11 Oct 2017/Wednesday   

As President Xi tries to tighten his grip on power, China’s 19th Party Congress (19PC) will answer some key questions that will shape future course of China:

Will Xi Jinping stay on as President? And how centralised will power become? In nutshell the future course of China will become clear what to expect during the coming weeks.

On October 18th, the 19th Party Congress (19PC) of the Communist Party of China (CCP) will open in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. . Held every five years, the Party Congress features the election of the new Central Committee (205 members and 171 alternate members), which in turn elects a new Politburo (25 members) and Politburo Standing Committee (5-9 members). Nearly 3,000 delegates, who collectively represent almost 90 million Communist Party members across China, have been chosen to attend the highly coveted event. Judging from the list of military and police delegates to the forthcoming congress where China’s future leaders are to be unveiled, the largest turnover of senior officers in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is set to occur.

An extraordinary 90% of the 300 military delegates will be first-time attendees.

At most, only 17% (seven of 41) of the military representatives with full membership on the 18th Central Committee will retain their seats.

This would constitute the largest-ever turnover of military elite in the history of the PRC.

China watchers are following the event with baited breadth with an eye on following issues

Xi Jinping’s to attempt Longer Hold on Power

Chinese law stipulates that a President of China cannot serve more than ten years, or two consecutive terms. There are, however, no legal limitations on how the length of service of a General Secretary or Chairman of the CMC.

Though, Xi Jinping is expected to stay on as President, Commander-in-Chief, General Secretary of the ruling CCP, Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and “core” leader for at least another term, he is likely to consolidate his hold on power for longer duration. However, it is also likely that he will attempt to consolidate his position in order to stay on beyond 2022 and serve a third term. The model likely to be followed by him on the same lines as previously used by only Mao Zedong. The title of Chairman will earn him a third term also.

Who will be In-Who will be Out

In all probability loyalists will be retained and followers of Deng Xiao Png camp will be weeded out beside a compromise candidates being retained.

Li Keqiang – the current Premier is likely to stay on, although there are rumours that Li could leave his post but stay in the Standing Committee by becoming Head of the National People’s Congress. Li Zhanshu, the current Director of the CCP’s General Office, has the best cut shot of going up, most likely as Chairman of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – assuming, of course, that Wang Qishan definitely leaves. Vice-Premier Wang Yang also has a good chance of going up, probably as Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, although Wang maintains a low profile and claims to have no aspirations for the Standing Committee.

At the Standing Committee, four members are mandated to retire. These are Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC); Yu Zhengsheng, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference; Liu Yunshan, Secretary of the Secretariat and Leader of the Propaganda Leading Group; and Zhang Gaoli, Vice-Premier.

There will also be a significant shake-up further down. As a result of the anti-corruption drive, 150 ‘tigers’ (senior officials) have been purged, including 17 full members of the Central Committee. Adding those who were purged to the 90 members who are due to retire, it is clear that 107 seats out of 205 total will be empty.

The most important Ministries to watch where personnel will change are the General Office, Ministry of Public Security, Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Ministry of State Security, Organisation Department of the CCP, and the military.

The final thing to look out for will be the number of seats in the Standing Committee, which could change depending on who rises or falls. Historically, it can be anywhere from 5 to 9 and there were murmurings at the beginning of 2017 that Xi might reduce the number of seats in the Standing Committee from 7 to 5. However, the majority of 19PC projections now believe it will be 7. This would be consistent with the fact that in 2002 and 2012 the number of seats has changed, but in 1997 and 2007 it stayed the same.

Constitutional Amendments

The current constitution upholds ‘Mao Zedong Thought’, ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’, the ‘Three Represents’ (Jiang Zemin’s legacy) and the ‘Scientific Outlook on Development’ (referring to Hu Jintao). Only Mao and Deng are explicitly named.

Xinhua News, the PRC’s official press agency, confirmed that the constitution will be amended to “include the key theories and strategic thoughts” – making it likely that Xi and his “Chinese dream” will be immortalised. In the arcane hierarchy of the CCP,  semantics matter: if Xi is mentioned by name, and if his contribution is referred to as ‘Thought’ (like Mao) rather than ‘Theory’ (like Deng), this will be a strong indication that Xi has consolidated power.

Changing Retirement Age

The “67 up, 68 down” rule is likely to be bent during the upcoming Congress. The rule, introduced in 2002, stipulates that officials who are 68 or older cannot serve a new term on the Politburo Standing Committee – the most powerful decision-making body in China.

By this logic, five of the current seven members of the Standing Committee are due to retire. At least three of these five are opposed to Xi, who will benefit from their departure. However, the rule also serves as a potential check on his ability to serve a third term, as Xi will be 72 in 2022. If Xi bends the rules by keeping 69-year old Wang Qishan, the current head of the anti-corruption campaign, on for another term, this will be a sign that Xi himself may seek to stay in power.

If Xi does not sidestep existing age-related measures and find a ‘special arrangement’ to keep Wang on, he will likely find him a different prestigious role. There are even suggestions that Wang could even replace Li as Premier.

So the biggest question will be whether or not Xi Jinping unites the party establishment by forming a team of rivals and deepening China’s political institutionalisation.

Abiding by established rules and norms and respecting the peaceful transition of power all carry profound implications for the future direction of the country.


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