Society, Talking Point

Red conclave

China’s crucial Party Congress meets next month – but how does it work?


“I vote Xi”: the Party Congress will meet at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

When the Communist Party of China (CPC) held its first ‘national’ congress in the summer of 1921 it only had about 50 members. Some of them couldn’t afford the trip to the inaugural meeting in Shanghai, where the Party’s constitution would be voted on.

According to, the CPC’s official website, 13 people turned up, including Mao Zedong and two non-Chinese from the Comintern, an international organisation that advocated world communism. The meeting started out in the French Concession district of the city but the delegates were worried about the ruling Kuomintang’s secret police, so they moved the gathering to a boat in the nearby town of Jiaxing.

Floating down the river, the delegates pretended to play mahjong whenever other vessels sailed nearby, formulating the CPC’s first resolutions out on the water.

Since then the CPC has grown into the world’s biggest political party with nearly 89 million members. It rules the world’s second- largest economy and many economists have predicted that by 2021 – when the Party celebrates its 100th anniversary – China will have overtaken the United States as the world’s leading economic power.

Whether that happens will be influenced by the policymaking of the next crop of Chinese leaders, who will be selected by 2,300 delegates during the 19th National Congress next month. As such, the upcoming ‘midterm’ for President Xi Jinping and that new group of senior leaders may turn out to be one of the more significant gatherings in recent history.

How does the Congress work?

Since 1983 the number of delegates at the Congress has been kept to just over 2,000. A total of 2,270 people attended the 18th National Congress in 2012 and this year the number has expanded slightly to 2,300. In other words, only one in more than 40,000 CPC members gets the chance to attend the meeting.

The five-yearly summit has several key roles, including revisions of the CPC constitution and the selection of the Central Committee, which in its 18th edition comprised 205 full members and 171 alternates.

In an example of pyramid-style “intra-party representative democracy”, the Central Committee then selects the Politburo (25 people currently), which chooses the Standing Committee (which was cut from 9 to 7 at the last Congress in 2012).

Sitting atop all of this is the Party’s general secretary who, in more recent times, has also been head of state (or president) and head of the People’s Liberation Army.

The constitution stipulates that any Chinese national older than 45 is eligible to stand as the country’s president. In reality the Politburo nominates just one candidate for the presidency as well as a number of other key posts such as prime minister. The role of the Party’s Congress is to provide a quorum for the politicking around these selections. The actual ‘election’ comes a few months later, when the 3,000-strong National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s legislative body, rubberstamps the nominations tabled by the Politburo.

(Xi Jinping won the “presidential election” in early 2013 with 99.9% of the votes, with just one NPC legislator vetoing his nomination. China-watchers are still trying to uncover the identity of the brave contrarian.)

How are the delegates chosen?

The jostling for a place at the upcoming Congress was largely concluded in June. The 2,300 delegates were elected from 40 electoral ‘units’, of which six are leading organs of the state and the Party. The PLA is the most represented faction with 303 delegates. Financial regulators and state-owned enterprises are allocated 44 and 53 seats respectively. Government departments under the Central Committee’s control (such as the People’s Daily newspaper) have 109 seats, while ministries under the State Council get 186.

The remaining electoral units are divided between the regions. These include different provinces and municipalities, plus three of the CPC’s “work committees” in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan (the list of delegates from this group isn’t made public). In order to stand for these primary elections, a candidate must pass stringent inspections by Party officials. According to, candidates are evaluated by criteria including “political soundness”, moral integrity and loyalty to the Party.

State media has been highlighting how this process is getting more representative. Why? The claim is that the number of candidates in each electoral unit is at least 15% more than the number of deputies eventually elected (the proportion was about half that for the 17th Party Congress, and 5% for the 16th, so the implication is that the selection process is more of a contest than previously). Put simply, Party members have a little more freedom to withhold votes from candidates they don’t like.

Other newspapers have been talking up the integrity of the process. According to Xinhua, there were 44,000 courses on electoral conduct in Liaoning during this nomination period to ensure that all of the province’s 1.2 million Party members were conversant with the rules (Liaoning is allocated 63 seats at the upcoming Congress).

Still, it’s not one-member, one-vote. Take Guizhou, one of the geographical constituencies. It has 1.7 million Party members who first select 730 representatives. This group then picks their 39 delegates for Congress. (Guizhou gets less delegates than Liaoning even though it has more Party members, because allocations are ranked on provincial ‘importance’, with Liaoning scoring higher than Guizhou).

Which delegates have made the cut?

All but three (Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) of the electoral units have announced their delegate lists. These entry tickets to the pinnacle of Chinese power have become a barometer for measuring the headwinds in Beijing, although the real pontificating on the political weather doesn’t start until the selections for the senior roles are known.

The seven most senior leaders including Xi, Li Keqiang and the anti-corruption tsar Wang Qishan have all made the 2,300 list this year. In fact, all of the current 25 members of the Politburo were nominated again.

