The leadership lineup of the 90 million strong CPC is visible from the 200-man Central Committee and an equal number of alternate members, which will be selected by the 2,287 delegates to this year’s Congress.

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The 18th CPC Congress, 2012

Remko Tanis/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress is beginning in Beijing next week — from 18 October. The Congress is the highest decision making body of the CPC and its principal role is to determine party policy and select the leaders who will rule China. This Congress, unlike the 18th, will not, select the General Secretary since Xi Jinping will continue for another term. But it will provide the leadership line-up for the 20th Congress which will, in the normal course, see the selection of a new General Secretary, who is also the President, and identify the person who will be the Premier in succession to Li Keqiang.

The leadership lineup of the 90 million strong CPC is visible from the 200-man Central Committee (CC) and an equal number of alternate members, which will be selected by the 2,287 delegates to this year’s Congress. These delegates represent provincial party units, State Owned Enterprises and the military and financial institutions.

The CC will elect a 25-member Politburo (PB) from amongst themselves, and the PB will in turn select a Standing Committee (PBSC) which will in effect be the most powerful ruling group of the country. Expectations are that 10 of the 25 Politburo members will retire, as well as five of the seven PBSC members.

Nevertheless, if the past is any guide, this Congress could see a clear deal amongst the various factions of the CPC on the succession to Xi. Even then, the retirement of all fifth generation leaders except Xi and Li will mean that their powers will be more concentrated than ever before because now they will be surrounded by leaders they have essentially chosen. The generations are: 1949-1976 with Mao at the helm the first, 1976-1992 Hua Guofeng, HU Yaobang Zhao Ziyang the second, 1992-2003, with Jiang Zemin at the helm the third generation, 2003-2012, with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao the fourth generation and the Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang leadership the fifth generation.


This Congress could see a clear deal amongst the various factions of the CPC on the succession to Xi.. the retirement of all fifth generation leaders except Xi and Li will mean that their powers will be more concentrated than ever before.


Importance of the Congress

We know that the whole Congress is a well choreographed affair where all the deals and decisions are taken well before the event. At the Congress, everything is scripted and fore-ordained. Some decisions, relating to the appointment of certain party secretary posts, provincial governors and ministers, have been made over the past year, or so. The Beidaihe meeting in the summer would have already seen consensus within the PB and the PBSC over the slate of leaders who will be elected to the next CC, PB and PBSC. There would be consultations with senior leaders like Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, former premiers and PBSC members and the list would be almost finalised by the beginning of this month.

The event is, in fact, a bit of political theatre played out for the Chinese populace. It seeks to show them that the Party rule is legitimate and that those who rule over them somehow go through some kind of a selection process in which they also play a role. In addition, the leaders selected too need some kind of acclaim from their peers to appear legitimate. The mobilisation and discussions that precede the selection of delegates is an exercise in giving the illusion of legitimacy because in the CPC system, the slate of those to be selected is usually provided by the higher body.

In the Leninist democratic centralism principle, decisions come top down — they are made by the higher body and endorsed by the lower and sent back up. Elections do take place in certain controlled conditions and in some elections, there are often 10 per cent or so more vetted candidates than seats and congresses and committees are asked to vote. Xi, for example, was elected delegate by the Guizhou province party congress in April. Likewise, other PBSC members were also elected delegates by various provincial committees, or those of autonomous regions. All of them were nominated by the CC as candidates for delegates. Yet, for its own sake, the CPC has sought to install a collective leadership and encourage what is called “intra party democracy” with certain checks and balances.


In the Leninist democratic centralism principle, decisions come top down — they are made by the higher body and endorsed by the lower and sent back up.


Formally, the Congress will review the work of the CPC in a range of sectors over the past five years, lay out the guidelines for the party’s work in key sectors in the next five years, and select a new Central Committee.

It should be noted that there is strong continuity, at least since the post-Deng era, on the issues and perspectives of the CPC, reflecting the collective leadership. So whether it is economic reform, or the anti-corruption moves, legal reform, or for that matter military reform, decisions taken at the 18th Party Congress shaped the steps taken by Xi Jinping in the last five years.

