Xi Jinping has a keen understanding of the importance of reform. This is likely to serve him well.
On October 18, the Communist Party of China (CPC) will begin its 19th congress. Like all previous meetings of the CPC congress, this one too will be tightly scripted; many decisions – especially around the line-up of new leadership – have already been taken in meetings in the months leading to the formal inaugural. Some of the work will be done through a plenum a week ahead of the congress.
The one result we do know is that Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC, president of the People’s Republic and supreme commander of its military, has made grade for a second term. What the analysts will be looking for is whether Xi, who is being described as a “core” leader, will also cast aside the convention limiting the terms of top leaders to two and carry on after the next congress scheduled for 2022.
However, if one of the two Politburo members who are born after 1960 figure in the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), then we could be possibly looking at a successor to Xi. The two are Hu Chunhua, the Guangdong party chief, and Chen Min’er, the new party chief of the Chongqing who is just a Central Committee member. A third, Sun Zhengcai, was abruptly removed from that position in July allegedly for corruption. There are, of course, other Politburo members like Li Zhansu, Hang Zheng and Wang Yang who could figure in the new list, but they will hit the retirement zone by the next party congress.
Analysts will pore over the list of new members of the various party outfits for clues as to the extent to which Xi has consolidated power. These signs will be available in the composition of the new Central Committee, which is nearly 400 strong and will be selected by the 2,300 delegates to the congress. The Central Committee will, in turn, elect the party general secretary, the Politburo, currently 25 strong, and the topmost organ of the Central Committee between its sessions, the seven-member PSC. In addition, it will elect its topmost control mechanism, the approximately 130-member Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). However, real power resides in the CCDI standing committee of 20 members and its secretary, currently PBSC member and Xi’s close associate, Wang Qishan.
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Expectations are that half of the Central Committee and two-fifths of the Politburo will see new members. But the focus will be on the composition of the PBSC, currently with seven members: Xi; Li Keqiang, the premier; Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People’s Congress (the lower house of China’s parliament); Yu Zhensheng, chairman of the National People’s Political Consultative Conference (the upper house of China’s parliament); Wang Qishan, secretary of the CCDI; Liu Yunshan, senior-most secretary of the secretariat of the Politburo and PBSC; and Zhang Gaoli, first vice premier of China’s upper cabinet, the State Council.
The last time around, in the 18th party congress, seven of nine PBSC members retired because they exceeded the age of 67, which is conventionally regarded as the retirement age. Two of them, Xi and Li, retained their positions and assumed the top offices of the CPC and People’s Republic of Cchina. This time around, by the age metric, five of the seven are expected to retire, meaning all except Xi and Li. Whether or not the age convention will be modified to accommodate someone like Wang, who has aided Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, is difficult to say.
The report that the CPC will amend its constitution has set off rumours that Xi’s authority will be enshrined in the constitution by inserting a ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ or ‘Xi Jinping Theory’ section into the document. The insertion would be significant; the former would bring him on par with Mao Zedong and the latter, Deng Xiaoping. But neither may happen, constitutional amendments have been a feature of past congresses as well, signalling the thinking and strategies of the party, and Xi’s ‘Four Comprehensives’ may figure, simply as a concept to be adhered to. These refer to building a moderately prosperous society, deepening reform, governance by law and tightening CPC discipline.
Another significant development of the 19th CPC congress is that it is likely to lead to see a massive turnover of the military leadership. An indication of this was given by the fact that in a list of 303 delegates of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Armed Police (PAP), slated to attend the party congress, as many as 90% are first-time delegates. It is from this group that the military members of the Central Committee will be selected. The last party congress saw 41 of the delegates being sent to the Central Committee.
Even among those re-elected, a number will step down because they cross the 67-year age limit. Among these are the top-most military generals who are also members of the Central Military Commission (CMC): Fan Chanlong, one of the two vice chairmans; Chang Wanquan, the defence minister; Zhao Keshi, director of the Logistics Support Department; recently-retired Navy chief Wu Shengli; and PLA Air Force chief Ma Xiaotian.
The continuing investigation into corruption in the PLA that led to the arrest and prosecution of Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, both former vice chairmen of the CMC, will have a significant impact on the military profile of the party congress. The report says that General Fang Fenghui, chief of the CMC’s Joint Staff Department, and General Zhang Yang, head of the Political Work Department, are facing investigation and hence their names have been dropped from the list of PLA delegates. One report included Admiral Wu Shengli in the list as well. All three of Zhang’s deputies were also missing from the list of delegates to the party congress.
The huge turnover of military members of the Central Committee will help Xi put his stamp of authority over the PLA. As it is, among those dropped as delegates to the congress include important princelings such as Liu Yuan (son of former president Liu Shaoqi), Liu Yazhou (son-in-law of another president), Liu Xiaojiang (son-in-law of former party chief Hu Yaobang) and Zhang Haiyang (son of a former CMC vice chairman). In addition, PAP chief Wang Jianping, political commissar of the PLA Air Force Tian Xiusi and Commander of the Tibet Military District Yang Jinshan were dropped from the Central Committee because of charges of corruption.
In the past five years, Xi has promoted officers who not only have strong personal ties with him, but whose careers has been marked by professionalism and, in some cases, combat experience. Many have headed military academies and are advocates of new trends in warfare.
Xi has surprised observers with the speed with which he consolidated his power. The consensus among analysts is that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and reform measures have given him firm control of the party and the PLA. He has promoted people who have had an association with him, but this does not necessarily imply that he is establishing a faction; rather, he has sought to promote people with a good track record and a strong work ethic. He has a keen understanding of the importance of reform that is needed to revitalise a huge organisation like the CPC, if China is to meet the goals set by the party itself. This is likely to serve him well in his second term as party chief, which will begin in the forthcoming 19 congress.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation.