Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

The Meeting That Could Seal Xi’s Grip on China

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Like a black hole at the center of China’s political universe, the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade congress is an event so massive nothing escapes its pull. The gathering -- slated to start on Oct. 18 in Beijing -- approaches cloaked in darkness, discernible mostly from the influence it exerts on other affairs. The meeting is expected to replace about half of China’s top leadership and shape President Xi Jinping’s influence into the next decade. Observers are seeking to divine what recent developments, such as Xi’s rise as the party’s “core” leader and his takedown of one would-be successor, mean for China’s biggest political event.

1. What is the party congress?

It’s an assembly of some 2,300 delegates from China’s ruling elite, including state leaders, top executives and military generals. In theory, the events serve as China’s answer to national elections, a forum to vote on policies, revise the party’s charter and replace top leaders. In practice, the big decisions are hashed out by party elders and sitting leaders over months of secret meetings and handshake deals. 

2. How often do they happen?

Under the personality-driven rule of Mao Zedong, congresses were infrequent and served largely to support his tumultuous political campaigns. Deng Xiaoping sought to rationalize the process, and one has been held every five years since 1977. They’ve evolved into the chief engine of an orderly succession system that elevates a new general secretary every 10 years, with mid-term reshuffles in-between. This year’s event, the 19th Party Congress, will mark the halfway point of Xi’s expected tenure.

3. When will the congress meet?

The 25-member Politburo has selected Oct. 18 as the event’s opening day, right in the middle of a range of anticipated dates. While the schedule is technically a recommendation that requires approval from the broader Central Committee at a plenary session a week earlier, that’s usually a formality.

4. What happens before it starts? 

There are no major political events scheduled before the big pageant begins. Details may already be trickling out from an August conclave at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, where party elders weigh in on the leadership’s plans. In July, Sun Zhengcai -- one of two Politburo members born after 1960 -- was unexpectedly removed from his post leading the southwestern city of Chongqing amid disciplinary allegations. The one-time presidential contender was replaced with a Xi associate, Chen Miner. “It’s clear that Xi is trying to lay the groundwork to get his people in place,” said Trey McArver, co-founder of research firm Trivium China. “If that means getting rid of people he doesn’t trust beforehand, then so be it.”

5. What will happen at the meeting?

The almost week-long event begins with a speech by Xi laying out the party’s priorities -- the most authoritative policy statement in the world’s second-largest economy every five years. The extent of Xi’s grip on power may be seen in revisions to the party charter, in particular if he gets one of his signature slogans -- or perhaps even his name -- written into the text. Most importantly, the congress will replace about half of the 200-member Central Committee, including as many as five of the seven members on the Politburo’s all-powerful Standing Committee -- if current retirement rules hold. On the last day, the top panel’s new line-up will be revealed in a theatrical curtain call after the closing session. Xi’s ascension to the Standing Committee a decade ago, at the ripe age of 54, telegraphed his rise to the top job in 2012.

6. What’s at stake?

This is Xi’s moment. Getting his ideas enshrined in the party charter and installing enough allies in top posts will determine his ability to implement policies such as overhauling the world’s largest military or reducing China’s $33 trillion debt pile. Moreover, Xi could amass enough power to choose his own successor, or break from recent convention and stay on for a third term. That would mark a serious departure from the consensus-driven leadership model that has reassured foreign investors for decades. “It already looks like Xi is going to have a degree of consolidation over the Politburo and the Standing Committee that we have not seen in the post-Mao era,” McArver said. “He has a legitimate shot at having a majority who are close to him on both bodies.”

7. What could go wrong? 

The event is carefully orchestrated to minimize foul-ups. That said, expectations are so high that even a minor setback could fan doubts about Xi’s effectiveness going forward. And party congress years have a way of bringing the unexpected. Before the last meeting in 2012, anti-Japanese protests broke out over a territorial dispute, Xi disappeared from public view for two weeks and Politburo member Bo Xilai was purged amid a murder scandal. The congress was widely seen as a factor in all those events. But no outsider really knows how. “It’s 2017, this is the second-largest economy in the world, the way it chooses its leadership is almost a complete black box,” said Jude Blanchette, engagement director at the Conference Board’s China Center. “And so all we have to go by is rumors.”

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg’s explainer on China’s secretive Beidaihe meeting. 
  • Bloomberg News on Xi’s efforts to make his mark on party ideology.
  • Hoover Institution’s guide to the run-up to the party congress.
  • Trivium China’s explainer on the party congress.
  • Bloomberg News on Sun Zhengcai’s downfall.

— With assistance by Peter Martin

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