China’s 20th Party Congress
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The party congress presidium presides over key functions of the event, and offers valuable clues about seniority and the power-sharing arrangement of China’s leadership. Photo: AP

Which elders will reappear for the Chinese Communist Party’s national congress? And are they more than window-dressing?

  • Elected members of party congress presidium preside over key functions of the event
  • But party elders are more like ‘window-dressing’, with real power lying in Politburo Standing Committee, analyst says
When the Communist Party’s 20th national congress convenes, a presidium will be formed to oversee congress functions. It will supervise meetings, elections and the submissions of resolutions for votes by around 2,300 delegates, among other matters.
Given the opacity of the Communist Party’s politics, the composition of the presidium – especially its standing committee – offers some valuable clues about seniority and the power-sharing arrangement of the leadership.
At the last party congress in 2017, the presidium was made up of 243 delegates, including a 42-member standing committee.

In the past, the presidium members have been elected by delegates at a preparatory meeting held the day before the congress.

However, under the party’s constitution, the existing Politburo will have authority over day-to-day party affairs during the congress.

How are China’s 20th Communist Party congress delegates chosen?

“The central leading bodies and leaders elected by each Central Committee shall, when the next national congress is in session, continue to preside over the party’s day-to-day work until the new central leading bodies and leaders are elected by the next Central Committee,” the constitution said.

At the 19th party congress five years ago, more than half of the presidium standing committee were Politburo members at that time, with retired party elders making up the rest of the group.


Many of the party elders are well into their 80s or beyond, and wield little power, but their presence in the presidium presents the image of a united party leadership and support for the younger leaders.


Beijing gears up for 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party

Beijing gears up for 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party

The public appearance of the elders is also a rare opportunity for Chinese citizens and the outside world to gauge their health.

This time, attention will focus on former president Jiang Zemin, 96, and Zhu Rongji, 93, who were absent from the party’s centenary celebration in July last year because they were too frail.

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A photo that recently surfaced online showed Jiang and his wife sitting among birthday flower baskets that appeared to be sent by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. It was not clear, however, if the photo was taken during Jiang’s most recent birthday.

Jiang last appeared in public at the 2019 National Day celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic.

Zhu, who did not attend the 2019 celebrations, is reported to be in poor health. A photo of him celebrating his birthday at a hospital was circulated on Chinese social media in October 2020.


In April last year, he sent a congratulatory note on the opening of a building at Tsinghua University, his alma mater.


Explainer: What is the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th national congress?

Explainer: What is the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th national congress?

Party veteran Song Ping, who is now 105 years old, appears to be in more robust health and is expected to join the presidium again this year. Song, secretary to former premier Zhou Enlai, became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee after the reshuffle following the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, together with Jiang and former Tianjin mayor and party boss Li Ruihuan.


A video recently circulating on social media showed Song at a charity event, in which he said that opening up and reform is a necessary path for China’s development. The remark sparked online speculation about why Song made the rare public appearance just days ahead of the party congress.

Long absent from major party events, including the centenary celebration and the 19th party congress, has been former security tsar Luo Gan, a previous ally of Jiang’s. No reasons have been given for his absences.


Alfred Wu, an associate professor National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said the party elders are mostly for “decoration” as the real power will lie with the new line-up of the Politburo Standing Committee.

“What I really would look into is how many of Xi’s people can get into the new Politburo Standing Committee. [The appearance of the party elders] is like window-dressing, and Xi is very capable of doing that to show that everyone is with him. It is very much Xi’s show,” Wu said.