The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is holding the most important event of its political calendar.
Some 2,300 delegates from across China are gathering at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Sunday for a week-long congress to appoint the CCP’s top leadership, amend its constitution and approve the country’s policy directions for the next five years.
This year’s congress — the 20th since the party’s founding in 1921 — is of particular significance as Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to clinch an unprecedented third term as the party’s leader and further cement his power, including with appointments to the organisation’s top-decision making bodies, the Politburo and the elite Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).
Here’s what you need to know.
Why is this congress important?
Since China is a one-party state governed by the CCP, the party’s general secretary tends to be the paramount leader of the country. If this were a typical congress, Xi — who first took office in 2012 and has served two five-year terms — would be handing over the duties to someone new.
But the 69-year-old is widely expected to stay on for another term.
This would break a norm established by Xi’s two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, each of whom gave up the post of general secretary after serving two full five-year terms.
Xi also holds two other key titles. He is the chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission and the president of the People’s Republic of China. The first gives him control of the armed forces while the second makes him the head of state. Xi is expected to retain the military title at the Party Congress and extend the state presidency during the annual meeting of China’s rubber-stamp parliament — the National People’s Congress — in March next year.
“At the 20th Party Congress, we can expect to see Xi Jinping further solidify his grip over the party, the state, and the military,” said Brian Hart, fellow at the China Power Project at the United States-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“Going into his third term, Xi is in a strong position to shape personnel picks for key posts. He has already manoeuvred allies into important positions over his first two terms, giving him greater influence over the personnel appointment processes that take place behind closed doors,” Hart said, referring to appointments for the Politburo and the PSC. “Unlike his predecessors, he does not have to compete with any apparent successor, giving him broad influence over decisions.”
How is the party leadership chosen?
The congress is made up of some 2,300 delegates representing all levels of the party hierarchy across 34 provinces and regions. These delegates will appoint some 400 members to the party’s top national-level institution, the Central Committee. The 200 voting members of the Central Committee will then select from its ranks, the 25-member Politburo and the even more elite seven-member PSC.
Observers will be closely watching the appointments to the PSC.
“In theory, the very top jobs will be chosen by the hundreds of members of the Central Committee. In reality, party elites have already spent the past few months – if not longer – jostling for influence behind the scenes to ensure their preferred candidates come out on top. By the time the congress formally begins, the lineup of top leadership is likely to already be a done deal,” Edward Knight and Ruby Osman, researchers at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, wrote in a recent blog post.
In a typical year, appointments to these top jobs are dictated by a set of internal age norms for promotion and retirement. The “seven up, eight down” convention states any officials aged 67 or under at the time of a party congress can be promoted, while anyone aged 68 or over is expected to retire.
At the last congresses in 2007, 2012 and 2017, the party appointed no one aged 68 or older to a new term on the Politburo.
If the age norms are respected, at least two of the seven members of the PSC will retire, while in the Politburo, eight of the remaining 18 members will step down. But Cheng Li, a China expert, told people attending a recent event held by the Brookings Institution in the US that he believes these age limits will not apply to members of the Politburo and the PSC this time.
There was no mention of age norms when the CCP released in late September a new set of regulations laying out the criteria for promotions and demotions. Instead, several of the 15 criteria focused on loyalty to the party’s leadership.
Cheng said the new rules make the personnel changes “simultaneously more anticipated and less predictable” than previous Congresses. Only Xi will definitely stay and only Li Zhanshu, who was born in 1950 and is 72 years old, will leave, he said.
But Cheng also noted that the age span among the remaining six members of the PSC was five years. “So who will stay? Who will leave? It’s very, very difficult. This is challenging for Xi Jinping,” he said. “He may end up creating a lot of resentment.”
What about Premier Li Keqiang? Who will replace him?
The party’s second-in-command serves concurrently as China’s premier.
The premiership has a two-term limit, meaning the current second-in-command, Li Keqiang, will be stepping down from his party leadership role.
Leading candidates to replace him include Han Zheng, the first-ranked of the country’s current four vice-premiers, who at 68 has only just hit the traditional retirement age and Hu Chunhua, also a vice-premier and the youngest member of the Politburo at just 59. Other possible picks are Liu He, 70, a vice-premier and childhood friend of Xi’s and Wang Yang, a former vice-premier and the party chief of the southern economic powerhouse province of Guangdong.
“We won’t have to wait that long to find out his successor. Whoever walks out on stage immediately after Xi during the first plenum, held just after the congress concludes on October 23, is almost certain to take up that role,” wrote Knight and Osman, the Tony Blair Institute researchers.
As for Li Keqiang, who at 67 is younger than Xi, the future is uncertain.
“It’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen,” Hart of CSIS told Al Jazeera. “He may be pushed into retirement, but he could theoretically stay on in a different position. He could become chairman of the National People’s Congress.”
There is a precedent for this, Hart said, noting that former Premier Li Peng retired from his post to become parliament chief, China’s third-highest office in 1998. “But this would certainly be seen as a demotion.”
Will a woman be elected to the PSC?
No woman has ever served on the elite Politburo Standing Committee.
The only woman in the current 25-member Politburo is Sun Chunlan, who at 72 is expected to retire.
What will the congress mean for China’s policy agenda?
With Xi expected to retain his position as CCP’s secretary general, analysts say they expect more continuity than change in terms of China’s domestic policy agenda.
“Given the economic circumstances China finds itself in and the range of other problems from ageing population to mounting debt, this upcoming congress will only strengthen the Party’s power and Xi’s dominance in China’s political system because the continual emphasis on stability in the eyes of the Party-state requires strong leadership,” said Jennifer Hsu, a research fellow at the Australia-based Lowy Institute.
“Decision-making is now firmly within the central government’s grasp and that is unlikely to change with the upcoming congress. Thus, there will be little room for policy experimentation or local innovation.”
On the international front, analysts expect more assertiveness from Xi, under whom US-China relations have sunk to their lowest level in decades as Washington’s concerns grow over Beijing’s growing military and economic might. Xi has also overseen a military buildup in the South China Sea and pushed a more aggressive policy towards Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“I expect Xi will be more ambitious and assertive on the international stage in his third term,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Programme at the German Marshall Fund of the US.