Political Shakedown at China's Party Congress

Communist Party chief Hu Jintao will preside over China’s seventeenth Party Congress when it convenes on 15th October. Held every five years, the event sees over two thousand delegates from all levels of the Chinese Communist Party assemble for the country’s most significant political meeting.

The congress has two main functions:

Firstly it evaluates the party’s work since the previous party congress, assesses its present state, and establishes the party’s future direction through major policy proposals.

Secondly the congress formally selects the party’s (and thus the country’s) top leaders, with appointments to the Central Committee, Politburo, Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and Central Military Commission (CMC).

These two tasks are intimately intertwined. Broad policy guidelines established at the congress draw upon the strength and influence of party leaders and their respective allies. In turn the adoption or rejection of policy proposals influence and shape the career prospects of the party leadership.

The congress is likely to witness a number of key developments:

  • Widespread leadership changes are expected for the Politburo, Standing Committee and Central Committee. Hu will likely consolidate his grip on power by promoting his close allies to senior positions and weaken the influence of his predecessor Jiang Zemin.
  • The 17th Party Congress could mark the emergence of the fifth generation of Chinese leaders. This could later prove a watershed generation in terms of reform, both economic and political.
  • Announcement or indication of Hu’s chosen successor who will succeed Hu in 2012 if all goes to plan. Speculation is focusing on Li Keqiang, Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao.
  • Changes in the Central Military Commission are likely to mirror developments in other leadership bodies; Hu will consolidate his grip on power at the expense of Jiang Zemin’s continuing influence. General Cao Gangchaun is expected to step down as Minister of National Defence. Precedent suggests Guo Boxiong will replace him.
  • A crackdown on dissent both within the party/government and the population has been gaining momentum since April in preparation for the Party Congress.
  • The formal adoption of Hu’s ideological slogans of ‘scientific development’ and ‘building a socialist harmonious society’.

Leadership changes:

Preparations begin in the previous year for the main function of the congress, the reshuffle of the country’s leadership. The party may foster the impression that individuals are democratically elected to positions in the Politburo, PSC and CMC by all the delegates attending the congress, but the practice is very different. Elections are always pre-arranged. Reports suggest that lists for the new Central Committee, Politburo and PSC were already finalized by CCP leaders at a number of informal gatherings in August.

The turnover of party leadership during such an event varies from congress to congress and the seventeenth is expected to witness changes for around sixty per cent of the Central Committee. But changes in the make-up of the PSC and politburo, the most important decision making bodies in China, garner most attention.  With nine and twenty five members respectively, around half of these seats are expected to change.

Reconfirmation of Hu Jintao (General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party), and Wen Jiabao (Premier of the People's Republic of China) for another five year term in these positions is certain. Little doubt remains that they will also stay on the PSC along with Wu Bangguo. The latter is active in preparations for the congress and traditionally figures heavily involved in party congress preparation remain politically important after the event. However Vice President Zeng Qinghong, the party's number five is also involved in preparations, but attention has focused on whether he will remain in the post.

This means five or six positions in the PSC are open to change, with one of those positions certain because of the death of its former occupant, Huang Ju. There is intense debate amongst analysts over who will leave and who will join this body.

Hu’s heir and the ‘fifth generation’:

One key question surrounding this congress is whether Hu will name an heir apparent to take over Hu’s position at the eighteenth party congress scheduled to be held in 2012. Precedent suggests Hu should identify his successor, with predictions concentrating on his protégé Li Keqiang (Party Secretary for Henan province). If Hu is not successful in his moves on the political chessboard and no consensus among competing factions emerges, other ‘rising stars’ may be promoted along with Li with no clear leader among them; contenders include Chongqing Party Secretary Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao, Party Secretary of Jiangsu province.

