What to Watch in China’s Big, Secret Party Powwow

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The annual meeting in Beidaihe, a summer retreat for China’s most powerful leaders since the 1950s, is one of the last chances for party elders to weigh in on the lineup to rule the country for the next five years. The names will be revealed at the 19th Party Congress, which is likely to take place in October or November.

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 nearly week-long gathering approaches cloaked in darkness, discernible mostly from the influence it exerts on other affairs. The meeting — planned for some time in the second half of the year — 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 take down of one would-be successor, mean for China’s biggest political event.

1. What is the party congress?

The congress is 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 Xiaopeng sought to rationalize the process, and one has been held every five years since 1977. They’ve eventually become the chief vehicle of an orderly succession system that elevates a new general secretary every 10 years, with mid-term reshuffles in-between. This year’s event will be the 19th Party Congress and mark the halfway point of Xi’s expected tenure.

3. When will the congress meet?

We don’t know. Officials have said only that the event will be held sometime in the second half of the year. A date could be announced after a meeting of the party’s elite 25-member Politburo at the end of this month. Usually it’s announced about one or two months ahead of time. Asked by reporters Aug. 3, Jiang Jianguo, the deputy chief of the party’s publicity department, simply said that the congress was getting “closer and closer.”

4. What happens before it starts?

There are no major political events scheduled from now until the congress starts. Details might start trickling out about a conclave earlier this month at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, where party elders weigh in on the leadership’s plans. Last month, 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 long-time 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 nearly 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 party’s 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?

Bloomberg News
With assistance by Peter Martin

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