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China’s Party Congress: What Will It Tell Us About Xi Jinping’s Leadership?

 6 min read / 

Beijing is getting ready for the most important date in China’s political calendar. The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, which starts on the 18th October, has been billed as the most crucial in decades as China’s leader Xi Jinping aims to consolidate his power and prepare the country for its new, increasingly ascendant, role on the world stage.

Party congresses have been held every five years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) in 1921 when 12 delegates representing 57 members secretly met in Shanghai’s French Concession area. But the CPC now has close to 90 million members, around 7% of China’s population, and some 3,000 delegates will attend this year when it starts deliberations in the Great Hall of the People next week.

Xi Prepares for a Second Term

Xi took over the reins of power at the 18th Congress in 2012. During his first five-year term, he pursued an agenda of consolidating control, purging corruption and strengthening the primacy of the CPC into all aspects of political, social and economic life. This has been no mean feat as he has fought to balance the entrenched interests and competing demands of leadership factions, central and local government, enormous state-owned enterprises and the growing legion of giant private companies.

At the 19th Congress, where he will start his second and, according to tradition, last term the main task of the Party will be to select its leadership and set the theoretical framework and policy direction of China for the next five years.

And leadership is the all-important issue. The Congress is usually preceded by fierce political infighting and horse trading over senior positions, with most important decisions made in advance. But once the lights are on, we will get a good look at how successful Xi has been in gaining control and how constrained he is by the Party in his push for further political and economic change.

Changes at the Top Tables

The leadership pecking order, and Xi’s ability to place allies in crucial positions, will be critical. The makeup of the selection of the over 300-member Party Central Committee, 25-member Politburo and 7-person Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of political power, will give the best indication of Xi’s success in consolidating power and Party support for his agenda.

He has a good track record in this respect. During his first term, he carried out a full-on purge of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that modernised its structure, stamped out corruption and increased control by placing a younger generation of allies into key positions. This military reform was so thorough that at the upcoming Congress, 90% of the military delegates will be new faces and, at most, only 7 of 41 military delegates to the 300-strong Central Committee are likely to retain their seats.

Xi will be looking to repeat this feat with the CPC. The unofficial, but adhered to, rule is that Party officials step down once they are past 68 years old. Half of the Central Committee are due for retirement and, with another 40 members already purged on corruption charges, Xi is expected to take full advantage by promoting a younger generation of loyalists which could amount to the most profound change of the Central Committee for decades.

But everyone’s focus will be on the seven-person Standing Committee, of whom five are set to retire. If Xi is able to promote younger protégés – such as economic reform-minded Guangdong Party Secretary Hu Chuanhua and Chen Min’er, the Guizhou Party Chief, who are both current favourites to eventually succeed Xi as leader –  then he would be showing a firm hand. And if he is able to reduce the seven-person committee to five as some have speculated, then his grip would be even stronger.

Even more attention is being focused on Wang Qishan, the eminently talented graft-buster behind Xi’s corruption purges who has been the de-facto number two to Xi. Wang is also one of the current Standing Committee’s economic reformers, with a strong understanding of finance and economics, but he is 69 and due to stand down. Speculation is rife that Xi will keep him on, and this break with the age precedent would not only highlight Xi’s political control but also have significant implications for his own position beyond the next Party Congress in 2022.

A Possible Third Term and Xi Jinping “Thought”

Since the 1980s, the People’s Republic of China’s constitution has restricted the state President to two consecutive five-year terms. On the Communist Party side of things, there are no such limits to the more powerful roles of Party General Secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission, but it has been another unofficial Party rule since 2002 that leaders retire after the two terms.

Xi currently holds all of these positions and, if Wang Qishan does stay on, then the age precedent will have been broken, and speculation will mount that Xi intends to further break with convention and go for a third term beyond 2022 when he is 72 years old. The Congress may give us more clues – it could decide to amend the PRC retirement laws, and Xi may not anoint a younger standing committee member, such as Hu Chuanhua and Chen Min’er, as intended successor.

And this is where “Xi Jinping Thought” is important. Xi is regarded in China as a core, and potentially transformational, leader maybe on a par with China’s communist liberator Mao Zedong and reformer Deng Xiaoping. Mao and Deng are the only leaders to have their names and theoretical contributions enshrined in the Party Constitution as “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory” respectively.

The Party and its and propaganda organs have been in overdrive promoting “Xi Jinping Thought” over the past year. If Xi’s “guiding theory” is included in the constitution, accompanied by his name as an eponymous theoretical contribution while he is in office, then that would put him in the same ideological league as Mao Zedong. It would indicate that Xi has reached a level of power not seen since Mao, and a third term would be just a minor detail.

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