China’s National Congress prepares to shuffle the deck in second-largest economy


Twice a decade, the top echelons of the Chinese Communist Party meet. It is political theatre on a grand scale.

Around 2000 delegates gather at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and by week’s end, China’s new power elite will be unveiled. Seven men will walk out on stage on the red carpet, before hundreds of cameras.

It will be the Chinese public’s, and the world’s, first glimpse of the new Politburo Standing Committee – the Chinese government’s cabinet under president Xi Jinping.

In a one-party state, there are no elections to decide this transfer of power. Even within the Great Hall, the decisions have been predetermined.

Chinese President Xi Jinping.Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: AP

Australia’s largest trading partner is governed by rules vastly different to our noisy, Western democratic tradition of elections.

The next meeting of the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress will be held on October 18. The world is watching as China sets its major policy direction for the next five years.

Campaign on

An Australian election is heralded by corflutes, competing attack ads and the school sausage sizzle on polling day.

In China, as the 19th National Congress approaches, the hammer and sickle come to the fore.

Almost 90 million Communist Party members are being encouraged to download “party-building” apps for their mobile phones, and actively study how to be a good communist.

State newspapers encourage the public to “dob-in” extravagant officials who indulge in boozy banquets on the job, or travel overseas on the public tab.

China’s biggest tech companies have been fined for not censoring social media content enough. The Great Firewall has been fortified. Dissidents are being removed from Beijing.

Behind closed doors

Because of their age, five out of seven members of China’s cabinet are expected to step down – 68 is compulsory retirement age.

Almost half of the 25 members of the Politburo, or outer cabinet, are also expected to retire.

And just like an Australian preselection, the real Game of Thrones to replace China’s most powerful has been running in the back rooms for months.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Photo: AP

The one certainty is that Xi will remain as general secretary of the Communist Party, president, and chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Referred to by the party as “the core”, Xi will strengthen his position by bringing more allies into cabinet positions around him.

Traditionally, the makeup of the new politburo standing committee (cabinet) would be carved up among the factions: the Princelings, Communist Youth League and Shanghai group.

But these factions are in decline, overtaken by Xi’s Zhejiang group. Xi has recently managed to fill many of the key stepping-stone positions that qualify Chinese politicians for entry into cabinet with his followers. His faction is so named because many had worked with him in Zhejiang province as he forged his early career.

Sound like an Australian prime minister pencilling a list for cabinet, post-election night win? China’s five-yearly turnover is a wilder ride.

At the last congress in 2012, factional jostling saw the party boss of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, exit the race amid a murder inquiry, and ultimately jailed for corruption. The Chongqing curse struck again this year, as the Politburo’s youngest member Sun Zhengcai, 53, was suddenly dumped as the city’s party boss and placed under investigation.

Xi follower Chen Min’er was installed to replace him. As party boss of one of China’s top four cities, he is almost certain to enter the politburo, and is tipped for cabinet.

Faces to watch

  • Smog-busting blogger Cai Qi had 10 million social media followers, rare for a Chinese official, before he began his meteoric rise through the party ranks. He became the mayor of Beijing in October 2016, cracking down on pollution. He was elevated to Beijing party boss in May. This Xi ally will likely take seat in the politburo.
  • Xi’s corruption-busting right hand man is Wang Qishan, 69. Wang has passed the unofficial retirement age for Chinese cabinet members, and the biggest question of the congress is whether he stays on despite his age, while many others retire.
  • As the head of the party’s corruption watchdog, Wang has performed the most important role of any of Xi’s inner circle, eclipsing Chinese PremierLi Keqiang. Li’s power base, the Youth League, is in decline and was criticised by Xi for being out of touch with China’s young.

The anti-corruption campaign has been fought far and wide – punishing a million officials and toppling the former security chief. It has likely created many enemies for Xi, particularly if rival factions perceive the crackdown has been used against them.

But no mud has stuck to Wang. The spotlight has been turned on him in recent weeks, in surprising ways, suggesting he may be preparing to move into a different role.

Did China’s elderly corruption fighter really meet with China hawk and dumped Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon this month? London newspaper The Financial Times reported Wang summoned Bannon to the Chinese leadership compound of Zhongnanhai.

A week earlier, Wang unusually met visiting Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the glare of the media cameras.

So chances are he won’t retire.

Post-factional politics?

ChinaPolicy’s David Kelly, an Australian who has been observing Chinese politics for 40 years, says he no longer watches for factions but rather where people sit along an “axis of risk aversion”, to guess who Xi will want to work with.

Who in the party thinks China should push onto the world stage faster? Who wants a more cautious approach?

The military

The Brookings Institution’s Cheng Li says China’s military leadership is about to undergo its biggest turnover in history. This is because 90 per cent of the military delegates who will attend the congress are new names.

Five military central committee members must retire, and be replaced, including Defence Minister Chang Wanquan, 68.

The People’s Liberation Army has seen staff numbers slashed by 300,000 under Xi’s reforms, while two former vice chairmen have been purged in the corruption campaign.

Slogans and ideology

It is routine for Chinese officials, media and party members to be required to study an evolving canon of communist texts, beginning with Marxism and Mao.

A Chinese president has made his mark on history if his own “theory” is inducted into this canon, with a catchy title. There is Mao Zedong Thought, Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents, and Deng Xiaoping Theory.

At the congress, Xi Jinping will break into this elite list.

“He will be credited with a level of theoretical contribution equivalent to that of Mao Zedong, and even surpassing,” says Kelly.

Kelly is tipping that Xi’s thought will be: “Governing as a major power.” It refers to China’s re-emergence on the world stage.

Party journals have recently been pushing this slogan, which is a strong indication it will stick.

The party likes to float big ideas, to give opportunity for fine tuning before the congress, says Kelly. (Sort of like Australian political parties sending a slogan to focus groups.)

Already, Xi’s collected speeches and essays since he became president have been published in a book, Xi Jinping: The governance of China, which has sold 6.42 million copies in 160 countries, as state media likes to remind the public.

The efforts of Australian political aspirants publishing books of zeitgeist economic or political theory (think Tony Abbott’s Battlelines) pale in comparison.

Pollution and reform

The congress will outline key policy directions for the next five years.

Big overseas takeovers by Chinese companies have slowed significantly as the Chinese business community waits to see the final shape of new rules on overseas investment.

In China, everyone, public or private, plays by the government’s rules.

Australia, as a major trading partner, will be looking for any policy shifts that impact on exports or investment.

China is expected to continue its fight against pollution, which may hit Australian iron ore and coal.

Chinese business analysts tip the congress will result in a new round of economic reforms, including more mergers of state-owned enterprises and the opening up of more of China’s services sector, such as health and education, to private investors.

The party’s central committee on Monday released its first guideline to protect the property rights of entrepreneurs.

China is under pressure from US President Donald Trump to do more to open its markets to foreign companies, and this is an area where announcements are likely.

Kelly thinks that a new role will be created to take charge of Xi’s flagship foreign policy, the Belt and Road Initiative.

Billions of dollars in loans are on offer for infrastructure projects to build “modern silk routes” to Europe and Africa via land and sea, but there is concern about risk.

A new corruption agency, run at arm’s length from the party and therefore better able to liaise with international policing bodies, is also expected to emerge from the congress, under a new national law.

It is an attempt to gain international cooperation in returning China’s Top 100 most wanted “fugitives”, who have fled overseas.

By Kirsty Needham
Sydney Morning Herald


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