There is an argument that what is happening in China this week is more important than any American or European election. It could well have far more far-reaching implications.
The party congress is the biggest political event in China, it happens every five years and decides who will sit in the highest echelons of the Chinese government.
This year, the “20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party”, to give it its full name, is destined to make history and break with precedents that have existed for decades.
About 2,300 delegates from the Chinese Community Party (CCP) will attend the week-long event starting today. That number includes political leaders of all ranks from all 34 provinces and regions, as well as delegates from the private sector, doctors, firefighters, farmers, “model workers” and even China’s first female astronaut.
Delegates will select the 200 members of the new central committee, officially China’s highest governing body.
Those 200 will then elect new members to the 25-member politburo and the politburo’s standing committee, which currently has seven members, including the chairman. In reality, these are the pinnacle of Chinese political power.
There will be a ceremonial vote, but the outcome will have been decided in advance in a series of backroom negotiations and opinion polls.
While there will be no new policy announcement, there will be a long “job report” speech by President Xi, and it really is long, five years ago he spoke for three and a half hours!
This will summarize the achievements of the last five years and offer suggestions on priorities for the next period.
Here are eight things to keep in mind.
1. How long will President Xi rule?
It is now almost beyond doubt that Xi Jinping will be appointed to an unprecedented third term as CCP General Secretary and President of the country.
It means he will be in charge for at least another five years.
This is hugely significant. Rules were established in the early 1980s, shortly after Chairman Mao’s death, to limit future leaders to just two five-year terms. After Mao’s brutal and chaotic 27 years in power, the goal was to establish a model of “collective leadership” and ensure that power could never again be so small in the hands of one person.
But Xi successfully removed the two-term limit rules from the constitution in 2018, meaning he could now, in theory, be “ruler for life.”
However, it is important to remember that while this may say a lot about Xi’s personal ambition and his increasingly unchallenged power within the CCP, it probably also says a lot about the party’s desire for stability. Faced with unpopular “Covid Zero” measures and considerable economic challenges, many party faithful may find continuity under a strong leader desirable.
2. Could you also get a promotion?
He is already one of, if not, the most powerful man in the world. But it is possible that he can raise his position even higher.
There is speculation that he could be given the position of “chairman” within the CCP, a role that has not existed since the days of Chairman Mao.
This could involve him sitting above the seven-member politburo standing committee and offering the post of general secretary (currently the top job) to a young man.
Be on the lookout for other token moves as well. “Xi Jinping Thought” is expected to be enshrined in the constitution. Xi’s political ideology currently has the catchy name “Xi Jinping envisioned socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era.” Children are already being taught in schools and party members are being tested.
But no leader since Mao has had his “thought” enshrined in this way.
Neither of these things would necessarily change much in practical terms – Xi would likely continue to be in control in the same way he is now – but it would be a major ideological lift and perhaps make him even more difficult to challenge.
3. Who will be in the top team?
The “moment” of the congress that most excites China watchers is towards the end, when the leader walks off the stage followed by the new politburo standing committee.
Cue frantic analysis of who has been promoted, who has left the group, what these people represent and what faction they are from.
Who gets elected could offer insight into policy priorities and direction, but it could also shed some light on the extent of Xi’s power and control.
This time, all eyes will be on who replaces Li Keqiang, the current premier (second-in-command) who is stepping down after completing his two terms.
People will also be watching to see if the top team is packed with close Xi allies.
If so, it may be a sign of a hard consolidation of power.
If the group is more mixed, you might point to modest checks on your authority. However, Xi has so successfully disrupted the power bases that used to exist behind rival factions that even those who are not close allies are unlikely to pose much of a threat to him.
Promoting them could also be something like an olive branch and a symbol of unity within the leadership.
4. How old is everyone?
It may seem strange to be careful, but it’s important because there’s a longstanding convention that someone can only serve another term if they’re 67 or younger at the time of Congress. Anyone age 68 or older must retire.
Xi is 69 years old and, as we have already discussed, he is breaking convention to stay.
But will he also break from that when it comes to this top team? He has strong allies in the politburo standing committee who are 68 and 72 years old. If they are not withdrawn, it will signal a full-scale destruction of the rulebook and what one expert has called a “constitutional crisis” when it comes. to terms and succession.
5. Speaking of succession, is there a plan?
It is usually quite easy to spot who the designated successor is within the higher levels of the CCP. They are typically the highest-ranking member of the senior team, young enough to serve one term in waiting and then two terms as leader before reaching retirement age.
So if there is a new standing committee member aged 57 or younger, it will be an important moment and a sign that Xi could step aside in five years.
If there is no one, it sends a strong signal that Xi intends to stay in office for longer, perhaps another 10 years or more.
Many fear what this would mean if something were to happen to Xi (who, remember, is 69, overweight, and a longtime smoker). Without an obvious successor, a sudden power vacuum could be very dangerous.
6. Will ‘Zero COVID’ continue?
When it comes to politics, this will be the most watched by the Chinese.
China still has a zero-tolerance approach to COVID, with entire cities facing sudden and draconian lockdowns for just a handful of cases.
But any hope that “Dynamic Zero COVID” could be eased in Congress will likely be dashed. Just last week, state media published a series of articles extolling the virtues of the policy and describing it as “sustainable” and in an interview, one of the country’s leading experts said there was no timetable for easing it.
The party has backed into a corner when it comes to COVID. It needs a way to declare victory, and there is no evidence that a political “off-ramp” has been prepared.
China is facing the reality of very little community immunity and an under-resourced hospital system that would be overwhelmed very quickly.
Expect comparisons of China’s low death toll with those in the West. Beyond that, the number of times “Dynamic Zero COVID” is mentioned may be one of the strongest indicators.
7. Will we hear more about Taiwan?
Bringing the autonomous island of Taiwan, which China regards as its own, back under mainland control has been a long-time dream of President Xi.
Taiwan is likely to be discussed alongside the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, reiterating the party’s belief that this is a domestic rather than a foreign policy issue.
While the rhetoric may well escalate, and tough talk about “national unity” and “sovereignty” is a pretty safe bet, any major signals of military action would be less likely.
Nationalist rhetoric notwithstanding, an international conflict over Taiwan would have enormous costs for China, and some in the CCP may feel that it has a lot of internal instability to resolve first. Russia’s experience in Ukraine, while it might offer lessons to China, has probably also warned against swift action.
However, you’ll want to keep your options open.
8. What about the economy?
China is facing major economic challenges right now, from Zero COVID lockdowns to a major crisis in real estate to US blockades on microchip development.
Its economic growth in recent decades has been staggering, but it has slowed noticeably this year. It’s hard to see that trend reversing as Zero COVID persists.
Hear about Xi’s “Common Prosperity” project, a flagship policy aimed at challenging recognized inequalities in society.
How this will be achieved may be less clear. The measures so far have included cracking down on some of the country’s most profitable private companies and scaring away investors.
Expect a lot in IT, technology upgrade and economic “self-sufficiency”.
Finally, remember that congress is very much about reading between the lines and picking up subtle clues. The appearance or disappearance of slogans and even the frequency with which certain things are mentioned or not mentioned are important.
For example, foreign policy may not be mentioned at all, but keywords like “openness” might indicate a shift to a slightly less optimistic approach.
“Common prosperity” may well be a code for the economy, and “self-sufficiency” may mean security.