5 things you should know about China's 19th Communist congress

Agence France-Presse

China’s Communist Party opens its 19th National Congress today, the most important political meeting for the past five years

Agence France-Presse |

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President Xi Jinping will set the path for China's next five years.

China’s Communist Party has since 1921 held 18 congresses to fill its leadership ranks. The party, which has ruled China since 1949, organises the meetings every five years.

This year, some 2,300 delegates from across the country will descend on Beijing in a highly choreographed event to pick members of the Central Committee of around 200 members.

The committee will select members for the 25-person Politburo and its all-powerful Standing Committee, the country’s highest leadership body, which currently just has seven members.

The Standing Committee is usually unveiled the day after the end of the congress, which closes on October 24.

President Xi Jinping is expected to cruise to a second, five-year term as party general secretary, like his two immediate predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.

Who’s on the Standing Committee?

The current Standing Committee consists of Xi, Premier Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli.

These seven men, career bureaucrats who rose through the party ranks over decades, call the shots in the world’s most populous country, each getting one vote on key policy decisions.

As general secretary Xi reigns supreme, setting the agenda for their frequent secret meetings.

One other man stands out from the pack: Wang Qishan, Xi’s powerful right-hand man who heads the president’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign which has brought down both senior and lower-level officials.

Who’s leaving?

Since 2002, Standing Committee members aged 68 or above at the time of the congress have stepped down, abiding by the unwritten retirement age first employed by Jiang Zemin to dump an ageing rival.

If the informal rule is upheld this year, five out of seven members will step down, leaving only Xi, 64, and Li, 62.

In addition to these five, another six members of the Politburo’s 25 members are also due to step down.

But there is much speculation that tradition may be broken this year, with some analysts predicting that Wang Qishan will be allowed to stay on despite being 69.

Such a move would allow Xi to keep a close ally and set a precedent for he himself to remain on the committee at the next congress in 2022, when he turns 69.

Will a successor to Xi emerge?

China’s constitution limits the president and premier to two five-year terms, but there are no rules for the duration of party jobs, where the real power lies, except a ban on “lifelong tenure”.

This has heightened speculation that Xi may try to remain in some capacity after 2022, especially since no one has emerged as a clear frontrunner to succeed him.

In late September, former Politburo member and Chongqing party secretary Sun Zhengcai, once seen as a contender to succeed Xi, was expelled from the party ranks after being swept up in Xi’s anti-graft campaign.

Chen Miner, who took over Sun’s job in Chongqing and served as Xi’s propaganda chief in Zhejiang province in the early 2000s, could now get a more powerful role. He is 57.

Another contender is Hu Chunhua, 54, the top official of the prosperous southern province of Guangdong.

Will Xi reign supreme?

Analysts expect Xi to consolidate his power at the congress, confirming his stature as China’s most powerful ruler since Deng Xiaoping or even Mao Zedong.

One strong indicator of his elevation into this exclusive tier of Chinese leaders would be if his name is added to the party’s constitution.

Each Chinese leader since Mao has had one of his personal political philosophies or ideas codified in the constitution.

Jiang’s “Three Represents” and Hu’s “Scientific Outlook on Development” were both written into the document, but without their names.

Only two philosophies have names attached to them in the Communist commandments: “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory”.

Congress spokesman Tuo Zhen said Tuesday that the party would amend the constitution to embody Xi’s “new vision and thinking” over governance. But he stopped short of saying if Xi’s name would also be added.