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Politics

China's party congress sets stage for power grab

Lax charter rules could allow Xi Jinping to prevail beyond two terms

A couple take a selfie in front of a display featuring party slogans ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing.   © Reuters

With the Chinese Communist Party's 19th congress scheduled to start on Oct. 18, all eyes are on whether President Xi Jinping will consolidate power beyond two terms and if a restructure of the top ranks will result in the emergence of new power elites.

China's ruling elites select their top leaders periodically behind closed doors and craft messages to energize its rank and file. On the surface, the party congress is the stage for the political pomp and ceremony. The general secretary of the party, in this case Xi, will deliver the keynote speech, officially known as the political report, that summarizes the work of the party in the last five years and sets the goals ahead.

The 2,287 delegates to this year's congress, handpicked to represent the nearly 90 million party members, will be duly broadcast on Chinese television discussing -- and enthusiastically endorsing -- the party line. The real drama will unfold at the end of the weeklong affair when the party announces a new central committee, which has about 200 full members and 170 alternate members. The new central committee will select a new Politburo and its standing committee.

In reality, the most important decisions, particularly those regarding the makeup of the Politburo Standing Committee and the Politburo, are made several months before the congress. In this case, top Chinese leaders apparently agreed on these matters at their summer retreat late August.

Why then should CCP leaders bother to drag nearly 2,300 busy officials all the way to Beijing to spend a week parroting each other and rubber-stamping decisions made for them by a small number? As Professor Guoguang Wu of the University of Victoria in Canada shows in his insightful study, "China's Party Congress: Power, Legitimacy, and Institutional Manipulation," the congress plays a vital role in generating the necessary political support for Chinese leaders.

China's rulers are not elected by the people, but they must have the support of the membership of the party. The sight of thousands of party faithful regurgitating slogans and cheering the personnel and policy decisions made behind their back may strike outsiders as pure Orwellian display of fake loyalty. But without such a methodically staged event, no Chinese leader would be considered legitimate by followers. Even Mao Zedong, perhaps the most powerful ruler in Chinese history, had to convene two congresses during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution to legitimize his authority.

Besides granting Chinese rulers indispensable institutional legitimacy, party congresses can also expand their power through changes of important rules and restructuring of key party positions.

Consolidating power

Legitimacy and power will, indeed, be the focus. Conventionally, the 19th congress merely reappoints the president for another five-year term and should not be as important as, say, the 18th congress, which installs a new leader. But this time may be different because Xi, the incumbent leader, needs full endorsement for his policies and expanded power.

The most important congress outcome is the party's succession arrangement. In the post-Mao era, the CCP has managed to designate successors long before they assumed office, thus avoiding a last-minute scramble for political supremacy. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping picked Hu Jintao to succeed Jiang Zemin -- a full decade before the succession was scheduled to take place. In 2007, rival factions in the party settled on Xi as Hu's successor, five years ahead of leadership transfer.

This succession arrangement, including its implicit two-term limit, has never been formalized as the CCP charter does not have such provisions, in keeping with the party's aversion to tying its own hands by imposing clear rules on itself. Nevertheless, the party's last two successions occurred smoothly, largely thanks to the top leaders' compliance with the implicit two-term limit.

The lack of formal rules on succession and term limit now opens the door for Xi to cement his power beyond two terms.

He can accomplish this in two ways at the congress. First, he can prevent the party from nominating a clear successor, who must be younger than 55. Among the pool of potential successors (sitting Politburo members and party chiefs of large provinces), there is only one eligible candidate, the party chief of Guangdong. But he is rumored to be the next executive vice premier and slotted to succeed Premier Li Keqiang in 2022.

Of course, there was another eligible successor, the former party chief of Chongqing and Politburo member Sun Zhengcai. But Sun was arrested late July for corruption. By mere coincidence, the CCP announced a long list of crimes allegedly committed by Sun on Sept. 29. Sun was said to be "a mediocre and ineffectual leader" who "leaked secrets, traded power for sex, lived a decadent lifestyle, and took huge bribes."

If no clear successor emerges at the congress, it would be a lot easier to extend Xi's term in 2022.

Second, Xi could restructure the top ranks to ensure a third term. There are rumors that the position of party chairman, abolished by Deng after the Cultural Revolution to prevent the concentration of power and the return of a dominant leader like Mao, may be restored. Should this happen and Xi fill the position, a third term is almost guaranteed because his clock will start anew with the assumption of chairmanship.

Xi's battle

There are trade-offs in both options. Option one will be easier to execute since it does not break an implicit taboo. But it merely creates the necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a third term for Xi. A lot can change between now and 2022. While he is expected to fill more senior positions with loyalists and gain more power at the congress, counting on a third term in 2022 may be a gamble.

Option two requires much more political capital since it entails an amendment of the charter but eliminates the uncertainty of the third term. Outsiders have no way of knowing which will occur. But one thing for sure is that for the first time since the end of the Mao era, the party will not have a designated successor.

For Xi, this is a battle he must win. Should he lose and his rivals manage to install a successor despite his objections, Xi would be made a lame duck for his second term. His legacy would be at risk.

Apart from the succession issue, the balance of power among factions reshaped by this congress will also be worth watching. The stability of elite politics depends on this new balance. In the last five years, Xi's anti-corruption campaign has decimated the network of supporters affiliated with former President Jiang Zemin. But with a few exceptions, most members of the Youth League faction appear to have survived the campaign unscathed.

If the rumored list of the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee turns out to be real, the Youth League faction would gain more power (although much less than the loyalists of Xi). The post-congress leadership will likely feature two large factions -- Xi's loyalists and the members of the Youth League. The question is whether this bipolarity will be stable.

Finally, this congress will have to convey a message that reassures the party's rank and file. Xi's four-year anti-graft drive has shaken up the regime and alienated many of its members, who have not only lost many of their perks and privileges, but also have to live in fear of politicized corruption investigations. Even though his authority will be invulnerable at the top, Xi could see his efforts to reinvigorate the CCP rule stymied by a disgruntled bureaucracy. At the party congress, he will need to calibrate a message that can convey reconciliation without appearing to sanction a return to the bad old days of crony capitalism run amok.

For all his power and skill, these are challenging tasks for Xi to accomplish at the congress. The odds still favor him, but it will not be a cakewalk. As the stakes are actually quite high, perhaps the 19th congress, staged as it may be, is worth watching after all.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of "China's Crony Capitalism."

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