China’s 20th Party Congress
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President Xi Jinping is widely considered the most powerful Chinese politician since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Photo: AFP

Communist Party congress to offer rare glimpse of China’s former leaders as Xi Jinping ushers in new team

  • Former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao among those chosen to oversee procedure of five-yearly gathering
  • The decision follows party practice and gives a glimpse at the health of the former leaders
China’s retired top leaders, including President Xi Jinping’s two immediate predecessors, will briefly return to the political limelight as the ruling Communist Party embarks on its twice-a-decade national congress, ending on October 22.

The party’s 20th national congress will begin on Sunday, with Xi delivering a work report in Beijing to some 2,000 party delegates from across the country. He will lay out the strategic plan for the party and the country for the next five years and beyond.

The congress will also endorse a revision to the party constitution that most observers believe would further elevate Xi’s position and governance philosophy.

But the most important mission is to complete a major leadership reshuffle.

Xi, widely considered the most powerful Chinese politician since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, is set to confirm an unprecedented third term as the party’s paramount leader and reshuffle the top leadership to build a new team.

The party said on Saturday that it would set up a standing committee of the presidium of the party congress to oversee this procedure. This 46-member group consists of the present Politburo and retired Politburo Standing Committee members.

This group represents the real power holders in Chinese politics. Together they will discuss and vet a list of candidates before passing the nomination to the wider group for ratification.

This means that for the coming week, many retired leaders – who rarely make public appearances – would return to the stage.

Former party leader Jiang Zemin, 96, and Hu Jintao, 79, are both on the presidium standing committee. They are joined by former premier Zhu Rongji, 93, former premier Wen Jiabao, 80, and many other political heavyweights.

Party elder Song Ping, at 105, is the oldest member of the group.

The influence of the presidium’s standing committee has varied over time, but it is a part of a long-established party tradition of consensus-building and a gesture of continuity.

At Saturday’s press conference ahead of the congress, party spokesman Sun Yeli said that during the preparation for the gathering, the party leadership consulted the retired leaders and took in their opinions.

Sources told the Post that while Xi sought his predecessors’ input, the president is firmly in the driving seat and has a free hand to make all key decisions.

The ad hoc presidium standing committee will ratify the line-up of the new Central Committee before the list is passed to the congress for formal endorsement. A tally by the Post shows that nearly half of the seats on the Central Committee will change hands. Several of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee – the highest decision-making body – are also expected to be replaced.

It is not clear if all the elders will appear in person, and the congress’s opening ceremony on Sunday offers the public a rare glimpse at the health of retired leaders.

The health of Jiang, Hu and Zhu, in particular, has been the subject of much speculation since July last year, when they were absent from the party’s centenary celebrations.

The party also appointed Wang Huning, its ideology chief, as head of the secretariat of the congress.

The 20th congress is unique in the party’s history because it will be the first time since Mao that a paramount leader has had a third term officially.

It will mark a new era under Xi as assembles a supporting cast of his own choosing.

When the congress closes next weekend, the congress will produce a new list of more than 300 full and alternate members of the Central Committee.

This new Central Committee will immediately hold its first full gathering, called the first plenum, on October 23 to confirm the line-up of the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee.

The new Politburo Standing Committee – believed to be seven members in total – will meet the media on the same day.

“After the first plenary session of the 20th Central Committee, members of the new Politburo Standing Committee will meet Chinese and foreign reporters,” Sun said.

During that event, Xi and other leaders are not expected to answer any questions from the media, but the president is expected to deliver a short speech.