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Jul 19, 2017 | 20:28 GMT

8 mins read

In China, a Party Congress for the Ages

The leadership transition comes at a unique moment in China's modern history, when the country itself is undergoing a radical transformation.
(TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights
  • The approaching 19th Party Congress will serve as an important indicator of whether Chinese President Xi Jinping will be able to continue consolidating power.
  • Though necessary for pushing through sweeping reforms, an extensive reshuffle among the country's political elite could bring greater uncertainty to a nation already experiencing dramatic change.
  • Should Xi's political standing falter in the event of instability, the resilience of the party system he has built around himself could weaken, undermining the very goals it was designed to achieve. 

In a few months, China's leaders will meet in Beijing for one of the biggest and most politically charged events of the year: The 19th Party Congress. At the summit, which takes place every five years, the Chinese Communist Party will assess its performance since the previous conference and set goals for the country's political, economic and diplomatic future. But perhaps most important, the party will select nearly 200 senior figures — including the bulk of the small but all-important Standing Committee — who will be responsible for guiding the country over the next decade.

This leadership transition comes at a unique moment in China's modern history, when the country itself is undergoing a radical transformation. Amid a lengthy socio-economic restructuring, China is still grappling with a number of daunting challenges, from massive disparities and a distorted financial system to soaring debt and environmental degradation. At the same time, Beijing's expanding assets and interests are shifting its attention and ambitions ever outward, pulling its military and diplomatic resources along with them. Rather than continue down its historical path of isolation and introversion, China is slowly beginning to seek out relevance and a role on the international stage.

Amid a lengthy socio-economic restructuring, China is still grappling with a number of daunting challenges, from massive disparities and a distorted financial system to soaring debt and environmental degradation.

But with great change comes a need for the power to enforce it. And indeed, over the course of Chinese President Xi Jinping's first term, the Communist Party has seen the boldest attempt since the late 1970s to consolidate power, eliminate opposition and compel ideological conformity. Yet despite pushback on these efforts, they will be necessary — at least in the eyes of China's leaders — to manage Beijing's lofty aspirations in the years to come. The approaching party congress will thus serve as a bellwether of Xi's ability to continue amassing power, and to see his grand vision for China through.

Revamping the Ruling Class

Since rising through the ranks of the Communist Party to become general secretary in 2012, Xi has worked quickly to gather power around himself and a circle of his closest associates. With the help of widespread purges and anti-corruption campaigns, he has rattled many of Beijing's disparate political factions — from the unbridled energy industry to the regional cliques of Chongqing, Sichuan and Shanxi — and undermined his foes. His efforts culminated in the sidelining of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (once the party's paramount security organ) and the dismantling of the Communist Youth League (the party's most powerful patronage network, and the path through which many allies of former President Hu Jintao and current Premier Li Keqiang rose to power).

In their place, Xi has established a network of loyal followers among trusted technocrats and old allies in regions like Zhejiang and Fujian. At the same time, he has tightened his command over China's military and security apparatus by massively overhauling it and establishing policymaking commissions linked back to the party — bodies replicated in the economic and foreign policy realms as well. Together, these measures have boosted the president's power to a level unseen since the era of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. In doing so, they have also substantially reshaped the collective leadership model the Chinese Communist Party has relied on for nearly three decades.

Xi's power is not without checks, but the party's approaching reshuffle will most likely remove some of the few that are left. The president will have the opportunity to help appoint as many as five of the seven Standing Committee members, along with more than half of the Politburo positions opening up, as many of the officials selected by Xi's predecessors step down.

And as the party prepares to decide the composition of its Standing Committee, the results of the intense negotiations taking place behind the scenes will signal the extent to which Xi is able to exert his will.

