What to expect at China’s 19th Communist Party congress

Dr Ghulam Ali looks at President Xi Jinping's five-year tenure

What to expect at China’s 19th Communist Party congress
Domestic and international attention is focused on the upcoming 19th party congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) scheduled for October 18 in Beijing. This is a once-every-five-year session in which the top Chinese leadership reviews the government’s performance, selects (or endorses) leadership and gives the roadmap for the next five years. About 2,300 delegates from all over China will attend the congress which will last over a week. No single political event is more closely watched by China observers than this one.

The first party congress was held in 1921, the year the CPC was established 96 years ago. Since the 1990s, in particular, China has witnessed a smooth power transition. During the 18th party congress held in November 2012, Hu Jintao handed over leadership to Xi Jinping. China’s political structure explains the significance of the event. It has only four major institutions.
Xi's likely successor should be a member of the PSC in order to qualify for the top job by the 20th congress in 2022

Politburo Standing Committee (PSC): This is the top political organ in China’s political structure. Currently, it has seven members who are the most powerful persons in China. Both the President and the Premier are selected from this pool. Other members also lead key positions in the country. As noted by an analyst, “candidates vying for the Party’s Secretary General position have all served in the standing committee for at least five years.” Thus, Xi’s likely successor should be a member of the PSC in order to qualify for the top job by the 20th congress in 2022.

Politburo: This is the second highest body in China. It is consisted of 25 members including seven from the PSC. These members hold important regional, provincial or government positions. The Central Committee (below) selects members of the Politburo and PSC.

Central Committee: The current total of the Central Committee is 376 (205 regular members and 171 alternates). These members represent the provinces (41.5%), central ministries (22.6%), the military (17.5 %), central Party organizations (5.9%), state-owned enterprises, educational institutions, “mass organizations” such as the Communist Youth League, and other constituencies. Besides electing members of the Politburo and PSC, the Central Committee also chooses the party Secretary General and influences the composition of the Central Military Commission, the top body which commands the PLA or Peoples Liberation Army.

National People’s Congress. The National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s Parliament, selects members of the Central Committee. The NPC has over 2,000 members representing provincial governments, the military, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and Party interests.
Individuals born before 1950 cannot take any position. At the 19th party congress, at least 11 out of 25 members of the Politburo and five out of seven members of the PSC should be retired. This will bring a whole bunch of new leadership to the top

Currently, there are over 82 million members of the CPC. All Chinese citizens above the age of 18, can apply for CPC membership but only a small percentage is accepted on a competitive basis. In their career upward, they have to go through different training and serve in different fields and places. Those who reach provincial levels (party secretary, governors or mayors), have the chance to become a member of the above-listed institutions.

Emergence of young leaders: In recent years, relatively younger leaders are taking positions in China’s political system. During the 16th party congress held in 2002, the CPC set a norm that member of the PSC would retire from their seats upon reaching or surpassing the age of 68. Successive party congresses in 2002, 2007, and 2012 did not select anyone above 67. The same role applies to the Central Military Commission (CMC), whose chairman commands the largest military in the world—the People’s Liberation Army.

The rise of young leaders to higher positions was a particularly notable trend in the last few years. According to Cheng Li, director at the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings, “298 of the 369 members of China’s 31 province-level party standing committees were born in the 1960s, or 80.7% of the total. Two years before only 40 percent of posts were held by sixth generations of leaders (sixth generation means who were born in the 1960s).” This trend is seen in all other state organs, ministries, departments and military. Li adds, “the rapid rise and strong presence of sixth-generation leaders in China’s provincial, ministerial, and military leadership suggests that the Xi administration recognizes the importance of smooth political succession.”