No great surprise there, perhaps. But not all of the selected delegates will show up at Congress next month, including Sun Zhengcai, formerly Party boss of Chongqing and one of 43 elected delegates from the municipality. Sun has been under investigation for corruption since July (Chongqing chose its delegates a month earlier).

The 53 year-old was rumoured to be a candidate for higher office, reckons the Wall Street Journal, and his downfall is being viewed as a signal that Xi is using his clout to get more of his allies into senior positions on the Politburo.

Chen Miner, a trusted confidant of Xi from their time in Zhejiang, was appointed to succeed Sun. Chen is another of the delegates from Guizhou and the 57 year-old is tipped as a possible contender for promotion to the powerful Politburo Standing Committee.

Elsewhere there have been notable omissions from the delegate lists – particularly in the military. Mao Xinyu, Mao Zedong’s grandson and the PLA’s youngest major general (see WiC33), doesn’t feature in the army’s allocation. But the bigger surprise came from the absence of two of the most senior generals, including Fang Fenghui, chief of the joint staff department. Both the generals are reportedly facing disciplinary probes as Xi continues to tighten his grip over the military.

There have been conflicting reports on the political prospects of Zhou Qiang, China’s Chief Justice, too. Hong Kong newspapers have reported that someone named “Zhou Qiang” made the final list but that he seems to be a mid-ranking official from Shanghai. Citing unnamed sources, Nikkei countered this week that the Zhou Qiang in question is indeed the head of the Supreme People’s Court.

The confusion says something about the transparency of this electoral process, whatever the state media claims to the contrary.

What else to watch out for?

Apart from Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, the other five Standing Committee members would normally retire next month (thanks to an unwritten rule that officials step down when they reach the age of 68, a measure introduced by Jiang Zemin).

Nearly half of the Politburo and the same proportion of the larger Central Committee needs to be replaced on the same grounds.

The retirement deadline means that anti-corruption tsar Wang Qishan ought to step down as well. Earlier this month there were also rumours that Xi’s most powerful ally was seriously ill. However, Wang quashed the speculation by appearing on state television three times last week. And observers now widely expect that the 69 year-old will stay on, although possibly in another role, such as heading the proposed National Supervisory Commission, a super regulatory body that combines graftbusting with judicial and law enforcement responsibilities.

By allowing Wang to stay on Xi could set a precedent, says Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper. This might enable Xi himself – now 63 – to hang onto power in 2022 when his second term as president ends.

“The Party has owed its longevity partly to managing peaceful, institutionalised transitions of power from one autocratic leader to another. Mr Xi may prove the joker in the pack,” the Economist opined.

­There is also a good chance that Xi will try to rewrite part of the Party’s constitution, pushing for amendments that enable him to govern beyond the conventional 10-year term, Ming Pao believes.

The newspaper says it is almost “a done deal” that cadres will vote to include “Xi Jinping Thought” in its charter too. The nomenclature is important – the only leader to have gained similar recognition is Mao Zedong.

A downgrade to Xi Jinping Theory” (for Xi’s political philosophy) would put him on a par with Deng Xiaoping instead.

Any unlikely contenders for senior roles?

“Most Party members have prettier wives than others. Chinese girls like them more.” So said Liang Wengen, the boss of heavy machinery maker Sany in late 2012.

This was one of the catchier headlines surrounding Liang at the last Congress. He had been named as the country’s richest man by Forbes magazine the year before and he was preparing his company for a huge IPO in Hong Kong (see WiC123). He also took the unconventional step of suing then-US president Barrack Obama in an American court (see WIC170).

As Congress loomed there was also speculation that Liang was about to become the first ‘private sector entrepreneur’ to get a spot on the Central Committee. For the media it was a sign that the Party was comfortable about businesspeople rising to the apex of its power structure.

As things turned out, Liang’s candidacy was rejected and the choice of representatives for this year’s Congress seems to reinforce the belief that capitalists remain second-class citizens in Beijing’s political hierarchy. Liang wasn’t even elected as one of the 2,300 delegates this time around. And there hasn’t been any of the same brouhaha in the media about businesspeople making the delegate list (five years ago China Newsweek calculated there were 34).

“Formerly China’s richest man Liang has nearly disappeared from public sight in the past five years,” China Entrepreneur reported in August, after scoring a rare interview with the man in question.

Liang, perhaps like Xi, has his sights set on 2022 – but for very different reasons. The magazine says his goal is to supercharge Sany’s revenues from its overseas operations to $10 billion from $1.4 billion last year. “The international markets will be our major market in future,” he told China Entrepreneur, without mentioning politics once in the course of the interview.

Of course, this year’s Congress will be watched mostly for signs that Xi’s dominance is increasing. Usually portrayed as a more powerfil figure than his predecessor Hu Jintao, Xi will then start another five years as president. But the composition of the team around him will speak volumes about the style in which he may choose to govern.

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