In fact, in the past few months the president has already begun moving more of his friends into posts scattered throughout the ruling party and government. This year's "reshuffle season" has seen new secretaries and governors take the helm of 21 and 17 provinces, respectively. Meanwhile, the roles of party secretary for three of China's four largest municipalities — Beijing, Chongqing and Tianjin — have gone to Xi's colleagues; it is only a matter of time before another of the president's allies takes charge in Shanghai. Similar changes are underway at the national level, too. Ministerial jobs in economic, commercial and environmental affairs have gone to Xi's trusted advisers, while crucial party organs, including its propaganda wing, are likely to shift in the president's favor once their top seats are cleared in the reshuffle.

Rules Are Made to Be Broken

This string of personnel changes has only reinforced Xi's image as the Chinese Communist Party's "core leader." But in reality, his influence is neither complete nor unrivaled. As the party prepares to decide the composition of its Standing Committee, the results of the intense negotiations taking place behind the scenes will signal the extent to which Xi is able to exert his will — and by the same token, the lengths he still must go to appease those seeking to check his power.

One matter that bears watching is whether the president will prove willing to break the customary Standing Committee retirement age of 68 in order to keep Wang Qishan, Xi's anti-corruption czar and closest aide, on the panel. Wang's war on graft has earned him few friends and many enemies, and any attempt by the president to change the rules to protect his position would no doubt elicit protests, perhaps even complicating Xi's personal quest for power.

The method of choosing new Standing Committee members may also offer some clues as to the president's political standing. The party has a loose tradition of selecting candidates from a pool of senior-most Politburo members, many of whom are holdover appointments from previous administrations. Should these officials be bypassed in the 19th Party Congress, resulting in the promotion of their younger counterparts instead, it could signal that Xi has successfully circumvented customary procedure to stock the committee with members of his choosing.

Perhaps most important, the final makeup of the Standing Committee will give a glimpse of what the future holds for the nation's highest posts: the party secretariat, the presidency and the premiership. So far, Xi has not chosen an heir for himself or Li Keqiang. (By contrast, Xi's planned succession to the presidency was made clear a decade ago, as was true of the presidents before him.) The question drew renewed interest this month when Sun Zhengcai, a longtime front-runner for national leadership, was dismissed from his post as party secretary in Chongqing on July 15. Sun's ousting, along with speculation that he is currently under investigation for corruption, will almost certainly deprive him of the chance to be considered for the Standing Committee — let alone the presidency or premiership. The candidates who take his place could convey information about who Xi now has his eye on, or if he intends to ignore the party's informal two-term limit and remain the party's general secretary beyond 2022.

Even if Xi's rapid rise has muted many of his critics, it has not silenced them entirely.

A Sensitive Transition

Given their scale and political sensitivity, China's leadership transitions have historically proved to be contentious events. Careers are made or broken amid the swirl of rumor, compromise and back-channel negotiation. Even if Xi's rapid rise has muted many of his critics, it has not silenced them entirely.

Perhaps the most vocal of his opponents has been Guo Wengui, a fugitive financial tycoon who has released a series of damning revelations about many of China's senior leaders from exile. Chief among them is Wang, whom Guo has accused of corruption amid an ongoing probe into China's biggest financial conglomerates. Though most of this leaked information cannot be verified, it has generated enormous speculation about the anti-corruption campaign Wang is spearheading and has greatly damaged the party's image. And as the window closes for China's politicians to cement their positions ahead of the party congress, promotions, demotions and housecleaning at the top of the organization will expose the internal rivalries and discord beneath the surface of Xi's political brinksmanship.

It's no surprise, then, that Xi is taking steps to shore up his position by enforcing the party line and tightening censorship rules. Even if the president goes unchallenged in the upcoming turnover, it by no means guarantees that he will keep a firm hold on the party ranks forever. Because for every Mao or Deng who has temporarily won control of the party, there have been many more who have fallen spectacularly from power. In much the same way, Xi has carved out his position in a time of relative stability; he has not yet been tested by crisis. And as China's leaders turn their attention inward to manage the country's precarious political transition, instability from within or without could quickly bring long-suppressed discontent among party members bubbling to the surface.

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