China’s ruling Communist Party will hold its national congress, which takes place once every five years, starting on Oct. 18, state media said last week. It’s President Xi Jinping’s chance to secure his hold on the party—if he can get his allies into key positions.
The currently seven-member, Politburo Standing Committee has been the Chinese regime’s top decision-making body for decades. Thus, the major factions and powerful elders of the Communist Party have strived to secure seats for their protégés in the larger 25-member Politburo before the National Congress, as future Standing Committee members are drawn from this pool.
The leadership shuffle of top party officials at every party congress often reveals the state of power struggles between different factions within the communist party. A key measure of Xi’s power will be how many of his supporters are installed in the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee.
Here are five things to look out for at the upcoming 19th party congress.
1. Will Xi’s Top Ally Break The Age Barrier?
Wang Qishan, 69, currently serves as Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. He has been the top enforcer of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign since 2012 and is widely seen as Xi’s most crucial ally.
Wang has overseen the punishment of hundreds of thousands of officials during Xi’s corruption crackdown. Even senior officials have been jailed, including Zhou Yongkang, China’s once-feared domestic security chief who oversaw an internal security apparatus that controlled the courts, prosecution agencies, police forces, paramilitary forces, and intelligence organs and rivaled the military in its budget.
He also oversaw an extrajudicial Gestapo-like apparatus, called the 610 office. Its primary function was to carry out the persecution of the Falun Dafa spiritual practice.
Former leader Jiang Zemin made an unwritten rule that anyone over 68 had to retire rather than start a new five-year term on the standing committee. He used this to stack the committee in his favor when he retired as leader in 2002, allowing him to maintain influence behind the scenes for another decade.
Some expect Xi will ignore the convention and keep Wang in position.
2. Will The Standing Committee Shrink?
Speculation has been rife that with five of the standing committee’s members up for retirement, Xi could shrink the committee down to five members from its current seven.
Xi could challenged in this if he uses the age policy to push some out but keeps Wang on the committee.
The size of the committee has ranged from three to eleven members. Jiang expanded it to 9 members when he retired in 2002.
The committee was reduced it to seven members when Xi took power in 2012 and he may attempt to get it down to five so he needs only two allies to have a majority on the committee.
3. Will The Constitution Be Changed?
Besides a large turn over in senior party officials, the National Congress is also a time when the party’s constitution is updated or modified. Past leaders have put their own ideas and theories into the constitution. Xi may do the same.
Xi has been an avid globalist, pushing for China to play a leading role in the international order.
He’s also spoken forcefully about the rule of law and has given judges unprecedented freedom to hear cases about party officials.
But he has also been a party stalwart.
It remains to be seen how these and other inclinations may translate into his attempt at adding to party dogma.
4. Will Xi Get A Successor?
Based on recent precedent, Xi is expected to step down at the 2022 congress after a decade at the top. If Xi does not choose a successor at the 19th Party congress, it would suggest he plans to stay on, though perhaps in another post.
Xi’s time at the helm of the party began with party rivals immediately trying to undermine his authority—even, according to some sources, attempting a coup.
Xi’s entire anti-corruption campaign is seen by many analysts as a way to purge the party of former leader Jiang Zemin’s influence. Jiang fostered rampant corruption as a way to buy loyalty from political allies.
If Xi feels that his work is not over, and his retirement could be followed by payback from his rivals, he may try to stay on in some capacity as leader.
5. Will The Chairman System be Restored?
Xi may bring back the position of Chairman of the Communist Party, a position abolished in 1982 in an attempt to keep any future leader from rising above the party as dictator Mao Zedong had.
Currently, the seven-member standing committee is supposedly run by consensus rather than majority rule. If Xi were to resurrect the chairman position, he would have effective control over the standing committee. This could lead him down the road to dictator, as happened with Mao, and place him at the head of a violent regime plagued by corruption and public scorn.
Alternatively, it could give Xi the authority necessary to make greater changes within the party, including shifting the regime away from communism towards a presidential system.