Your simple guide to the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th congress

One-man show.
One-man show.
Image: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In case you hadn’t heard, something huge is going down in China this week. So huge that the internet has been disrupted, popular TV shows have been cancelled, and Beijing’s sky will turn perfectly blue.

What is going on?

It’s time again for the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s most important political event, held twice every decade. The 19th congress will kick off on Wednesday (Oct. 18), and is expected to last for a week. Around 2,300 party members from across the country will attend the meeting in Beijing to select the party’s top leadership for the next five years. All key decisions, however, have already been decided by top leaders behind closed doors ahead of the big gathering.

How does it work?

The congress will first select about 370 full and alternate members of the party’s ruling Central Committee, which will then select 25 members of its decision-making body, the Politburo. These members will be chosen in a secret ballot by delegates to the congress who represent provinces, the military and government agencies. The Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the apex of the party’s leadership which currently has seven members, will then be unveiled.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, took over power from his predecessor Hu Jintao to serve as the CCP’s general secretary at the previous congress in November 2012. The title ensured him the job as China’s president months later, in 2013.  Now, Xi is slated to start his second five-year-term as the party boss in the upcoming congress. But apart from Xi, the names of the others who will remain or make it into the top 25 and top seven are much less certain. According to retirement norms, five of the seven current Standing Committee members (except Xi and premier Li Keqiang) are due to step down.

Xi will deliver a work report on the first day of the congress to summarize the party’s achievements in the past five years and set goals for the next term. One day after the congress concludes (on Oct. 25), he will lead the new PSC members onto the stage of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to meet the Chinese and foreign press.

The Great Hall of the People, the venue of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, is pictured in Beijing, November 9, 2012. President Hu Jintao warned China's incoming leaders on Thursday that corruption threatened the ruling Communist Party and the state, but said the party must stay in charge as it battles growing social unrest.
The Great Hall of the People.
Image: Reuters/Petar Kujundzic

Why does it matter?

The short answer is that the congress will determine China’s course over the next five years or even longer. The outcomes of the meeting will ”indicate how successfully (or not) Xi has consolidated power, how much support there is for his agenda, and how this agenda will evolve in the coming years,” wrote analysts at Trivium, a Beijing-based research group, in a preview of the event.

What should we watch for?

Here are four key questions that the congress will answer.

1. Is Xi planning on a third term?

Already the most powerful Chinese leader in over three decades, Xi has built a political foundation solid enough to defy convention. Speculation is rife that he will probably hang on to power after his two terms as the CCP’s general secretary end in 2022—meaning in theory he could be in power at least until 2027. As if right on cue, a potential successor to Xi, former Chongqing party boss Sun Zhengcai, just fell from grace.

China's President Xi Jinping (R) speaks to Wang Qishan, the head of China's anti-corruption watchdog in Beijing March 4, 2015. Picture taken March 4, 2015.
69-year-old Wang Qishan is a close ally of Xi.
Image: Reuters/China Daily

Since 2002 the CCP has followed an unwritten rule that party leaders retire from the PSC at age 68 in order to ensure smooth power transitions. Whether Xi will break with the tradition to give Wang Qishan, the party’s top graft-buster and his close ally, a second term in the new PSC is being closely watched as an indicator to predict whether Xi himself will stay beyond 2022, when he turns 69. Late last year, a senior party official dismissed the existence of the retirement rule as “pure folklore.”

Wang, who is 69, has been unusually active recently. Last month he reportedly (paywall) met with former White House advisor Steven Bannon in secret to discuss issues like America’s economic nationalism—something that is not part of Wang’s portfolio.

Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong met with Xi and premier Li in the same month—but to many people’s surprise, Lee also met with Wang, which was seen unusual given that Wang only holds a party post and not a government one.

2. Will Xi fill key positions with his own men?

How many of Xi’s allies he can install in key party posts will indicate how much power he has consolidated. Aside from Wang, those who are from Xi’s power base and who have a good chance of making it to the new PSC include Chen Min’er, the newly selected Chongqing party boss, Li Zhanshu, Xi’s chief of staff, and Wang Huning, an academic-turned policy advisor. There are also PSC contenders who are considered not to be favored by Xi. These include Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua, vice president Li Yuanchao, and vice premier Wang Yang.

Chen Min'er, Li Zhanshu, Wang Huning
Xi’s men, from left to right: Chen Min’er, Li Zhanshu, Wang Huning.
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee, AP Photo/Andy Wong, Reuters/Jason Lee

3. Will Xi put himself on par with Mao and Deng?

Every top Chinese leader has his own signature political theory, which is enshrined in the party constitution as a way to sum up his legacy. For Mao Zedong, it’s “Mao Zedong Thought.” For reformer Deng Xiaoping, it’s “Deng Xiaoping Theory.” And for Xi’s two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, it was “Three Represents” and “Scientific View of Development.”

These political theories are evidently not equal in stature. If Xi attaches his name to his signature theory in the party constitution—which will be amended during the upcoming congress—it will be an official recognition that he belongs in the same league as Mao and Deng.

A picture shows a souvenir featuring portraits of former Chinese leaders Mao Zedong (top L), Deng Xiaoping (top R), Jiang Zemin (bottom L), Hu Jintao (bottom R) and current President Xi Jinping as it is sold on Tiananmen Square on the second day of plenary sessions of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Beijing, China, October 25, 2016.
Xi is already the most power Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter

Xi was elevated to the position of the party’s “core” leader around a year ago, putting him above Hu who never earned the designation. More recently, state news outlets have hailed Xi as lingxiu, or leader, a reverent title that has never been granted to any Chinese leader since the Mao era. Xi, who has about a dozen official titles, could be formally given even more new titles during the upcoming congress.

4. What is China’s policy direction for the next five years?

The work report Xi will deliver is the most authoritative of its kind on all major issues in China, ranging from economic reform to foreign policy. Observers will scrutinize every word choice of the report and compare it with previous reports to detect even the slightest shifts in thinking.

Last time around, for example, the 18th party congress’s work report appeared to signal a greater official interest in the environment—it included a new section (pdf, p. 3) detailing party policy on “ecological progress”—and corruption. And the last five years have seen a concerted push towards greater use of renewable energies, as well as an aggressive anti-corruption program.

Trivium analysts have flagged four things to look for in the report: whether the CCP will further blur the lines between party and state; whether it will allow the market to assume a bigger role in China’s economic development; whether it will move away from its GDP obsession; and finally, how serious it is about tackling debt and speculative financing