China’s Communist Party Is About to Meet. Here’s What You Should Know.

A ChinaFile Conversation

The Chinese Communist Party will hold its 19th Party Congress on October 18, marking the end of the first term of General Secretary Xi Jinping. In a leadership reshuffle, Xi is expected to promote allies to the Party’s key decision-making body, the 25-member Politburo. What has the Party accomplished since Xi took power in 2012? And how can the Party maintain its legitimacy amidst flagging economic growth, increased dissatisfaction among the disenfranchised—especially in Hong Kong and Xinjiang—a major diplomatic challenge in North Korea, and increasing hostility from U.S. President Donald Trump? —The Editors


Xi Jinping’s power consolidation and anti-corruption campaign have brought decisive changes to the way the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) is run and to the way China is governed since he assumed the country’s leadership in 2012. Yet there are—at least for the moment—no obvious signs that Xi plans a radical break with long-established intra-Party rules. Instead, he seems determined to strengthen the Party by turning it into a disciplined organization that can govern efficiently. He has urged a stricter enforcement of existing Party rules, and initiated revisions to key procedures such as allowing the exceptional promotion of cadres. This revision allowed Xi to appoint his ally Cai Qi as Beijing’s Party secretary. Although Cai is not even an alternate member of the 18th Central Committee, it now seems very likely that he will be appointed to the Politburo. Other examples relate to the role of ideology, and the style and types of Party meetings.

It would be a misinterpretation of China’s elite politics to view Xi’s rapid power consolidation as merely the result of his personal ambition. Ending the principle of collective leadership and relying on the authority of only one person would expose the C.C.P. to the risks of sudden changes and discontinuity in policymaking—and these are the two risks the Party wants to avoid at all costs. Xi acts on the mandate he was given by the 18th Party Congress of November 2012. Back then, a collective decision was made to strengthen the position of the General Secretary and to concentrate authority in the Party center. Party elites also endorsed the fight against corruption and ideological dissent.

But a lot remains unknown about the inner workings of the Party. At least for now, we can only speculate about the reasons for the sudden fall of Chongqing Party boss Sun Zhengcai, just as we can only speculate about the question of whether Xi is going to rewrite the rules of leadership succession and stay in power beyond the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

As such, we are left to analyze what the C.C.P. will reveal at the 19th Party Congress this fall. Xi’s ideological and political authority would be boosted further if formulas such as “Xi Jinping Thought” or “Xi Jinping Theory” were incorporated in the Party constitution. Another key sign to watch is the choice of candidates for the successor-in-training positions for the offices of general secretary and premier. If the two candidates do not fit criteria of age or seniority, this could indicate that neither of them will attain the top job in 2022 and that Xi might intend to dominate politics beyond 2022, perhaps following the examples of Deng Xiaoping or Jiang Zemin, who kept the prerogative of decisions on key personnel and shifts in the political agenda even after retiring from all official positions.

It is certainly in the C.C.P.’s interest to leave the leadership succession question open for the time being as it would avoid speculation at home and abroad about Xi turning into a lame duck in his second term. Elevating Xi to the most powerful C.C.P. leader since Mao Zedong will serve the C.C.P.’s goal to complete the implementation of the reform plans presented at the 3rd Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee in November 2013. It would also further the goal to turn China into a key player on the international stage.

Empirically, Leninist institutions have made communist parties into some of the most robust authoritarian regimes in the industrialized world. Leaders of Leninist parties, including those in China, have often seen fit to manipulate elite institutions in order to achieve true dictatorship. The coexistence of these two phenomena in the Leninist system is not accidental. The Leninist party structure is a powerful organizational model which makes defection by lower-level officials and regime collapse unlikely. This may create a cushion for top leaders in these systems to carry out fierce factional infighting and sudden institutional changes.

Ever since Lenin enshrined the principle of democratic centralism in his pamphlet “What Is to Be Done?,” communist parties around the world have adopted a broadly similar set of institutions which imposed strict hierarchical party discipline while allowing indirect representation by rank and file party members. In China, the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) party committee pyramid has been in place since the 1920s. Even through the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, the revolutionary committees maintained Party discipline. As scholars of authoritarian parties point out, authoritarian parties maintain the loyalty of rank and file officials by controlling access to powerful positions in society and by providing a relatively predictable path of advancement for their members. Party members in turn help the party control the rest of society.

At the highest levels of Leninist parties, institutions have been highly malleable. Mao formed the Central Cultural Revolution Group to circumvent the authorities of the existing Politburo. By the middle of 1967, Mao had sidelined or removed much of the pre-1966 Politburo. Even in the relatively calm period in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping formed the Central Advisory Committee as a political compromise to placate retiring veterans, thus depriving Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang much of their authorities as secretary general. More recently, Xi circumvented many of the authorities of the State Council by forming Party leading groups to make policies, most of them chaired by Xi himself.

Why do top leaders in otherwise institutionalized Leninist parties engage in power plays that break existing norms or even rules? The robustness of Leninist institutions and propaganda work hold the keys to elite risk-taking. Because the Leninist system has imbued party members with both fear and faith in higher level authorities, even major reshuffling at the top would not put the rule of the regime in peril. The coherence of the Leninist system encourages top leaders to engage in risky power plays and institutional changes.

