The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) 20th National Congress begins in Beijing on October 16. Held every five years, the National Congress is a week-long affair that has three main tasks: to endorse leadership transitions; to approve changes to the party constitution; and to deliberate on policy issues.
China’s emergence as a world power over the last two decades — as the world’s second largest economy with a military might that most of its neighbours including India view as a clear and direct threat — makes what happens at the Congress of compelling interest to the rest of the world.
The 20th Congress will likely endorse an unprecedented third term for President Xi Jinping, the leader who has given China’s foreign policy a more aggressive and muscular thrust than ever before. Xi has also sought to increase Beijing’s global reach through his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive, international infrastructure project which, however, is currently struggling with a credibility crisis after the economic meltdown in Sri Lanka, and a crisis of liquidity because of China’s own economic problems.
At home, Xi has been a political hardliner who believes in absolute control over state, party, ideology, and people — priorities that he indicated in a landmark 2013 speech as necessary to prevent China from meeting the same fate as the Soviet Union. Since rising to the top in 2012, Xi has cracked down on corruption in the CCP, and introduced several new bodies in the party that concentrate more power in his hands than any other leader of China has enjoyed since Mao Zedong.
As chair of China’s Central Military Commission, Xi controls the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In 2016, he gave himself the additional title of Commander in Chief and, at the 19th Party Congress the following year, carried out a shake-up of the military, bringing generals of his choice to work towards the goal of modernising the armed forces.
The foundations for Xi’s widely anticipated third term were laid in 2018, when the Chinese national legislature, known as the National People’s Congress, voted to remove the two-term bar for presidents that had been introduced by Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader from 1978 to 1989.
If his leadership is approved for another five years, Xi would, upon completion of this extended tenure, have ruled over China for longer than any leader barring Mao, who held power for 33 years.
The post of Chairman, which Mao held, was abolished after Mao died in 1976. The present system, in which the general secretary is the most powerful within the CCP as well as head of state, began with Jiang Zemin, who was general secretary from 1989 to 2002, and took charge as president in 1993.
It has been speculated that the coming Congress session might approve an amendment to the party’s constitution to redesignate Xi as Chairman.
While a third term for Xi, if it happens, will be the most consequential outcome of the Congress, the composition of the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee will undergo several changes. How many of his loyalists Xi can push into these two key bodies of the CCP will be crucial to what he wants to achieve in the next five years.
The 25-member Politburo — there is only one woman in the present body — of which Xi is the general secretary, is the top leadership body of the CCP. Nested within the Politburo is the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), which further concentrates power in the hands of a chosen few. There are seven members in the incumbent PSC; depending on how many of his protégés Xi wants in the PSC, this number could increase to nine.
New PSC members will replace those who retire in accordance with a rule that is called “seven up, eight down”. The age of retirement is 68 years, and the oldest a new entrant can be is 67. Factions within the CCP try to push their own representatives into both the Politburo and the PSC.
Premier Li Keiqang, who is 67 and belongs to a faction linked to former President Hu Jintao, has announced he will step down from his role as head of government. Who will replace him as premier, what role Li will have in the PSC, and who will replace the two members of the PSC who will retire, are matters of intense speculation — as is the possibility of Xi changing the “up-down” rule to keep a favourite and get rid of a member from an opposing faction.
The incoming members of the PSC and Politburo are finalised and approved in advance by the incumbent PSC and Politburo. The choices are rubber-stamped in a vote by members of the 204-member Central Committee, the 205-member Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and 25 members of the Politburo. A process called “democratic recommendation” — under which delegates at the Congress could have nominated their choices to the top two bodies from a list of 200 Politburo candidates — is said to have been abandoned in 2017 after Xi declared the system to have become corrupt.
The delegates at the Congress are chosen from every level of the Communist party hierarchy, from every province and region, the military, the government, and local administrations. Artists, actors, and other professions also find representation. A list of 2,296 delegates for the 20th Congress was finalised last month.
The Congress opens with the general secretary delivering the CCP’s political report. It was in the opening speech of the 19th Congress in 2017 that Xi first mentioned his “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, which was enshrined in the party constitution alongside the doctrines propounded by Mao and Deng, elevating Xi to the level of these two leaders.
The 20th Congress comes at a time when China’s economy is reeling under the fallout of President Xi’s “zero Covid” strategy. China set a modest growth target of 5.5 per cent this year, but the World Bank said last month it would be just 2.8 per cent, much lower than the 5.3 per cent for “developing East Asia and the Pacific outside of China”.
Last year’s crackdown on tech giants such as Alibaba and Tencent had dampened sentiment. But the big crisis is in China’s real estate sector, which is said to constitute 30 per cent of the country’s GDP. The exposure of Chinese banks to the property market poses a real threat to the country’s economic stability, and there are growing concerns about its impact on economies worldwide, and if it might trigger a global recession.
The session will be watched for what macroeconomic policy solutions it produces, especially to shore up “Common Prosperity” — the slogan that Mao gave during China’s years of great impoverishment, Deng resurrected to justify economic reforms of the 1980s, and President Xi promoted at the time of his crackdown on big tech.
Xi has sought to create “a new era” in which China will be built as “a modern socialist power”. In his rhetoric, Common Prosperity will be achieved by closing out inequalities, but foreign investors are jittery that it is a euphemism for greater state control and regulation of the economy. The President is expected to provide more clarity on this issue.
This is the first of a series of explainers on the CCP’s 20th Party Congress