The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China: Exploring the Black Box

China, Editorial

This is The China Road’s foray into the overpopulated world of 19th Party Congress explainers. If this is your first explainer, read on. If you’ve already read a dozen, make sure this is your last.


The China watching internet is currently awash with explainers and guides to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which opens next Wednesday, the 18th October.

The English speaking world isn’t exactly lacking in information/speculation about the Party Congress, but The China Road can’t just sit idly by without contributing its two 分 / pennies.

If your coming fresh to the Party Congress, read on – it’s an important event that’s worth knowing about. If you’ve already read a dozen explainers, then read on – this will be the best explainer yet.

Basics: What is the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China?

The National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a huge party congress that has been held once every five years since the 11th Party Congress in 1977.

The Party Congress is made up of party delegates. The first ever Party Congress (held in 1921 well before the CCP came to power) consisted of just 12 delegates representing a pretty measly party membership of ‘over 50’.

Times have changed. Party delegates to the 13th Party Congress (1987) numbered 1,936, and at the 19th  Party Congress, there will be 2,287 delegates, “representing” almost 90 million CCP members nationwide.

Some delegates have “constituencies”, being selected in provincial elections, but many are also chosen to represent different sectors, interest groups, and social strata. This year, 771 ‘grassroots delegates’ have been selected ‘from different social sectors’, in response to Xi Jinping’s call for more grassroots participation in the “electoral” process. This doesn’t mean much for democracy, but it’s good PR and helps Xi’s image as a peoples’ president.

Check out this China Daily explainer and this chirpy video for more info on how delegates are selected over the course of the year leading up to the Party Congress. Needless to say, you should take the Party’s portrayal of a perfect process with large pinches of salt.

But what do the party delegates do at the Party Congress?

Officially, the party delegates converge on Beijing’s Great Hall of the People in order to 1) elect a new Central Committee and Central Committee for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), 2) to amend the Party constitution, and 3) to approve the General Secretary’s (Xi’s) Report, which is given on the first day, and studied over the subsequent six days of the Party Congress.

In reality, it is unthinkable that the Party Congress would reject Xi’s report, and the line-up of the Central Committee is almost certainly decided in smoky backrooms during the months leading up to the Party Congress.

But despite the party delegates’ honorary, rubber-stamping role, the Party Congress itself is incredibly important.

Fresh Party blood

For a start, the Party Congress is when we first get to see who’s on the list of China’s most powerful men (here’s why it will be men).

If you have your Central Committees mixed up with your Politburos, then the below infographic (for last year’s Party Congress) might help, but bear in mind that the numbers have changed.

Infographic Makeup 18th National Party Congress China

So, at the Party Congress a good chunk of the Central Committee, Politburo, and Standing Committee of the Party retire and are replaced by fresh blood, with lucky party members moving up the ranks. The National Congress also “elects” the CCDI, the organ in charge of Party discipline, which is run by Xi’s top man, Wang Qishan .

The General Secretary’s Report

According to China expert Charles Parton, the ‘deeper purpose’ of the Party Congress is to ‘reaffirm the Party’s importance to itself and to the nation; and to set the guidelines for governance’. This is where Xi’s ‘Report’ comes in.

Most of the 30,000ish character Report will be boilerplate stuff, building on the 18th Congress Report, and all the Reports that came before it. We won’t see a set of detailed policies – those were set out in the 2016 13th Five Year Plan (check out this catchy song for explanation) – but the Report is important because it will reflect Xi Jinping’s personal long term vision for China.

Charles Parton has a great dissection of the 18th Party Congress Report and predictions for the next, which you can access here.

The new Report is likely to follow the structure of the last, being split into 13 sections, including sections on progress over the past five years, a summary of party ideology, and sections on political, cultural, environmental development, Taiwan, etc.

Aside from “electing” new people to the leadership, the Party Congress is essentially a statement on the grand narrative of the Party’s leadership of China. The report will tell us more about where the Party thinks China is coming from, where it’s heading, and how it thinks they should get there.

Wild Speculation ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China

This year, China watchers are especially interested in the Party Congress because Xi Jinping’s an especially interesting leader. As countless articles and papers have remarked, Xi has amassed almost unprecedented levels of power over the course of his first five year term. This Party Congress, which marks the end of his first term and the beginning of his second, will hopefully answer a lot of important questions about Xi’s future.

The run up to any big political event always gets the rumour mill turning. This is especially true in China, where the process of leadership selection is essentially a black box.

In the weeks and months leading up to the Congress, journalists pick over every detail in an attempt to read the tea leaves and make predictions. But elite politics in China remains remarkably leak proof, and there really is little to go on. For example, five years on, we still don’t really know where Xi Jinping disappeared to for two whole weeks in the run up to the 18th Party Congress.

Prediction is largely a fool’s game, especially with the actual facts coming out only next week. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare our analysis by considering the important questions in the run up to the event.

So, what should we look out for when the Congress opens?

Will Xi elevate the next generation of Party leaders?

The status of Xi’s hold on power is a big topic this year. Traditionally (since party politics became more regularised, starting in the mid-80s), we should be seeing the next generation of Party leaders emerging at this Party Congress.

