China’s top leaders are meeting. What’s at stake?

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, presides over the opening ceremony of the 19th Party Congress, held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. (AP)

Unlike many authoritarian regimes, where leaders remain in office until they die, are overthrown in a coup or exit after a conflict, the Chinese Communist Party has developed an institutionalized process for replacing leaders.

The CCP holds a National Party Congress every five years to select leaders and approve other initiatives. The 19th Party Congress, which opened Oct. 18, should provide a clear indication of China’s top leaders for the next five years and perhaps beyond. Here’s a rundown:

1) What’s the purpose of the Party Congress?

Every five years, the CCP’s leadership meets to appoint leaders, revise the constitution and set the party’s priorities for the next five years. Like U.S. political party conventions, the outcome is determined well in advance, and there are few surprises. CCP leaders finalized much of the agenda and critical decisions in late summer. Unlike the American conventions, however, the outcomes of CCP party congresses remain a closely guarded secret until the actual Party Congress.

2) How does it work?

Over 2,200 delegates are attending the 19th Party Congress — representing the provinces, the military, major sectors like state-owned enterprises, the financial system and so on. The Party Congress is too large to deliberate and decide matters. Instead, it will ratify whatever decisions party leaders present this week.

Look for this Party Congress to do two main things. First, it will revise the CCP constitution. Each party congress amends the constitution to signify the status of top leaders and to identify policy priorities. The constitution now contains references to Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, Jiang Zemin’s theory of the “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s scientific development concept.

The 19th Party Congress is expected to add some mention of an idea associated with President Xi Jinping, either his “China Dream” or “Xi Jinping Thought.” Neither Jiang Zemin nor Hu Jintao was identified by name in the constitution, but each man’s ideas were. If “Xi Jinping Thought” makes it into the constitution, it would put Xi in the same pantheon as Mao and Deng, above his predecessors Jiang and Hu.

Second, the 19th Party Congress will elect a new Central Committee — a body of over 200 party, government and military leaders. This is “inner party democracy,” as the Party Congress will get a list of around 230 names, and then elect around 220 of them to the Central Committee. Party leaders will fully vet the list of candidates in advance; only the most trusted people make the final cut.

The new Central Committee will hold its first plenary session as soon as the Party Congress concludes next week. Its main purpose is to elect a new Politburo of around two dozen top leaders and its Standing Committee, which currently has seven members.

The Standing Committee is the most powerful political body in China. Who ends up here will give us a real clue about China’s top leaders for the next five years and maybe beyond.

3) What’s at stake for the 19th Congress in particular?

Here’s where it gets really interesting. China’s leadership succession is constrained by two factors: term limits and age limits. Term limits work like this: China’s top leaders can remain in their posts for two terms, after which they have to either be appointed to another position or retire.

  • Term limits may bend

Xi Jinping has served one term as CCP general secretary, and will undoubtedly be reappointed for a second term. The big question is whether someone will be elevated into the Standing Committee and identified as Xi’s successor. Xi’s immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, was the heir apparent for 10 years before becoming general secretary in 2002, and Xi himself was added to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 to indicate he was next in line for the post of general secretary in 2012.

If a successor is not identified, there will be speculation that Xi does not intend to resign as party secretary in 2022, at the end of his second term. Alternatively, the CCP could resurrect the post of party chairman, which the party retired in 1982, a few years after Chairman Mao Zedong died. But either of those moves — Xi remaining general secretary for more than two terms or taking the title that Mao used to hold — would indicate that Xi holds dominant sway over other party leaders.

  • Age limits will be tested

The CCP age limits also may see some bending. Once leaders turn 68, they cannot be reappointed, though they can serve out their terms. Five of the seven current Standing Committee members are over that age limit. One of them — Wang Qishan — is one of Xi’s most important allies, and has been in charge of the ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has removed both “tigers” and “flies,” in other words, central-level party, government and military leaders — even retired leaders — as well as local leaders. Xi may want to keep Wang and others around in some official capacity, but that would require violating the agreed-upon age limits.

China’s term and age limits aren’t completely ironclad. Only in the transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping in 2012 were they fully honored. Before that, Jiang Zemin maneuvered around the age limits in 1997, and skirted the term limits in 2002 when he held on to the post of chairman of the Central Military Commission even though he resigned as general secretary and president. But these limits have been enforced against all other top leaders. The current 19th Party Congress will therefore be a test of how strong those norms really are.

This may seem like a bottom-up process: local party members elect delegates to the Party Congress, which elects the Central Committee, which elects the Politburo and its Standing Committee. But it’s really a top-down process. Incumbent and retired leaders negotiate for months about who will remain, who will be promoted and who will retire. This is old-school politicking, designed to keep or change the balance of different factions and institutional interests.

4) What will happen after the 19th Party Congress?

These leadership changes are not simply about political power, as there are policy implications. For the past few years, there has been a stalemate between party leaders who want to stimulate the economy for short-term growth and those who favor longer-term economic restructuring. It is thought that Xi favors restructuring the economy, but it is hard to know for sure. Chinese leaders no longer openly display their policy differences.

If the leadership changes break that stalemate, the CCP may finally start addressing the problems of local debt, overcapacity in some sectors and pollution. This assumes that Xi has a reform agenda in mind. So far, there has been little evidence of that. Like Vladimir Putin in Russia, his goal may simply be to remain in power.

Once the Party Congress and Central Committee meetings conclude next week, we will have a clearer sense of Xi’s power. Even if he wants to remain in office for more than two terms and keep allies close even though they are past the retirement age, are other party leaders willing to abandon these norms? The outcome of the 19th Party Congress will give us a much better sense of how well institutionalized elite politics in China has become.

Bruce Dickson is professor of political science and international affairs and chair of the political science department at The George Washington University. He is the author of The Dictator’s Dilemma: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy for Survival (Oxford 2016).

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