5 Things to Watch for at China’s Upcoming Communist Congress

Chinese leader Xi Jinping may have a chance to secure his hold on the Chinese Communist Party—if he can get his allies onto the Party’s top decision-making body—when the Party holds its 19th National Congress starting on Oct. 18.

The Politburo Standing Committee, which currently has seven members, has been the ruling body of the Chinese regime for decades. Members of the Standing Committee are drawn from the 25-member Politburo; thus, powerful elders and factions within the Communist Party have strived to secure seats for their protégés in the Politburo before the Party congress in hopes of securing a place on the Standing Committee.

The leadership shuffle of top officials at the Party congress, held every five years, reveals the state of power struggles between different factions within the Communist Party. A key measure of Xi’s power will be how many of his supporters are installed in the Politburo and its Standing Committee come November.

Here are five things to look out for at the upcoming congress:

1. Will Xi’s Top Ally Break the Age Barrier?

Anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5, 2014. Recently, anti-corruption investigators criticized the 610 Office, an extralegal Party organization that oversees the persecution of Falun Gong, in a feedback report. (Feng Li/Getty Images)
Anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5, 2014. Recently, anti-corruption investigators criticized the 610 Office, an extralegal Party organization that oversees the persecution of Falun Gong, in a feedback report. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

Wang Qishan, 69, currently serves as secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. He has been the top enforcer of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign since 2012 and is widely seen as Xi’s most crucial ally.

Former Party leader Jiang Zemin made an unwritten rule that anyone over 68 had to retire rather than start a new five-year term on the Standing Committee. Jiang used this to stack the committee in his favor before he retired as leader in 2002, allowing him to maintain influence behind the scenes for another decade.

Some expect Xi will ignore the convention and keep Wang in position.

Wang has overseen the punishment of hundreds of thousands of officials during Xi’s corruption crackdown. Even senior officials have been jailed, including Zhou Yongkang, China’s once-feared domestic security chief who oversaw an internal security apparatus that controlled the courts, prosecution agencies, police forces, paramilitary forces, and intelligence organs. The budget of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission once rivaled that of the military.

Zhou also oversaw an extrajudicial, Gestapo-like apparatus, called the 610 Office. Its primary function was to carry out the persecution of the Falun Dafa spiritual practice.

2. Will the Standing Committee Shrink?

Speculation has been rife that with five of the Standing Committee’s members up for retirement, Xi could shrink the committee down to five members from its current seven.

Xi could be challenged in this if he uses the age policy to push some members out while keeping Wang on the committee.

The size of the committee has ranged from three to eleven members. Jiang expanded it to nine members when he retired in 2002. It was reduced to seven members when Xi took power in 2012.

(L-R) Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, National People
(L-R) Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan and Politburo member Zhang Gaoli at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 3, 2017. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

Xi may cut the number down to five so that he will need only two allies to have a majority on the committee.

Of the current committee members, only Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are under 68-years-old.

3. Will the Constitution Be Changed?

Aside from bringing a large turnover in senior Party officials, the National Congress is also a time when the Party’s constitution is updated or modified. Past leaders have put their own ideas and theories into the constitution, and Xi may choose to do the same.

Xi has been an avid globalist, pushing for China to play a leading role in the international order.

He’s also spoken forcefully about the rule of law and has given judges unprecedented freedom to hear cases about Party officials.

But he has also been a Party stalwart.

It remains to be seen how these and other inclinations may translate into his attempt at adding to Party dogma.

4. Will Xi Get a Successor?

Based on the precedent set by recent leaders, Xi is expected to step down at the 2022 congress after a decade at the top. If Xi does not choose a successor at the 19th Party congress, it would suggest he plans to stay on past 2022, though perhaps in another post.

Xi’s time at the helm of the Party began with party rivals immediately trying to undermine his authority—even, according to some sources, by attempting a coup.

Xi’s entire anti-corruption campaign is seen by many analysts as a way to purge the Party of former leader Jiang’s influence. Jiang fostered rampant corruption as a way to buy loyalty from political allies.

If Xi feels that his work is not over, and his retirement could be followed by payback from his rivals, he may try to stay on in some capacity as the leader.

5. Will the Chairman System Be Restored?

Xi may bring back the position of chairman of the Communist Party, a position abolished in 1982 in an attempt to keep any future leader from rising above the authority of the Party, as dictator Mao Zedong had.

Currently, the seven-member Standing Committee is supposedly run by consensus rather than majority rule. If Xi were to resurrect the chairman position, he would have effective control over the committee. This could lead him down the road to a dictatorship, as happened with Mao, and place him at the head of a violent regime plagued by corruption and public scorn.

Alternatively, it could give Xi the authority necessary to make greater changes within the Party, including shifting the regime away from communism and toward a presidential system.

 
 
 
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