All three are members of the fifth generation of Chinese leaders who are predicted to begin their ascendancy at the seventeenth party congress, taking various positions in the politburo and PSC. Other prominent figures of this generation are Shanghai Party Chief Xi Jinping, Minister of Commerce Bo Xilai, Tianjin Party Chief Zhang Gaoli, CPC whip? Liu Yandong,  National Development and Reform Commission Minister Ma Kai and Tibet Autonomous Region Party Chief Zhang Qingli.

This generation could herald remarkable change in the country due to profound intergenerational divergence between their social, economic and political backgrounds and those of preceding Chinese leaders. Many were raised in an atmosphere of economic reform, educated at universities in the West, and came to prominence as entrepreneurs and businessmen rather than engineers. The full political and socio-economic impact of their ascendancy will likely not be felt until after the eighteenth party congress at least.

Factional battles:

Despite images of a monolithic Chinese government, the CCP is wracked by byzantine battles between complex factions. The two most prominent are currently the Communist Youth League of China (CYLC) centred around Hu Jintao and the Shanghai faction, under the patronage of Jiang Zemim (Hu’s predecessor).

Since the sixteenth party congress both factions have been sharing power due to Jiang packing the upper echelons of the leadership with close allies before he stepped down. This placed serious limitations on Hu’s power. The best evidence of this occurred during the recently concluded fifth Plenary Meeting of the sixteenth National Congress when Hu attempt’s to reshuffle the politburo were blocked by members of the Shanghai faction.

The seventeenth Party Congress is therefore likely to witness a showdown between these two factions. Hu Jintao will use this year’s congress to manoeuvre his supporters into the politburo and PSC in an attempt to consolidate his grip on power and match his success in solidifying his power base in the CCP and government hierarchies. Cadres loyal to him are certainly in the ascendancy. This consolidation will take place at the expense of Jiang’s holdovers thereby catalysing the waning influence of his predecessor.

This means three of the remaining four PSC members (Zeng Qinghong, Vice President of the PRC, Wu Guanzheng who is head of the Central Committee for Disciplinary Inspection and Luo Gan who is secretary of the party's Central Committee of Politics and Legislative Affairs Committee) are likely to retire considering their loyalty to Jiang, or the upper age limit for PSC members which was re-established at the previous congress as 68 years old.

However Jiang is unlikely to lose influence willingly. Recent doubts have surfaced over whether or not  Zeng and Wu will step down reflecting the continuing and notable influence of Hu’s predecessor. Jiang reportedly counselled Hu not to bring too many new faces into the PSC. There is a possibility then that regulations such as age restrictions will be stretched to suit political needs. Doubts also remain over the youngest member, Li Changchun. At 63 he is the party's propaganda czar and was reported to be retiring because of his health, compounded by a perception of extreme ideological orthodoxy that sat uneasily with Hu and Wen. Jiang is lobbying forcefully to retain him on the PSC.

Jiang is likely to fail. Hu has sufficient political assets deployed in the seventeenth party’s congress to assert his power, as evidenced by the political rehabilitation of Meng Xuenong. Sacked as mayor of Beijing, Meng was recently named governor of Shanxi province. Moreover, at the end of August, Hu removed five ministers as part of an accelerated clean out of top government ranks. This suggests he will try and force substantial changes in the PSC and Politburo, but Hu is astute enough to realise balance between the factions must not be upset too fundamentally. If too many of his allies are promoted, other factions will move to counterbalance his power which could hinder him in the long run.

The military:

The Central Military Commission, China’s most powerful military body, will also undergo changes thanks to the seventeenth party congress. Despite Hu’s status as Chairman (a post he only took in 2004 and which he is likely to keep well beyond the seventeenth congress), Jiang’s influence still allegedly wields considerable influence within the military. Questions have also been raised over Hu’s awareness of the PLA’s intention to perform an anti-satellite test early this year. In keeping with the overall theme of this congress therefore is Hu’s determination to excise the remnants of Jiang’s influence in the CMC. Zeng Qinghong, currently Vice President of China is reportedly aspiring to the Vice-Chairmanship of the CMC, but as a patron of Jiang, Hu may prevent him from doing so.

