Charlotte Lawson breaks down how the mass protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini differ from previous protests against the clerical regime and Audrey Fahlberg previews the Pennsylvania Senate debate between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz.

Let Us Know

Are you more or less worried about China as a geopolitical foe knowing that Xi Jinping will serve as its leader for at least another five years?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.