At China’s Communist Party Congress, All Eyes on Xi Jinping

The world is keenly watching the event when delegates of the Communist Party of China meet behind closed doors.

4 min read
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Ahead of China's most important political event – the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party – movie releases were put on hold and a big market in Beijing was sent packing to another province because authorities want no trouble.

Last month, China blocked the world's most popular instant messaging service –WhatsApp, an application which the government finds difficult to monitor. A government diktat warned the creators of online chat groups that they will be held responsible if the content of their forums is politically sensitive.


Beijing also vowed to hunt down political rumour-mongers and stepped up security on the borders with India, North Korea and Myanmar – all with one goal.

The world is keenly watching the once-in-five-years event when delegates of the Communist Party of China (CPC) meet behind closed doors to decide its top leadership which governs the world's most populous country.

Founded in 1921, the CPC is the world’s largest political party with nearly 90 million members. 

At the 19th National Congress of the party, all eyes are on President Xi Jinping who is said to be poised to consolidate power when he is re-elected as the General Secretary. The customary practice of a second term for the party's top job will enable him to continue at the helm of the country's affairs until 2022.


Besides, the party's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), will be refreshed. Five of its seven members are set to retire as they are 68 or above – an unofficial criteria for retirement.

Xi, 64, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, 62, are members of this body.

The powerful Central Committee will also see a reshuffle among its over 200 members.

The Party Congress will first and foremost be about Xi’s articulation of his success in consolidating his power and authority.
Professor Steve Tsang, Director, SOAS China Institute

Xi, who succeeded Hu Jintao as General Secretary and China's President in 2012, has emerged as the country's most powerful leader in decades. Last year, the party gave him the title of "core", an honorific awarded only to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

David Kelly, director of research at China Policy in Beijing, says Xi claims to have higher levels of support than even his predecessors.

He (Mao) was important ... he was taken seriously, but China remained a client state of the Soviet Union. Perhaps you can say he was the leader of a developing country, but you could not say he was the leader of a major power as Xi is.
David Kelly, Director of Research at China Policy

It is the composition of the Standing Committee which will decide the course of China's leadership, and especially Xi, who would want his loyalists in the supreme body of super-seven.

The big changes will be on how he (Xi) manages succession arrangements and how he lines up the top leadership as well as what compromises he has to make to get the ‘resistance’ to accept his strengthened leadership position. The only question is who Xi will appoint to the PSC, not that he will enjoy a majority. If he cannot secure a majority of PSC seats for his supporters, then it will be a big surprise.
Steve Tsang

When Hu got his second term at the 17th party congress in 2007, Xi was announced to succeed him in 2012. It will be interesting to watch if Xi names his successor at this Congress.

It is, however, believed that Xi is in no mood to pick a successor. There is speculation that Xi might retain the 69-year-old Wang Qishan in the Standing Committee by breaking the unofficial retirement rule.

It is said that Xi can use this precedent in 2022 when he turns 69 to continue at the helm of affairs for a third term.

Tsang, however, says: "Xi is now sufficiently powerful that he no longer needs to pay the political price to break the retirement rule and keep Wang.

He can also expect to be so powerful by the 20th Congress that he will not need Wang setting a precedent for not retiring at the 19th Congress. Wang will formally retire.

A trusted aide of Xi, with whom he was forcibly sent to a village in Shaanxi province during the Cultural Revolution, Wang is the chief of China's anti-graft department. After taking power in 2012, Xi had vowed to wage war against graft. So far over a million people have been punished for corruption.


In September, Sun Zhengcai, a frontrunner for the berth in the Standing Committee and deemed fit to succeed Xi in 2022, was sacked from the party for corruption.

The anti-corruption campaign is the trading name of a party rectification campaign, one that is designed to strengthen Xi’s control and the Party’s capacity to exercise control over the country.

Xi has also tightened his grip over the People's Liberation Army (PLA) by announcing a significant troop cut in the world's largest standing military force.

“The way top generals have been sacked shows how powerful Xi has become”, said a Beijing-based diplomat from a South Asian country.

According to Kelly, Xi will try to project himself as someone who has made China more powerful globally. Major world events like the refugee crisis in Europe, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US President have given China opportunities to project itself as a great power.

Kelly expects the upcoming Congress to throw in a surprise or two.

This (China) is one of the least transparent political systems in the world. So it is always possible something may surprise us.
David Kelly

(This article has been published in partnership with IANS.)

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