Chairman Mao and Lin Biao on the 9th National Congress of the Communist Party of China 1969
Chairman Mao and Lin Biao on the 9th National Congress of the
Communist Party of China 1969

China is currently run by fifth-generation leadership, literally meaning by those who were born during the 1950s. Therefore, individuals born before 1950 cannot take any position. Furthermore, at the time of the 19th party congress, at least 11 out of 25 members of the Politburo and five out of seven members of the PSC should be retired. This will bring a whole bunch of new leadership to the top.

Expected decisions: Keeping the trend in view, a few speculations can be made regarding the upcoming congress. China is likely to further open up its economy; some changes in the CPC’s constitution are also expected. (The CPC constitution is different from the country’s constitution). Most importantly, the congress will endorse Xi Jinping’s positions for the second five-year term as General Secretary of the Party, President of the country, and the Chairman of the CMC. It can thus be stated that the 19th congress will be the beginning of Xi Jinping’s second five-year term. Premier Li Keqiang is likely to continue as well. Some China observers, however, indicated Li’s replacement. Though several key posts will be filled with expected known figures, there might be few dark horses.

The congress will also make decisions on the Korean Peninsula, South and East China Seas, tensions with South Korea, India, and the U.S., and maintaining the momentum of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Political report: Generally, decisions made during the congress will be put in a Political Report delivered by Xi Jinping. As per norms, a report focuses on the following areas: Review of work of the Central Committee; the Party’s prevailing doctrinal principles and new ideological elaborations; enunciation of the Party’s basic goals for the next five years; economic policy; political reforms; cultural reforms; national defense policy; Hong Kong-Macao and Taiwan policy; foreign policy; and party reforms.
Analysts suggest that to get the best out of the Political Report with a view to understand China's abandoning, and emerging areas of priorities, one should compare the latest with the previous report.

In addition to standard content, a few additional parts explaining the focus of the incumbent government are also included. For example, the political report presented by Hu Jintao in 2012 during the 18th party congress, added a section on ecological issues which was the focus under his leadership. The political report prepared by the 19th congress, might also add subjects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the concept of a shared destiny based on a win-win approach, both enunciated by Xi Jinping. The political report presented during the 19th congress will be the “official, authoritative verdict on Xi Jinping’s first term in office.”

Drafting a report involves labour. Its actual preparation begins almost a year ahead. It is usually a very lengthy document. Hu’s report to the 18th congress in 2012 consisted of over 22,000 words when translated into English. Analysts suggest that to get the best out of a report with a view to understand China’s abandoning, and emerging areas of priorities, one should compare the latest with the previous report.

Achievements under Xi: Since his assumption to power almost five years ago, Xi’s leadership has made important achievements in combating corruption, in strengthening the armed forces, towards the China Dream, in the Belt and Road Initiative and in economic, environmental and social issues and in handling US-China relations.

An important and bold measure taken by President Xi is the ruthless war on corruption which has punished more than a million “tigers and flies” or both high- and low-ranking officials. Xi considers deep-rooted corruption one of the major threats to the Party and the state. The crackdown came across the board, covering Party members, officials, bureaucrats, the military, and state-owned enterprises. The Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission, the party’s anti-graft arm, is led by PSC member Wang Qishan. However, Wang has already reached the age limit of 68. During the 19th congress, whether his term as a PSC member is extended on the basis of his performance or he retires under the prevailing norms will become clear after the congress.

So far the highest-ranking official to go down is Zhou Yongkang, a former member of PSC and in charge of security. In June, the authorities expelled Xu Caihou from the Party on charges of abuse of power and accepting bribes. He is a former vice-chairman of the CMC and member of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission. It was for the first time that such high-ranking officials were investigated. This indicates that a “sweeping scale of change is underway.” The anti-corruption investigations have been expanded to industries (in particular luxury goods), the media sector, the military and even secret services such as the Ministry of State Security. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has earned huge respect for him among common Chinese.

