China’s 19th Party Congress: Xi’s Consolidation

After much anticipation, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th Party Congress begins this week in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.  While no one outside of the inner circle of CCP elites who met at the Beidaihe coastal resort in August knows what will be announced during the Congress, much speculation has surrounded the upcoming proceedings. This is unsurprising, given that the next 24 hours will set the tone for the next five years of China’s national trajectory.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Despite popular misconceptions, China is not a full autocracy. It is governed the CCP, which consists of an estimated 90 million members. Although President Xi Jinping leads the nation as general secretary of the Party, his power is theoretically checked by the other six members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and the 25 members of the Politburo. These two committees, along with the larger Central Committee, steer China’s national policies through a consensus-based system. Although China is a one-party state, the party itself is divided into factions, alliances and patronage networks.

The last CCP Congress, held in 2012, saw Hu Jintao’s chosen successor Xi Jinping ascend to the Party presidency as Hu retired in line with recent convention. At the time not a great deal was known about the new President, as despite his rapid rise through the CCP ranks, Xi was not the most obvious choice for Hu’s successor.

Since the 18th Party Congress, Xi has consolidated his power with a wide-ranging and relentless anti-corruption campaign, seen by many as a tool for removing his political rivals and allowing him to promote his own loyal followers to positions of power, while simultaneously combating the genuinely prevalent corruption problem that was staining the reputation of the Party. He has also proven himself as an economic conservative, a savvy populist, and has championed the One Belt, One Road Initiative to decrease China’s economic reliance on shipping. During this time, he also assumed the title of Chairman of the Central Military Commission, making him General Secretary of the CCP, President of the nation, and head of the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA).

More than any other Chinese leader of recent decades, Xi has come closest to achieving the cult of personality that surrounded Mao and Deng, with praise of his leadership flooding internet and media outlets bestowing the honourific “Uncle Xi”; although this was later discouraged. This promotion culminated in October 2016 when, in what feels like a somewhat contrived development, Xi was named as the Party “Core”, placing him on a par with Mao and Deng and reinforcing his standing as China’s paramount leader still further.

While he is virtually guaranteed a second term in office, the 19th Party Congress is expected to see Xi consolidate his grip on power even further through the appointment of allies to key positions in the PSC, China’s highest political body. Of the seven current members, only Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are young enough to remain on for a further term; the other five having reached the unofficial retirement age of 68 established in recent decades. What will happen to the makeup of the PSC has been the source of much speculation during the run-up to the Congress, with theories advanced as to what Xi may chose to do and what that could indicate for his future intentions. What is certain is that Xi will take the opportunity to fill most if not all seats on the PSC with his supporters. Some have even speculated that in order to stack the PSC completely in his favour, Xi could reduce the number of members even further to five, although this seems unlikely. More probable is that the PSC will remain at seven, with only one or two members who are not dyed in the wool Xi supporters included to assuage other factions.

The remaining question is whether Xi will roll out a presumed successor, as would be the convention, or if he will test the waters for an unorthodox third term in 2022. A key figure to watch will be Wang Qishan, Xi’s loyal attack dog and architect of the five-year anti-graft campaigns who is expected to retire due to age. As there are no hard and fast rules at the top of the CCP, should Wang be kept on for another term it could be seen as a sign both that Xi feels the need to keep him on to shore up his own position, but also as a test to see how the Party may react to a potential protocol-breaking third term for Xi himself.

The Party’s driving goal is to maintain its current monopoly on power in China. It sees increasing political transparency and democratisation as being responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union, and it is keen to avoid the same fate for China. Beijing repeatedly makes the case for greater control and against western-style democracy, and the Chinese population largely appear to agree. Democratic controversies such as Brexit and the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump have been repeatedly paraded in the Chinese state media as examples of the dangers of anything beyond one-party rule. Despite this rigid control, the Party must remain genuinely popular in order to remain in control, and as such the results of the 19th Party Congress will likely reflect the Party’s need to balance the desires of China’s rapidly-growing middle class with economic realities and personal ambitions within its inner circle.

Whether Xi anoints a successor or prepares to do battle for a third term, when the senior Party members are revealed tomorrow, the world should at least get a clue as to the direction the PRC will take in the next five years, and perhaps beyond.

Alexander Stafford is a geopolitical and defence affairs writer specialising in China, naval and maritime issues, insurgencies, military history and strategy. He is a graduate of King’s College London’s War Studies programme who has spent several years based in the Asia Pacific region, where he now focuses on South China Sea maritime issues.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.