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President Xi Jinping’s power will be put to the test at the much anticipated 19th party congress. Photo: Reuters

Reading between the lines: what to watch for at China’s most important political event

Xi Jinping

The date for China’s much anticipated 19th party congress has finally been set. The country’s most important political event – held only twice a decade – will begin on October 18, setting the stage for the second term of President Xi Jinping, who has already emerged from the past five years as the country’s most powerful leader in decades.

It will be closely watched by observers both within and outside China as Xi’s power is put to the test and the trajectory of the world’s second-largest economy is set for years to come. That will include the unveiling of the country’s new leadership line-up and its policy direction for the next five years.

So what are the key areas to watch at the party congress?

1 Leadership reshuffle

The leadership line-up is one of the key factors that will shape Xi’s influence over the next five years. There are many uncertainties, and each comes with its own implications.

Possible successor

One of the biggest questions surrounding the reshuffle is whether Xi will signal a possible successor by elevating a younger leader (or two) into the new Politburo Standing Committee, the top decision-making body within the party, as happened at the mid-term congresses of the two presidents before him. The absence of any heir-apparent will be widely read as a sign of Xi’s intention to break with the convention of the past two decades and stay on for a third term. But some experts have argued that this might not necessarily be a sign that he intends to stay on. It could instead be a case of Xi wanting to avoid any deviation from his authority, allowing him to focus on more urgent issues than grooming a successor – such as dealing with economic threats.

If Wang Qishan stays

Another key person to look for in the line-up is Wang Qishan, Xi’s powerful ally who has spearheaded an unprecedented war on corruption that has felled some 1.2 million corrupt or disloyal officials – including the president’s high-ranking political rivals. At 69, Wang is due to step down according to an informal retirement convention, but speculation has been rife that he might stay. Bending the rule – which has already been dismissed by the party as pure “folklore” – for Wang not only means Xi retains a key ally on the Standing Committee, but it also sets a precedent for Xi to stay beyond the unwritten age limit for a third term.

• The size of the Standing Committee

The third thing to watch out for amid the leadership reshuffle is whether the Standing Committee will be reduced in size. Currently there are seven seats, but cutting it down to five would help Xi further concentrate his power by making it easier for him to secure a majority – he would only need two allies instead of three. The size of the Standing Committee is not fixed and has swung between three and 11 in the past nine decades.

2 Xi’s political theory

Every key Chinese leader since Mao Zedong has had their political theory enshrined in the party’s constitution as a “guiding ideology” – a symbolic practice formally recognising their ideological contribution and standing within the party. How Xi’s theory will be mentioned in the work report he delivers on the first day of the congress will be closely watched. If it is recognised as a guiding ideology of the party at the mid-term congress, he will be the first leader to achieve this so early in his tenure. Moreover, if that theory is summarised into a banner term bearing his name, that would place him on a par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who left behind “Mao Zedong thought” and “Deng Xiaoping theory”.

3 Road map for the next five years

In the report, Xi will also set out the party’s priorities and general policy directions for his second term. A wide range of areas will be covered – from the economy, political system, culture, people’s livelihood, ecology, defence and foreign policy to the party’s own development. These will all be discussed in very broad-brush terms, but observers would closely scrutinise the report for any departures from previous reports to find the slightest shift in policy or priorities.

4 Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan affairs

A section of the report is likely to be dedicated to policies on Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Although there is unlikely to be any change in Beijing’s fundamental stance, the exact wording in this section might reveal whether it will take a tougher approach against the rise of pro-independence sentiment in both Hong Kong and Taiwan in coming years. Also, as Zhang Dejiang, head of the National People’s Congress, is due to retire, the question of who will take over his position and portfolio overseeing Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan affairs will also be one to watch.

5 Possible revamp of the Central Military Commission

Apart from the party’s leadership reshuffle, the Central Military Commission (CMC), the overall high command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is also due for a shake-up at the congress.

The current composition of the CMC is based on the old structure of the PLA. That was before China’s military went through an unprecedented overhaul during Xi’s first term, and many observers wonder whether the CMC will also be revamped to fit the framework of the new military system.

6 Anti-corruption campaign

Xi has made it clear that his signature campaign to crack down on corruption and political disloyalty within the party will very much continue in his second term. But the question is, who will spearhead this campaign in the coming five years, given the uncertainty over whether top graft-buster Wang Qishan will step down? And if Wang does retire, or is appointed a new portfolio, can his successor be as tough and unrelenting in the corruption campaign?

7 Xi’s status within the party

Another thing to look out for is whether Xi’s status within the party leadership will be further raised – embodied, perhaps, in a new title. During a key party meeting late last year, Xi was elevated to “core” leader, placing him above his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao, who never attained that status. Recent descriptions of Xi by state media have certainly raised eyebrows – a documentary aired on CCTV referred to him as “the supreme leader”, while a Xinhua commentary called him “the supreme commander”.