20th Party Congress: Overview

Sep 29, 2022

Every five years the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) convenes a congress of approximately 2300 senior Party members in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square in Beijing to lay out China’s political agenda for the years ahead.  This year’s 20th Party Congress (average age 52 with 27% women) will commence on Sunday, October 16 and is expected to last for a little less than a week.

The Party Congress is the nation’s major political gathering that is widely watched inside and outside of China for important signs of directional shifts in policy and leadership.  The 19th Party Congress of October 2017, for example, featured the rollout of “Xi  Jinping Thought” as a comprehensive statement of a new emphasis on socialist ideology in reshaping the governance of modern China.  At first dismissed as a rehash of standard Party rhetoric, Xi Jinping Thought quickly became emblematic of an all-encompassing strain of ideological influence, Party discipline, and a Xi-centric consolidation of leadership power. It featured the first major revision to the Marxian dialectic (the “principal contradiction”) that had guided China since the early 1980s; China was no longer cast as the backward undeveloped society of the Deng Xiaoping era but now viewed as a moderately prosperous nation that needed to address the imbalances and inadequacies of its system.  This was a hint of Xi’s biggest gambit, the aspirational great power objectives that he set out for 2049, the centennial anniversary of the founding of the PRC.

The focus of the 20th Party Congress is likely to be less about ideology and more about leadership.  Typically, China’s leadership changes are announced in a meeting of the newly-elected 205-member Central Committee of the CCP immediately after the national congress concludes — the so-called first plenum of the Central Committee of the Party Congress. It is a foregone conclusion that the upcoming first plenum will issue a pro forma announcement of Xi’s appointment to an unprecedented third five-year term as Party General Secretary.  There is some debate on how he will be characterized in the subsequent communiqués issued at the conclusion of the gatherings — as a “great helmsman” in the tradition of Mao or as “Party Chairman” as was the case for Hua Guofeng and Hu Yaobang, Mao’s two immediate successors.  Irrespective of the nomenclature, Xi’s role as a “core” leader in the vein of Mao Zedong has already been firmly established by Party-leaders.

The big unanswered issue on leadership is less about Xi and more about his supporting cast — those who will comprise the so-called Standing Committee of the Politburo (SCP).  Under Xi, the SCP shrank in size to 7 members from 9 (the case in the Xiang and Hu administrations that immediately proceeded Xi). From the days of Deng Xiaoping, the SCP was emblematic of Party governance by consensus rather than by one dominant leader.  A smaller SCP underscores Xi’s consolidation of power in a smaller group of loyalists, antithetical to Deng’s strenuous efforts to avoid the return to another personality cult such as that of the Mao era. Of key importance in the SCP to be unveiled after the 20th Party Congress will be the continuity of Xi-centric dominance; the choice of a new Premier as Li Keqiang steps down after ten years, and the role of Wang Huning as China’s leading idealogue (who will have reached retirement age) will provide important signs of any CCP inclination to check Xi’s core power. I will address this important aspect of China’s leadership transition next week.

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