Issues before the forthcoming CPC Congress

Whether the general convention of the CPC, at least since the mid 1980s, that no one above 68 is appointed at the time of a party Congress, will continue. Upon this rests the fate of a key personality, Wang Qishan, a member of the PBSC and the chief of the CCDI. Wang is already 69 and should be retiring this time around. This rule has been followed since 2002 when Jian Zemin retired as the General Secretary of the CPC at the age of 74 with all the other members of the PBSC, except his successor Hu Jintao. But this is a convention, rather than a rule when it comes to the party. While the constitution says that presidents and premiers can have two consecutive five year terms, it does not say anything about CPC rules.In 2022, if Xi seeks a third term, he will be 69, so if Wang retires this time around, it is likely that Xi, too, will exit in 2022.

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In Wang’s case, leave alone retirement, there is talk that he may replace Li Keqiang as the Premier. Recent meetings of Wang with the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and with the US right-wing ideologue Steve Banon do suggest a possibly different role for Wang.


Whether the general convention of the CPC, at least since the mid 1980s, that no one above 68 is appointed at the time of a party Congress, will continue. Upon this rests the fate of a key personality, Wang Qishan, a member of the PBSC and the chief of the CCDI.


“XI Jinping Thought”

Wang’s fate could decide whether Xi Jinping will be at the helm of affairs beyond 2022. The PRC Constitution limits terms for the President and the Prime Minister to ten years. As for the CPC itself, however, it is merely a convention, not a rule. If Wang is retained beyond the 19th Party Congress, there could well be an opening for a similar move by Xi in 2022. There are several straws in the wind about Xi’s future after 2022. One is his emergence as a “leader of the core”, an appellation he now shares with Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. This time around, the 19th Party Congress could see the introduction of “XI Jinping Thought” as a guiding principle for the CPC, which would place Xi at the level of Mao.

Super-boss under different title

The other is his accumulation of power in relation to the military. His military reforms have led to the “CMC Chairman Responsibility System” enhancing his role in commanding the PLA. In April it was announced that Xi had assumed the title of “Commander-in-chief of the Central Military Commission PLA Joint Battle Command Center”. In the August 2017 military parade, he was addressed as “Chairman” rather than “Commander”. This could well be a prelude towards assuming a Mao-like status where he assumes the role of “Chairman” of the CPC, not the General Secretary. As General Secretary, he is first among equals in the PBSC, as Chairman, he will have veto powers within the PBSC. Another straw in the wind relates to the promotion of “Xi Jinping Thought” which may be introduced into the constitution as yet another hallmark of Xi’s elevated status in the 7th plenary session of the 18th Congress that will be held this week. Xi’s supporters say that the current collective leadership style actually encourages factionalism and corruption. Xi could, therefore, start a new innings as the super-boss in 2022, under a different title.

Implications of the purge of Sun Zhengcai

He was one of two Politburo members born in the 1960s who could have been promoted to the PBSC whose composition will change dramatically this time around with the retirement of five of the seven members, with only Xi and Premier Li Keqiang remaining.The second leader is Hu Chunhua, born in 1963 who is the Party Secretary of Guangdong province and has been a Politburo member since 2012. There is one other leader born in 1960, though he is only a Central Committee member, Chen Mi’ner, the man appointed to succeed as Sun as the Party Secretary of Chongqing in July, prior to that he headed the Party in Guizhou. In terms of age, Chen is senior to Hu, but the latter has already done one term in the Politburo. It could be argued that in Hu and Chen, Xi has already identified the leadership team which will succeed him and speculation about a possible third term as General Secretary is precisely that, mere speculation. There is, of course, the issue that Hu Chunhua is a protégé of Hu Jintao and one-time head of the Communist Youth League which is out of favour with Xi. And, if neither make it to the PBSC, we have a clear indication as to the direction the wind is blowing.

Anti-corruption

Contrary to perceptions, it is the 18th Congress which endorsed and initiated the anti-corruption campaign, not Xi Jinping as such. What Xi did was to exploit the mandate of the Party Congress to cement his own authority. We expect to see the 19th backing all measures to check corruption and to ensure that the legitimacy of the CPC rule is not undermined by corruption. This is likely to be reinforced and encouraged.

