This week Beijing marks the opening of China’s most important political event: the Communist Party Congress. The gathering, held every five years, brings together China’s top Communist Party members and the country's top leaders. It is the Super Bowl of Chinese politics, if the Super Bowl were played largely behind closed doors.
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Presiding over the proceedings is Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Communist Party — a position that has more influence domestically than the title of president that he is associated with abroad.
Xi's unprecedented and ruthless anti-corruption campaign affected over 1.3 million officials, and he holds unquestionable sway over his party. He has strengthened the Communist Party’s influence in the Chinese government to an extent not seen in almost 40 years.
Xi is all but certain to be nominated by his fellow members for a second five-year term, consolidating his position as the most powerful Chinese leader in generations. He joins the pantheon of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
What is the Party Congress?
The Communist Party technically provides guidance and direction to China’s government, the State Council. The party uses these gatherings to discuss and approve the party’s long-term goals as well appoint top leadership. This is the 19th nationwide congress held by the Chinese Communist Party since its founding in 1921.
The gathering has been used in recent history to reshuffle and announce the party’s leadership transition. More than 2,000 party members will meet to elect 205 of its members to the Central Committee and at least 11 new members to the 25-seat Politburo. Party members will also decide who gets to a seat in the inner sanctum of party power, the Politburo Standing Committee. This is the top decision-making body in China and consists of five to nine members.
For example, after much of his adult life in local-level politics, Xi was elevated to the national stage at the 16th Party Congress in 2002 and then was elected into the Standing Committee in 2007 during the 17th Party Congress, marking him a next-generation top leader. At the 18th Party Congress in 2012, he rose to the top in an opaque jockeying process. That was famously known as one of the most tumultuous years in party politics, but you would have hardly known observing from the outside.
What to expect this week
Xi will open the Congress in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People with a work report, a speech recapping the achievements of the party under his leadership over the past five years. He will lay out out his vision and priorities for the next five years and possibly beyond. Then much of the proceedings will retreat behind closed doors. The party is expected to amend its charter to include Xi by name — alongside Mao and Deng, who opened up China’s economy — enshrining Xi’s place in history.
The Party Congress will run from Oct. 18 to 24. The main event for China watchers will likely take place on the morning of Oct. 25: the lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee. Members of the committee will be unveiled to the public one by one, in order of seniority, starting with Xi and followed most likely but not certainly by Premier Li Keqiang. Only Xi’s place is secure.
Will Xi elevate a potential successor?
Xi was seen as the next leader-in-waiting 10 years ago. Will he do the same for an appointed successor? If, by the end of the Congress, there is no clear rising star among the ranks of the Standing Committee, it may signal that Xi intends to stay beyond the unofficial retirement age of 68. Xi will be 69 at the next Party Congress in 2022.
Will Wang Qishan stay on?
Wang is a member of the Standing Committee, Xi’s longtime friend and, most important, Xi’s anti-corruption czar, who spearheaded his relentless campaign. Wang is 69 years old and beyond the unofficial retirement age for a Chinese official. Because it’s unofficial, Xi could opt to break this rule and thus set a precedent for himself in 2022.
Where will Xi take China?
If Xi’s first term was about consolidating power within the party and instituting an aggressive and active foreign policy, where will he take the country once he’s got his allies on board? When he came to power, it was hoped that he would tackle much needed economic and social reforms in the face of a slowing and changing Chinese economy. That, however, has taken a backseat to Xi’s power grab. The stewardship of the Chinese economy is seen as Xi’s most pressing challenge in his second term. It will underpin the very legitimacy of the party, and no amount of nationalistic fervor can distract from that for very long.