Armed forces: Strengthening China’s armed forces was also Xi’s priority task for which he introduced several measures which also helped him consolidate his grip on the armed forces. He reorganized the PLA’s command structure into five theater commands and ordered a 300,000-person reduction. These steps will integrate different services and discard outdated and non-combat units. He visited military bases with frequency and held an impressive Victory Day military parade in September 2015 (a Pakistani contingent was among 17 foreign forces which took part in it). At that occasion China displayed the latest military weapons.

In April 2016, Xi Jinping took direct control of the military affairs by becoming the chief of the military’s Joint Operations Command Center. Xi is already Chairman of the CMC which is responsible for the PLA’s management and defence building, and the new position will make him operational commander of the PLA in times of war.

China Dream: Another brainchild of Xi Jinping is the concept of China Dream. He first used the term in November 2012, to refer to prosperity, collective effort, socialism and national glory as a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. This intended to achieve two goals: By the centenary of the founding of the CPC in 2021 to make the country a “moderately prosperous society”; and by the centenary of the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China or PRC in 2049, to close the gap with the US in economic and military terms. China Dream is also interpreted as an effort for the Chinese nation to stand up, to become wealthy, and then to become strong. Xi elaborated on the concept in a speech: “The Chinese nation, which has experienced tribulations and hardships since modern times, has made a historic leap from standing up to becoming rich and then to getting stronger. Having stood up and become better off, getting stronger now becomes a new challenge to China. We must get prepared mentally, theoretically and systematically.”

The Chinese President has also taken various measures for environment protection and pollution reduction. In the economic arena, to combat slowing growth, China has cut down bloated state-owned industries, abolished registered-capital and other requirements for new companies, allowing foreign investors to trade shares directly on the Shanghai stock market for the first time. To address the issue of aging leading to the shortage of workforce, the CPC relaxed the One-Child Policy.

Most ambitious plan: The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—formally known as One Belt One Road—is the most ambitious plan initiated by Xi Jinping. It will deepen China’s links with over 70 countries hailing from different continents. The high point of the BRI was the Belt and Road Forum held in May 2017 in Beijing. It brought 30 world leaders and the same number of officials from other countries. The BRI is the biggest initiative in modern history and will usher in a new level of connectivity and interdependence among a majority of countries.

China-US relations: One of the most challenging tasks for Xi, which he has thus far handled successfully, was managing relations with the US, especially under the presidency of Donald Trump who won the elections in November last year. Many of his statements, “infuriated and unnerved” the PRC leadership. Trump adopted a tough tone towards China, vowed to address the trade deficit, enhance US military presence in the Asia Pacific and cast doubts about the American commitment to a ‘One-China Policy’. China has reacted with its traditional patience and composure.

As The Guardian reported, after his shock election in November last year, Trump had infuriated and unnerved Beijing by questioning his administration’s commitment to the One-China policy and holding an unprecedented phone conversation with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen. Successive US administrations have abided by the One-China Policy since the 1970s when diplomatic relations between China and the US were established. Beijing made it clear to Washington that there will be no telephone call between the two leaders until Trump confirmed the commitment to the policy. According to Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China power project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank based in Washington, for weeks China held off a call between the two leaders until it made sure Trump would abide by the understanding on Taiwan. (In fact, Trump, who found leaders across the world lined up to give him a congratulatory call, did not see any enthusiasm from China even after the passage of three weeks. He then sent a letter to President Xi to congratulate the Chinese people on the Lantern Festival and the Year of the Rooster). This demonstrated China’s traditional patience and uncompromising stance on national issues.

Earlier, with former US President Obama, President Xi introduced the concept of “a New Type of Great Power Relations,” designed to create a strategic space in which China could operate more easily. Trump is expected to make his maiden visit to China late this year.

Other measures adopted by Xi Jinping include promoting a multipolar world system, pushing for globalization and for the free-market economy. China took leadership of the G-20, expanded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and held the 9th Summit of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

Dr Ghulam Ali is an associate professor at the department of Political Science at the School of Marxism, Sichuan University of Science and Engineering. All views expressed here are personal. He can be reached at Ghulamali74@yahoo.com