PLA reform

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Military delegates at the 18th National Congress of the CPC, November 2012 | Photo: Remko Tanis/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Xi Jinping’s first term has seen a dramatic reform of the PLA which has, if anything tightened his personal hold over it. The four powerful General Departments have been broken down to 15 functional units, and its seven military region commands have given way to five theatre commands. In addition, The 19th Party Congress could also be the opportunity to reshape the Central Military Commission that runs the PLA on behalf of the CPC. The current CMC has one chairman (Xi Jinping), two vice-chairmen, and eight regular members (the Defence Minister, the commanders of the air force, navy and the rocket force and the four erstwhile general departments).The run up to the Party Congress has seen the sacking of the Fang Fenghui, heading the Joint Staff Department that commands all the PLA combat forces, as well as the head of the political work department General Zhang Yang overseeing the ideological orientation of the PLA. Xi has brought his own men — General Li Zuocheng, the man he promoted to head the new PLA Army HQ in 2016, has taken the place of General Fang. And Admiral Miao Hua, the former political commissar of the Navy was put in place of General Zhang. But neither of them are as yet in the CMC. With at least five more members of the CMC scheduled to retire, Xi could now restructure the CMC quite drastically. In addition to the new appointments of General Li and Admiral Miao, Xi has also appointed new chiefs to the Army, Navy and Air Force who could figure in the new CMC, perhaps, along with the five theatre commanders. There will also be a massive overhaul of the PLA representation in the 19th CC. The PLA and PAP delegation to the 19th Party Congress indicates that some 90 per cent of the 303 delegates are first-timers. Taking into account retirements and incumbents, most of the PLA-PAP representation in the 19th CC would be of new members. The purge of General Fang suggests that the anti-corruption campaign within the PLA has not yet ended.


Xi has brought his own men — General Li Zuocheng, the man he promoted to head the new PLA Army HQ in 2016, has taken the place of General Fang.


Tightening the hold of the CPC in China

In the run up to the Party Congress there has been a general crackdown on dissidents and rights activists. The clampdown in the internet which is intensifying is a manifestation of a general centralisation and tightening of controls in China under Xi Jinping. This trend is not just limited to the internet or the weibo, but the mainstream media, as well as businesses where regulation is now being tightened in a range of area to curb alleged illegal activities, as well as universities where ideological education is being emphasised again. This trend is likely to get a flip in the wake of the Party Congress where new political guidelines are likely to be issued aimed at reducing the influence of western culture in China.

Foreign policy

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Great Hall of the People, Beijing | Flickr user Tagosaku

The Xi Jinping era has seen greater Chinese assertion in the East Sea, South China Sea, South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. It has seen the initiation of the Belt & Road Initiative, giving a greater global push to Chinese political and economic interests. There is no doubt that the Party Congress will endorse what has been achieved and Xi will also seek to bind the party to support an intensification of China’s outward push, especially in view of the chaos and confusion afflicting American policy.


The Xi Jinping era has seen greater Chinese assertion in the East Sea, South China Sea, South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.


Primacy of economic growth

The key source of legitimacy for the CPC is continuing economic growth. Ways and means of maintaining this will form a major item in the agenda. Growth targets will, of course, be set down, but a big issue is to press forward reforms for the marketisation of the economy. In this the big question is the issue of reforming the State Owned Enterprises and dealing with the mountain of debt. Equally, important is the need to engage the private sector whose growth has declined in recent years, one reason for this is the arbitrary application of rules by the Party bosses. The 3rd Plenum in 2013 sought to give the market economy the driving seat in China’s economy, but there has been resistance to reform. In the meantime the global slowdown and the growth of protectionism has made the climate of reform harder, even though the imperatives for reform remain as salient as ever. The Chinese leadership knows that this is a make or break issue for them, but it is not easy to implement reform in an economy of the size of China’s with a variety of vested interests who occupy key positions in the Party as well. At the Congress, though, politics will be in command, and expectations are that whatever changes occur, will happen after the event.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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