But does that mean that such power play will never jeopardize party rule? No. Completely violating all the norms at the top level, especially the norm of collective leadership, may force members of the top elite to split from the party line and to make an alliance with groups in society. This is especially the case during large protests. In a sense, both Romania’s Milea and Zhao Ziyang did this, although their defections led to different outcomes. Zhao’s defection caused a political crisis in the Party, but Deng controlled the military sufficiently that the Tiananmen Square crackdown ended the crisis. For Ceaușescu, Milea’s disobedience and mysterious death triggered a widespread rebellion by the Romanian military against Ceaușescu. This spelled the end of Communist rule in Romania. The Leninist party is strong, but still rather fragile in the face of serious top-level infighting.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012 at the 18th Party Congress, he has steered China into a new path of foreign policy. The most important change is obviously in the way in which China conducts its foreign policy. If both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao followed Deng Xiaoping’s advice of lying low and biding its time, both the style and substance of Xi’s foreign policy is characterized by the spirit of we have risen and we are not afraid of leading and being confrontational. This new behavior is seen in challenging the international public opinion on the maritime disputes in both the East and South China Seas, in ignoring the ruling by an international arbitration court in The Hague, in imposing an ADIZ in the East China Sea, and in defying U.S. high profile FON operation in the South China Sea. More importantly, China is not shy of embracing the opportunity of leading globalization when British and American voters voted in support of ethnocentrism and xenophobia.

Xi also seems to believe challenging the existing international order is less meaningful than reforming it and building new international institutions. This is where China has sown seeds of change designed to enrich if not upset the political, economic and financial order that was created in the wake of Western triumph over fascism. China has doubled its effort to step into the void with the collapse of TPP; AIIB, the new development bank, has been welcomed by most of the developed powers and developing nations in the world; although China’s effort in making the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) a meaningful institution was not successful, it has greatly strengthened the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the loose alliance of BRICS.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has caught the international attention and leaders in many countries have jumped onto its bandwagon, believing it will bring investment in infrastructure, create jobs and link remote corners of the world to busy ports and booming districts in Asia and Europe. Despite lingering suspicion of the mercantilist nature of the endeavor, Xi’s vision of a community of common destiny is perceived by many as different, appealing and even attractive.

However, final outcomes of these new initiatives cannot be seen in a short period. At the same time, China is confronted with many foreign policy challenges each of which can easily turn the news changes in China’s foreign policy into traps that will interrupt the miraculous and sustaining economic rise of China. First, Xi must be given credit to stabilizing President Trump and preventing this bull from running recklessly into the China shop shortly after the latter moved into the White House. Nevertheless, managing the bilateral relationship remains his biggest foreign policy task. Xi will need to convince President Trump and the American people this critical relationship can be win-win and Beijing is not on a collision course with Washington in values and approaches to deal with global issues.

Secondly, Xi will have to respond carefully to the aspiration and desire of Indian leaders and people. The world reacted with collective relief when Beijing and Delhi managed to peacefully resolve its border confrontation that lasted nearly three months. It will be inconceivable if two of the world most populous nuclear powers corner themselves into a protracted war.

Yet the biggest foreign policy test for Xi at and beyond the 19th Party Congress is how to deal with North Korea. Xi has initiated significant changes to China’s long-term policy of stonewalling and appeasement because Pyongyang is someone else’s pain in the neck. Despite strong and lingering support in China for the belief that the enemy of our enemy is a friend, China has taken serious steps to isolate and strangle North Korea. But there is intrinsic contradiction between Beijing’s haloed bottom line of a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula and its never-changing insistence on patient negotiation with someone whose ambition to possess nuclear weapons in non-negotiable.

North Korea is a ticking time bomb lying next to China. Preventing North Korea from eventually possessing nuclear weapons is one potential area where US-China relationship can flourish. A stable and win-win relationship between the U.S. and China is crucial to China’s sustained economic growth. This is where Xi’s legacy in foreign policy will ultimately lie.

The Communist Party Congress in the middle of a General Secretary’s 10-year term in office has been primarily of interest in the past in identifying the successor. In 2007, all eyes were on Xi Jinping stepping into the Politburo Standing Committee for the first time one place head of his rival, Li Keqiang. The pattern of smooth transition at the top sought by Deng Xiaoping appeared to have become rooted in the elite politics of the People’s Republic. This year, things look different as a result of the changes Xi has brought since he took the top job five years ago. The Congress will be a fresh step in Xi’s steady power accumulation as he imposes his stamp on the P.R.C. to a greater degree than his immediate predecessors. His first term has seen an accentuated identification of the man on top and the Party he heads, steadily widened the remit of both with major implications for the way the country operates.

The meeting is set to produce a largely new cast in the Standing Committee as age and term limits take their toll of existing members. But, with five weeks to go, there is still uncertainty about who the new members of the top body will be, and whether the age retirement requirement will apply to Xi’s principal lieutenant, Wang Qishan.

The newly-named Party Secretary of Chongqing, Chen Min’er, his opposite number in Guangdong, Hu Chunhua, and Lo Zhanshu, head of the Party’s General office, are all said to be likely to join the Committee. As for Wang, the speculation ranges all the way from him in being forced to take a back seat by poor health to his appointment as head the government at the National People’s Congress next March. On top of this there has been running speculation that the Committee’s size will be cut back from seven to five, and that a new super-regulatory body will be created linked to the Discipline Commission Wang heads to further Xi’s insistence that decision made at the centre must be implemented more effectively. If Wang headed such a body, he might be able to stay on in a job with at least as much authority of that of any Committee member, operating more freely in creating a new mechanism springing from the Xi system of governance.

This Congress is set to continue the centralization of power evident since the end of 2012 through the Party, politics, the administration, the economy, the military, foreign policy and, most recently, private business. This is central to Xi’s over-riding effort to make China Inc. operate more effectively, with himself in, or controlling, all the C suite jobs.

That is producing a P.R.C. which is quite different from the one which seemed to be emerging in the Deng and post-Deng eras. This leads, of course, to the speculation that Xi will stay on for a third term after 2022. It is too early to reach any conclusion on that score but next month’s meeting will mark a new step along the road set by Xi which faces China will the fundamental issue of whether centralized power and necessary modernization can co-exist.