Few political events this year have garnered the global press coverage or the electric anticipation that the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has. On Wednesday, 18 October 2017, in the 96th year of its existence, the party will meet at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to review accomplishments of the past half-decade, and set the agenda for the next five years. The week-long Congress, which will be served by 2,287 delegates from across China, will elect members of the Central Committee (CCP-CC), and the powerful governing bodies that form the apex of the political pyramid. In the short decade since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China has emerged as a confident power, and an influential player at the global high table. The CCP is aware that this week, the world is watching; and it is well prepared to showcase its revered political traditions and its sway over the life of the nation.
Most international focus is on the persona of Xi Jinping, president of the republic, general-secretary of CCP, and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). His anti-corruption campaign – executed by loyal confidant and head of the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), Wang Qishan – is targeting a culture of official high-handedness and power abuse, while simultaneously eliminating potential political contenders. Questions remain regarding the fate of high-profile leaders who are now under investigation for “discipline violations”, including most recently Sun Zhengcai, erstwhile party head of Chongqing. There is speculation on how Xi will consolidate and project his power at the Congress.
It appears that Xi’s rise has seen a corresponding dilution of the party’s internal checks and balances, and its tradition of “collective leadership“. Nonetheless, will Xi still emerge as the strongest Chinese leader since Chairman Mao? Does he have the clout to bend retirement rules (68 years), thereby permitting Wang Qishan to stay on in some capacity, if not in the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC)? How to interpret the diminished stature of Premier Li Keqiang? Will younger Xi protégés, such as Chen Min’ Er, be catapulted into the seven-member Standing Committee, instead of transitioning through the 25-member Politburo? Will the Central Committee (CC) seats, vacated by retiring members, be filled entirely with Xi loyalists, effectively eliminating the famed factionalism of Chinese politics? (The 370-plus member CCP-CC is the legislative-cum-administrative nerve centre of the party, and by extension, the government.)
Will Xi Jinping’s name be enshrined in the Constitution, alongside Marx, Lenin, Mao and Deng? At a minimum, will his ideas (absent his name) be appended to the party’s guiding ideology alongside Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three Represents’ and Hu Jintao’s ‘Scientific Development’ concepts? And most important, will the final composition of the PSC reveal a clear line of succession, thereby affirming the Deng Xiaoping-mandated tradition of peaceful power transition from one generation of leaders to the next?
The next few days will bring answers to these and other questions being hotly debated around the world.
However sensational these questions might seem, they are not necessarily the most interesting or pertinent ones when reflecting on China. The Party Congress has a grandeur and resonance that extends beyond a single person or personality. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921 four years after the Bolshevik Revolution. The First Party Congress was held in 1922, in Shanghai. The Revolutionary party emerged from a bitter civil war and foreign occupation, to transition into independent China’s sole ruling party. It survived economic and cultural upheavals in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It took advantage of, and eventually changed the course of the Cold War, and of 20th century geopolitics and geo-economics. It now leads a country that is a 21st-century economic powerhouse and diplomatic heavyweight.
What accounts for CCP’s longevity and tenacity? How does the party continually reinvent, regenerate and reconstitute itself? How does it command loyalty among its 78 million members, and how does it enforce ideological compliance? And when change eventually rolls along, as it does every other generation, how is it effected and institutionalised? These questions are of far greater consequence to China’s present and future, although the answers might not all be readily available this week.
The party uses a blend of folklore, pragmatism, and old-fashioned control, to stay relevant. Although the rulebook is available in the public domain, its workings are typically opaque. The party’s revolutionary successes are amplified, and its policy disasters minimised – or blocked from discussion altogether. On the one hand, it establishes its indispensability by evoking dreadful memories and fear of foreign interventions and feudal instability in the time before the founding of the Republic (1911), and subsequently its own founding (1921). On the other hand, the CCP makes genuine attempts to listen to and address the concerns of its rising middle class, and its metaphorical communist working class.
The upcoming 19th Congress is, in the main, a leadership transition for the party, and will set the ideological tone for current and future policies. The actual form and substance of the policies, and the extent to which they reflect public anxieties or aspirations, will be seen at the “two meetings” held each Spring in Beijing: National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC). The next session is likely to be in March 2018. For now, the public must deal with inconveniences, such as enhanced social media control, VPN blockages, and so on, in the weeks leading up to the 19th Congress. It appears that small shops and businesses in and around the Congress venue have been shuttered, and express delivery services into Beijing, curtailed – security measures, all. The public will watch the pomp and circumstance in the media, and will follow the discussion topics.
On October 14, the seventh and final Plenum of the 18th Congress, submitted the approved agenda for the 19th Congress. These include: a full work report of the 18th Congress; a comprehensive report of the work of the CCDI (announcing the successes of the anti-corruption campaign); and the much-anticipated unveiling of a constitutional amendment. Although the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is not explicitly named, it will certainly be acknowledged as a tangible contribution. Additionally, it is anticipated that there will be a spotlight on entrepreneurs and enterprises, on legal and IPR reform to support them, and on enhancing the party’s role in promoting entrepreneurship.
The 19th Congress is expected to affirm the national goal of achieving a “moderately well-off society” in time for the party’s centenary in 2021. The ideological and theoretical contributions of previous generations of leaders will be reiterated, and, possibly, the first composite repository of Xi Jinping ideas will be articulated. There will be review and affirming of the current President’s ‘Five-in-one arrangement’ (economic, political, social, cultural, and ecological construction of the nation); the ‘Four comprehensives strategy’ (comprehensively: build moderately well-off society, deepen reform, promote rule of law, and strictly govern the Party); and ‘Three Confidences’ (having to do with confidence in the path, the theories and the system of the party).
The 19th Congress will reinforce the party’s central role in the life of the nation, with Xi Jinping at its “core”. What happens in the Great Hall of the People this week will have resonance in every corner of the world.
Indira Ravindran is Adjunct Fellow, China Studies, Gateway House.
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 ‘18th CPC Central Committee concludes 7th plenum’, Xinhua, 14 October 2017, Editor: Yamei,
 ‘Xinhua Insight: Understanding China’s path in the next 5 years’, Xinhua, 15 October 2017, Editor: Yamei