But observers will struggle to make sense of it
CHINA’S elite have long had to keep their diaries clear for much of September, October and November, waiting for a date to be announced for a five-yearly congress of the ruling Communist Party. At last, it has been revealed. The red carpets will be rolled out and the skies turned blue (by shutting down factories and keeping cars off the roads) on October 18th. It will be the 19th such gathering since the party was founded in 1921. At the meeting, some 2,300 hand-picked delegates will choose a new Central Committee which will then hold its own conclave to reshuffle membership of the country’s most powerful decision-making bodies. The line-up has been largely settled during months of secretive horse-trading. Rumours abound about who has made the cut.
The president, party chief and supreme commander of the armed forces, Xi Jinping, certainly has. He has already served five years as the party’s general secretary. If he sticks to precedent, he has another five years to go (though some believe he wants to keep the job longer than the usual decade). This meeting will give Mr Xi his first chance to implement sweeping changes of personnel at the very top of the party—his predecessors selected the 25 members of the current Politburo at the previous congress in 2012. It is widely expected that this gathering will offer clues as to how effectively Mr Xi has consolidated his power since then and what he plans to do with it. The signals, however, will be hard to read.
Around half of the nearly 400 members of the Central Committee will be replaced, as will about two-fifths of the Politburo. New military chiefs will be appointed, too. But most attention will focus on who makes it into the Politburo’s Standing Committee. Five of its seven members are due to retire, including Wang Qishan, Mr Xi’s one firm supporter in the group, who is in charge of his anti-corruption campaign. There has been speculation that he may keep Mr Wang on. To do so would breach convention but no rules. However, retaining Mr Wang would not, by itself, prove that Mr Xi is strong. It could suggest that he lacks other close allies whom he trusts to do the politically dangerous job of fighting graft.
Isn’t Xi great
It is likely that the new Standing Committee will contain more Xi loyalists. But the problem for outsiders is that, even when the new men (and they will almost certainly all be men) are paraded before journalists at the end of the meetings, it may still be hard to calculate how much additional clout Mr Xi will enjoy. Factional allegiances are often ill-defined. Mr Xi is a stickler for secrecy.
It is not yet known how, or whether, the congress will change the party’s constitution to recognise Mr Xi’s contributions to Communist ideology. If it rules that the party should be guided by “Xi Jinping Thought”, that would suggest he has gained enormous power (the only other leader acknowledged to have Thought with a capital T is Mao Zedong). If the term chosen is “Xi Jinping Theory”, that would place him on a par with Deng Xiaoping—not bad either. Avoiding being elevated to Mao’s level may simply reflect good judgment on Mr Xi’s part. Diehard Mao fans would be appalled by his hubris should he claim to have Thought, too.
Assuming that Mr Xi does emerge stronger (which is likely), what will that mean? Early in his tenure some commentators predicted that he would spend the first five years building up his power, and then use it to carry out wide-ranging economic reforms as well as, perhaps, some limited political ones. That now seems unlikely. Mr Xi’s concentration of power has developed its own momentum and intensifying control over a fast-evolving society appears to be his main aim. As one party official puts it, Mr Xi will remain a “stabilising factor”; policy will not change much.
It is not clear what will happen when he steps down. Chinese leaders have tended to line up successors by this stage of their tenure. Not Mr Xi. He recently ousted the party chief of the south-western region of Chongqing, once tipped as a possible heir. The lack of an anointed successor need not mean Mr Xi will stay for a third term. But it does make it more likely that, even if he steps down as general secretary in 2022, he may try to hold the strings of any new leader. After all, Deng retained power from his perch as head of the China Bridge Association. Since the pro-democracy upheaval of 1989, the party has owed its longevity partly to managing peaceful, institutionalised transitions of power from one autocratic leader to another. Mr Xi may prove the joker in the pack.