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What to Expect at China’s 20th Party Congress

The first thing to understand about the event is that the internal power struggles have already happened.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Party members walk by an image showing Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibition highlighting his years as leader as part of the upcoming 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on Oct. 12 in Beijing.
Party members walk by an image showing Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibition highlighting his years as leader as part of the upcoming 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on Oct. 12 in Beijing.
Party members walk by an image showing Chinese President Xi Jinping at an exhibition highlighting his years as leader as part of the upcoming 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on Oct. 12 in Beijing. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief. This week, we’re previewing the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which begins Sunday.

LIVE Q&A: Join me for a special Q&A on Thursday, Oct. 20, from 3 to 4 p.m. EDT to get your questions answered on the signs emerging from the Party Congress and what they might mean for the future of China under Xi’s ever more entrenched leadership. FP subscribers can submit their questions ahead of time, and I will respond live during next week’s Q&A.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief. This week, we’re previewing the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which begins Sunday.

LIVE Q&A: Join me for a special Q&A on Thursday, Oct. 20, from 3 to 4 p.m. EDT to get your questions answered on the signs emerging from the Party Congress and what they might mean for the future of China under Xi’s ever more entrenched leadership. FP subscribers can submit their questions ahead of time, and I will respond live during next week’s Q&A.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Counting Down to the 20th Party Congress

The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) convenes in Beijing on Sunday. The event, which happens every five years and usually lasts for several days, includes announcements, resolutions, and eventually the revelation of the new Standing Committee, the small group of core leaders within the 25-person Politburo. Traditionally, the Party Congress would also see the replacement of the top leadership: CCP General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

But Xi’s rule has been anything but normal. Not only did the 19th Party Congress in 2017 not reveal the next generation of leadership, but Xi also changed the rules the next year to allow himself to effectively rule for life—while picking off potential rivals through political purges. Although the premier has always been far less powerful than the party chief, the eclipse of Li has been dramatic, despite a slight return to the spotlight as the economy tottered this year.

China has seen just two peaceful transfers of power from one generation of leadership to the next under the current system: from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao and from Hu to Xi. (Deng Xiaoping’s more unusual, gradual handoff of power to Jiang and others might also count.) Nor did the system work exactly as planned: In the early years of his rule, Hu struggled against Jiang’s influence until a compromise was likely worked out behind the scenes.

The timing of China’s Party Congresses offers a glimpse into the instability of China’s recent political past. The 1st Party Congress was almost exactly a century ago—back when the CCP was a revolutionary movement, not a government—but the every-five-years timing has only been in place since 1977, as the party sought to establish a post-Mao Zedong sense of order.

The orderly leadership succession was supposed to signal that China’s was a more reliable form of authoritarianism, one that the world could do business with. This was matched by so-called collective leadership—the idea that the powerful party chief was still to some degree a first among equals and that the rest of the leadership as well as retired elders would prevent a new Mao from emerging.

Xi’s rise has shattered all that. There is no question of who is in charge, and it would be very unlikely for that to change after the 20th Party Congress. For the moment, it’s Xi forever, with his image plastered all over China’s daily propaganda. The question is who falls beneath him and whether they have any real power to push their own agendas, especially when it comes to fixing an increasingly shaky economy.


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What Actually Happens at the Party Congress?

The first thing to understand about the Party Congress is that the internal power struggles have already happened. The event is a choreographed dance. Barring a sudden disaster, anything that will play out at the Party Congress has already been decided. Months—perhaps years—of behind-the-scenes favor-trading, threats, bribery, persuasion, seduction, and manipulation have contributed to the outcome. China’s leadership retreat at the seaside resort of Beidaihe in August was probably the last chance to seriously alter anything.

That said, the result of those internal power struggles remains largely unknown. Contests within the CCP have grown more opaque under Xi, recalling the days of Kremlinology for analysts. Although a few hundred people at the very top of the party already know the outcomes, those people don’t talk to outsiders. Whatever is announced will therefore offer everyone else a useful, if incomplete, guide to the direction of the party and the extent of Xi’s power.