There is only one certainty with the upcoming military leadership changes; with a retirement age of 70 for CMC members, only General Cao Gangchuan is certain to step down, both from his CMC position and his post as Minister of National Defence. It is precedent for the vice chair of the CMC to become defence minister. That is currently general Guo Boxiong, who is seen as narrow-minded as opposed to Cao who is widely seen as cosmopolitan and forward thinking.

Almost certain is that Hu Jintao’s chosen successor (whoever that is) will be appointed to the Commission in preparation Hu’s step-down in 2012.

More broadly, it is expected that any changes of CMC membership will correspond with recent efforts to include representation from all four branches of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as well as the General Departments. Moreover, changes will adhere to moves since 1997 to establish increased representation of Operational Military Officers (OMOs) over Political Military Officers (PMOs). Both these trends reflect efforts to institutionalize succession and develop joint operational capabilities along the lines of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Crackdown on dissent:

Preparations for the congress are not limited to the two main functions. Ahead of the Party Congress, China has ratcheted up its crackdown on dissent. According to public security minister Zhou Yongkang, this is necessary to ensure “a harmonious, stable social climate for the opening of the Party's seventeenth congress.” He went on to claim this was “at present the primary major issue for public security organs across the nation,”

Censors have certainly been busy. China's largest-ever surveillance and crackdown on Web sites and data hosts led to the closure of 18,000 web sites since April under the pretext they were unregistered or contained illicit content such as pornography. On 27th August alone, China Telecom blocked nearly nine thousand illegal web addresses and over ten thousand unregistered websites. Sensitive topics range from domestic issues involving corruption, the Party, the democracy movement, Taiwan, Falun Gong and Tibet, to external affairs including Japan and Darfur.

Reports suggest arrests have also increased, even for minor infractions such as satirical emails or text messages. The crackdown has not been confined to the population. The drive against Party corruption has taken on a particular urgency as 15th October approaches. Top leaders have warned that official graft threatens the stability of the Party’s rule. Recent arrests of government officials have been well publicised in the state media.

Chinese police authorities have said they will tighten security in the capital during the congress which happens every year but is seen as essential amid the context of an exponential rise of violent, mass demonstrations in the last five years.

When the dust settles…

After the congress concludes, if Hu has manoeuvred successfully he will, for the first time since he assumed the post of CCP secretary, have his own allies dominating the leadership. He will therefore be better placed to aggressively implement his policy priorities. So far he has been unable to make headway in this respect as was proven when Wen's macro-economic measures aimed at slowing down the overheating economy met resistance from the Shanghai clique. With the CYL expected to be pre-eminent for the next five to ten years, Hu Jintao's policies will dominate. What does this mean for China and its domestic and foreign policies?

Each new leadership generation in China has brought with it new slogans designed to define the goals of the nation and its period of rule. Hu’s rule is no exception. Since 2002 the slogans of ‘scientific development’ and ‘building a socialist harmonious society’ began to appear with more frequency. A recent government announcement after a meeting of the politburo stated that the constitution is to be amended at the congress to formally adopt Hu’s slogans.

Scientific development and social harmony suggest a shift from Jiang’s economic growth at all costs, to progress that concentrates on the western hinterland as much as the eastern coastal regions, rural as well as urban areas, and does not advance whilst ignoring the environment or social development.

However, the functionality of these slogans is often less about clear-cut policy proposals and more about suggesting an ideological mind-set which are open to various interpretations within which policies are formed. They are also highly politicized; a means through which a leader can distinguish his rule from predecessors. Scientific development suggests that previous conceptualizations of development fell far short of scientific rigour. As such, these slogans can be seen as an ideological/linguistic front in the CCP’s factional battles. How far these slogans actually reflect the changes that will occur in China over the coming years is therefore open to debate.

Andrew Legon is a Research Associate with the Asian Programme in the International Security Studies Department at RUSI. He is contactable at andrewl@rusi.org

The views expressed here do not nessecarily reflect those of RUSI.

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