Making Sense of China’s Nineteenth Party Congress

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at the Great Hall of the People in Beijng to celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the People's Liberation Army, August 1, 2017. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

As China’s senior Communist Party members anoint its future leaders, President Xi Jinping is poised to solidify his position and power at next week’s party congress.

October 12, 2017

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at the Great Hall of the People in Beijng to celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the People's Liberation Army, August 1, 2017. Damir Sagolj/Reuters
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China’s highest-ranking Communist Party members will gather in Beijing beginning October 18 for the Nineteenth Party Congress. The meeting takes place five years since Xi Jinping took the helm of China’s leadership and comes amid a rigorous crackdown on party corruption. While preparations for the congress have been shrouded in secrecy, the event will be closely watched for any changes to the governing system of the world’s second-largest economy and one of its largest militaries.

What is a party congress?

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Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been the dominant decision-making body, providing direction and guidance to the State Council, the administrative authority of the country. The party’s national congress, held every five years in Beijing, is the central event for announcing official leadership transitions. The Eighteenth Party Congress, in 2012, solidified Xi Jinping’s ascent to power.

The most pressing question is whether Xi will name a successor.

At the gathering, more than two thousand party delegates will appoint the party’s general secretary, as well as senior leaders to bodies that oversee economic and security functions, as well as party rules, including:

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  • the party’s Central Committee,
  • the Central Military Commission (the command and control organ of China’s military services),
  • the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (the party’s antigraft watchdog),
  •  the Politburo (typically comprising twenty-five officials from China’s most important cities and provinces), and
  • the Politburo Standing Committee (the most powerful decision-making body, currently comprising seven members).

The congress also approves long-term goals, including new reforms and changes to the constitution. During the week-long congress, the general secretary presents a political work report, briefing delegates on progress made since the last congress and outlining objectives for the next five years. These reports are seen as the most authoritative and revealing documentation of the CCP’s aspirations; previous reports have developed the notion of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which continues to inform the country’s economic policy. Ultimately, “the deeper purposes of the Congress and the Report are to reaffirm the Party’s importance to itself and to the nation,” writes former UK and EU diplomat to China Charles Parton. 

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What is the significance of the party congress?

In China’s one-party state, the peaceful transition of power from one generation of leaders to the next lends crucial legitimacy to CCP rule, experts say. Previous congresses have institutionalized the process of leadership succession, elevating those who will be groomed for senior leadership positions. Mandatory retirement ages, which were standardized in 2002, require top officials at least sixty-eight years old to step down. At this year’s congress, eleven out of twenty-five of the Politburo are slated to retire, including five of the seven Standing Committee members, antigraft czar Wang Qishan, President Xi’s right-hand man, among them. However, there is some speculation that the retirement norm may be bent at the upcoming congress, particularly to allow Wang to stay on.

The deeper purposes of the Congress and the Report are to reaffirm the Party’s importance to itself and to the nation.
Charles Parton, Former UK and EU Diplomat

What is at stake in this year’s gathering?

The most pressing question is whether Xi will name a successor. Xi’s tenure has been notable for a severe anticorruption campaign at all levels of the party, targeting “tigers” (senior officials) and “flies” (other party cadres) alike. Antigraft movements are not uncommon as a means for a new leader to consolidate power, yet Xi’s campaign shows no signs of abating and is unprecedented in scope. Xi has also broadened his power by heading up various policy-oriented groups, leading some experts to say that as Xi moves away from the norm of collective leadership, he has positioned himself to become the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. “Five years into his tenure, Xi controls the most important levers of power [PDF] in China’s political system,” writes Matthias Stepan of the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Xi has not only taken a harder line on corruption but also on dissent, with brutal crackdowns on human rights activists and lawyers, religious entities, and media organizations. In doing so, he seeks to make the party the central force bringing prosperity to the masses. Other themes of his first term include the “Chinese Dream,” a patriotic call for China to renew itself as a great nation; increased military assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region; and the Belt and Road Initiative (first known as One Belt, One Road), a plan to connect China to the West through maritime and continental transportation networks across Eurasia. For Xi’s second term as president, the party is likely to emphasize further domestic economic reform with the promotion of innovation-led development and the expansion of China’s international reach [PDF] through instruments like the Belt and Road Initiative.

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Politics and Government

Congresses and Parliaments

Five years into his tenure, Xi controls the most important levers of power in China’s political system.
Matthias Stepan, Mercator Institute for China Studies

At the congress, delegates will also be tasked with deciding on amendments to the party’s constitution. If Xi’s ideology is enshrined in the constitution [PDF] as “Xi Jinping Thought” or “Xi Jinping Theory,” he would become the first sitting leader since Mao to have his eponymous ideology incorporated. (The constitution directly references Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory; Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao’s contributions do not include their names.)   

Who is likely to be promoted?

China watchers have identified the following party stars as having the potential to be promoted this year:

  • Chen Min’er (b. 1960). Chen is a Xi protégé who served as his propaganda chief in Zhejiang Province. He was promoted to be the Chongqing party boss after the expulsion of Sun Zhengcai and is likely to be elevated to the Politburo. Because of his age, he could jump from his provincial posting to the Standing Committee, where he would be a potential successor to Xi.
  • Hu Chunhua (b. 1964). The youngest member of the Politburo, Hu is the party boss of Guangdong Province, the top performing provincial economy. He rose through the ranks of the Communist Youth League, which is linked to the power base of Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor.
  • Li Zhanshu (b. 1950). A longtime friend of Xi, Li is seen by many as the leader’s most powerful ally after Wang, the antigraft chief. Li was elevated to the Politburo in 2012 and is now director of the General Office of the Central Committee.
  • Han Zheng (b. 1954). Han served as mayor of Shanghai from 2003 to 2012, when he became the Shanghai party boss and a member of the Politburo. With his experience overseeing the commercial and financial capital of China, Han is poised to assume a seat on the Standing Committee.
  • Wang Yang (b. 1955). Currently seated on the Politburo, Wang is one of four State Council vice premiers, and his portfolio includes trade policy and bilateral talks with the United States. Previously, he held leadership positions in Chongqing and Guangdong. In addition to being a possible new Standing Committee member, he is also a candidate for the vice premiership dedicated to financial policy.
  • Wang Huning (b. 1955). Wang, favored for elevation to the Standing Committee, has directed the party’s Central Policy Research Office, which is responsible for drafting ideology and issuing political, social, and economic policy recommendations, since 2002. A Politburo member since 2012, he is a political theorist who has advised three consecutive leaders.
  • Li Yuanchao (b. 1950). Li rose to the Politburo in 2007, after serving as the party boss in Jiangsu, China’s second top economic performing province. He is currently the vice president and has played a hand in foreign affairs, including coordinating policy for Hong Kong and Macau.
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This October 2017 CFR Asia Unbound blog post by Maylin Meisenheimer delves into the gender imbalance in China’s party leadership.

This CFR Backgrounder looks at the domestic and international challenges facing the Chinese Community Party.

Boston University’s Joseph Fewsmith speaks with Bonnie S. Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) about the politics of Chinese leadership.

The Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies examines the leadership styles, structures, and processes of China’s core executive under Xi Jinping in a 2016 research paper.

Christopher K. Johnson, Minxin Pei, and Kerry Brown discuss Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign with CSIS’s ChinaPower Project.

The Hoover Institution’s Alice Miller previews how to read Xi Jinping’s political report [PDF] and possible changes to the CCP’s guiding ideology [PDF] in two 2017 China Leadership Monitor articles.

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