This year, the Party Congress is made up of some 3,000 delegates chosen from across the ranks of the party through a mix of rewards for good behavior, closeness to existing leaders, and tokenism. (State media likes to discuss the number of female and ethnic minority representatives increasing.) The appointment is much closer to receiving a knighthood in the United Kingdom than being a democratically elected representative. To make certain the representatives don’t cause any problems at the Party Congress, the final list is approved by a smaller committee chaired by Xi himself.

The delegates don’t meaningfully vote on anything but instead rubber-stamp a list of previously agreed decisions. The main work of the Party Congress is to approve the new list of Central Committee members: about 200 people plus 170 alternates. Unlike the delegates, the Central Committee members are almost always high-ranking—party chiefs of big cities, government ministers, and so forth. Those 200 people vote on the 25 members of the Politburo, and then the Politburo decides the members of the Standing Committee.

To keep an appearance of electoralism, the number of proposed members for the Central Committee is usually about 10 to 15 percent higher than the number of seats. But the candidates who get the least votes are also prearranged. The Standing Committee is unveiled at what is technically a plenary session the day after the Party Congress ends, the first of a succession of plenums, or meetings, of the Central Committee.

This might seem like bureaucracy and show on top of a dog-eat-dog system of power. But the CCP’s grinding formalities are an important part of its legitimacy, and the plenums occasionally produce real surprises. For example, Deng sealed his slow ousting of then-leader Hua Guofeng at the 1978 Third Plenum, even though Hua wasn’t formally removed until 1981.


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Reading the Tea Leaves

There’s plenty of tea leaf-reading to be done during the Party Congress, particularly in the so-called work reports: the summaries of China’s political, economic, and geopolitical situation that the leadership presents to the Party Congress. How tough is the language around Taiwan? Will there be hints at economic reform? Will Xi be awarded a range of new titles not seen since the days of Mao, such as “people’s leader”?

But the big issue is who will emerge as members of the Standing Committee. It’s not even certain how big the Standing Committee will be. A smaller committee—of, say, six people—probably signals an even more powerful Xi, one who doesn’t have to offer posts in return for loyalty; a larger one might suggest the opposite. Analysts will study the ages of the members; the unofficial retirement age is 68, but loyalists or key figures have stayed on for longer.

It seems likely that at least a couple of posts will be held by people who have worked with Xi for a long time and are seen as personally loyal: men such as Chen Miner, sometimes held up as a potential successor, or Ding Xuexiang. (They are always men.) The more of those Xi loyalists, the stronger Xi appears. My gut says we’re going to see a very Xi-ist Standing Committee, reflecting his political paranoia; MacroPolo has a useful list of possibilities.

However, the economic instability currently haunting China may have left Xi more exposed than expected. It’s possible that means he will have to offer at least a sop to those in the CCP who put the economy ahead of ideological needs. That could mean more market-oriented figures such as Wang Yang, the former party chief of Guangdong province, an economic powerhouse, or Liu He, a Harvard University-educated diplomat whom foreign leaders may see as a man they can do business with.

Unless such figures dominate the new Standing Committee, I’d be wary of reading the presence of one or two of them as a signal of likely reform. No one in the political leadership is principled or brave enough to stand up to Xi’s instincts—which increasingly lean toward control, not growth—unless they have the weight of numbers on their side.

The other big question is the premiership. Unlike Xi, Li Keqiang is almost certainly out. Who is in will signal something. The most probable bet was once longtime Xi ally and Shanghai party chief Li Qiang, but a Li-to-Li transition looks less likely after the disastrous Shanghai lockdown this year. On the other hand, if Xi has a firm grip on the selection, he might choose Li to confirm his power. In that case, he would have a useful weapon to use against Li in the event of any conflict.

China Brief will feature more exciting action from the Party Congress next week; it’s unlikely the final committee membership will be announced before then.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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