At the Provincial level, we have seen the numbers of sixth generation leaders (as opposed to Xi’s fifth generation) double over the past two years. Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese elite politics, writes that we should expect 6th generation leaders to constitute a majority in the new Central Committee next week.

But there’s also been speculation that Xi is reluctant to appoint an heir-apparent, perhaps signalling his intention to stay on beyond the official Presidential two term limit.

By virtue of their age and experience, there are two black haired, black suited individuals currently in the running for the position of future leader. They are Guangdong Party Secretary Hu Chunhua, and Chongqing’s Party Secretary, Chen Min’er.

Along with Hu, the only other 6th generation leader in the Politburo was Sun Zhengcai. Both are members of the Tuanpai (the informal Youth League faction of former President Hu Jintao and Premier Li Keqiang). Sun was recently ousted from power and replaced by Xi loyalist Chen Min’er, which doesn’t bode well for Hu.

Essentially, if Chen leapfrogs the Politburo into the Standing Committee and Hu misses out, that means Xi is reluctant to play the hand that has been dealt him by previous leaders. This would break a trend set by Deng, of leadership transitions being orchestrated by the venerable old men of the party.

Of course, it is entirely possible, indeed probable, that both Chen and Hu will both join the Standing Committee, replacing Xi and Li as the next likely leaders of the CCP.

What will happen to Wang Qishan?

This is another big question that has fuelled endless speculation.

One of the “rules” that exists in Chinese politics, is the “seven up, eight down” convention, which stipulates that party members can be promoted to the Politburo at 67, but must retire if a Party Congress rolls around while they are 68.

Wang is one the biggest beasts of Chinese politics and many have speculated that Xi will opt to keep his 69 year old right hand man and anti-corruption Tsar in the Standing Committee. Doing so would set a precedent for Xi holding onto the reigns of power in 2022, when he will still be a spritely 69 himself.

Evidence that Wang might stay on includes his recent meetings with high profile figures and a comment last year by a party official that such age conventions were ‘folklore’.

Of course, the party official has a point. The convention doesn’t go back far, and was likely instituted in the first place as a power play by Jiang Zemin. Nevertheless, it’s a rule, albeit an arbitrary one, which does help guarantee smooth power transitions. Breaking it would mean something.

Some commentator’s speculate that Wang, given his economic expertise, might take Li Keqiang’s place as head of the economy, whilst others argue that he’ll be kept on in some powerful position outside of the Politburo.

Replacing Li would be an extremely bold move, whilst obeying the retirement convention would be a signal that Xi is more norm abiding than many international commentators have assumed.

In terms of the general make-up of the Standing Committee, there are also larger questions over whether Xi will continue in the semi-established spirit of intra-party factional balance, or simply flood it with loyalists.

Xi Jinping thought or theory?

There has also been much speculation this year, based on various semi-official references and dubious leaks, that ‘Xi Jinpingism’, ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, or ‘Xi Jinping Theory’ might be added to the Party constitution.

Since its adoption in 1922, every Party Congress has amended the constitution in some way, and it is likely that Xi will make his mark on the constitution next week. However, since 1945, the constitution has included a section on the Party’s ‘guiding ideology’.

Any amendment of the Party’s ‘guiding ideology’, to incorporate some element associated with Xi, would be a bold statement of exceptional authority.

Initially, the ‘guiding ideology’ consisted of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ and ‘Mao Zedong Thought’. In 1982, ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’ was added, but only after Deng had been dead for five years. In 2002, when Jiang Zemin stepped down, his ‘Three Represents’ was incorporated, without using his name. Again, in 2012, Hu Jintao’s ‘Scientific Development’ was added, without any mention of Hu.

Importantly, Hu’s ‘Scientific Development’ was included in the constitution in 2007, but not as ‘guiding ideology’.

Basically, some formulation associated with Xi will probably be included, but if it enters the constitution as ‘guiding ideology’ while Xi is still in power, then Xi will be leapfrogging Hu, Jiang, and even Deng Xiaoping.

A lot of media reports are concerned with formulation, whether Xi Thought or Theory, and this is due to the fact that Deng has “Theory” (理论), Mao has “Thought” (思想) and Marx and Lenin have “isms” (主义). The logic goes, that if Xi gets ‘Theory’, he’s as important as Deng, and if he gets an ‘ism’, he’s actually more important than Mao himself.

There is some truth to this logic, but if Xi makes it into the ‘guiding ideology’ at all, with or without his name, he’ll be dramatically breaking with convention.

New period of reform?

The last point is the question of what Xi’s second term will hold. When Xi first took power, international media expected him to be a liberal voice for economic reform.

Instead, Xi has concentrated on consolidating power, neglecting reforms promised at the 18th Party Congress. Optimists argue that this consolidation was necessary, so as to give Xi the ability to brutally implement reforms in his second term. Others are more skeptical.

Given that the CCP has already promised economic reform that he hasn’t delivered, there is little we can look out for in Xi’s Report. Greater emphasis on reform might simply yield greater disappointment.

To recap, the things to bear in mind are:

  • Look out for next generation leaders.

  • Watch Wang Qishan and the make-up of the Standing Committee.

  • See what sort of mark Xi makes on the constitution.

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