By: Philippe Healey

An elite quinquennial session

Every five years since the 11th Party Congress in 1977, senior representatives from all levels of the Communist Party of China have gathered to attend what is formally the highest decision-making body of the Party.

This autumn, the 19th Party Congress will convene in Beijing and select the Chinese leadership team for President Xi Jinping’s second term in office. Attended by roughly 2,300 delegates, the elite quinquennial session – by far the most important event on China’s political calendar – will also review the Party’s track record over the last five years and set its tasks and priorities for 2017 to 2022. In addition, the 19th Party Congress will approve any revisions to the Party Constitution that the leadership decides to make.

Assessing the work achieved and charting the course ahead

As general secretary, Xi Jinping will deliver the political report on behalf of the Central Committee at the Party Congress. The document is essentially a review of the past five years and a preview for what to expect through 2022, providing an assessment of the Party’s work record since the 18th Party Congress in 2012 and charting out its policy priorities and tasks for the next half-decade.

For the current administration, the Mercator Institute for China Studies notes that the political report will be the “official, authoritative verdict on Xi Jinping’s first term in office.”[1] It can be expected to tout the progress and achievements made under Xi’s major targets, policies, and initiatives, such as the first centennial goal of building a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021, efforts to clean up internal Party governance, supply-side structural reforms, the Belt and Road, and more.

Although it rarely receives the attention it deserves from Western observers, the political report is crucial reading for both foreign and domestic businesses since it hammers out important signposts for where the Party intends to steer the country over the coming five years. For example, outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao’s political report at the 18th Party Congress in 2012 identified the struggle against corruption as a “matter of life and death for the Party.”[2] Immediately after becoming China’s top leader, Xi then launched the largest and most extensive anti-corruption campaign in modern Chinese history.

Xi Jinping Thought” to be enshrined in the Party Constitution

The national congresses also have the authority to revise the Party Constitution, which was first adopted at the 12th Party Congress in 1982.[3] Every gathering held since has introduced amendments to the Constitution – the last Party Congress made 30 changes alone in 2012 – so it is a near certainty that the document will undergo revisions in the fall.[4]

The most significant amendments typically enshrine the political ideology most associated with the Party’s top leader into the Constitution, such as Hu Jintao’s Scientific Outlook on Development, Jiang Zemin’s Theory of the Three Represents, Deng Xiaoping Theory, and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. In the build-up to the 19th Party Congress, the Chinese state-run media have increasingly made references to “Xi Jinping Thought,” indicating that the current president may well have his political theories incorporated into the Constitution this autumn.[5]

Approving changes in the top leadership

Perhaps most importantly, the 19th Party Congress will oversee the installation of senior officials in the Party’s supreme governing bodies for the next five-year period. Its representatives will elect the new Central Committee, which will gather the day after the Party Congress at its first plenary session to appoint the new leadership team responsible for delivering on the Party’s tasks and priorities outlined in the political report, including the general secretary, the 25-member Politburo and its Standing Committee, the Central Military Commission, and the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection.

This year, the 19th Party Congress will preside over what is expected to be one of the largest elite turnovers in decades. About 70% of the 376 members on the Central Committee are expected to step down, while 11 members of the Politburo, including five members of its Standing Committee, the utmost executive authority in China, will likely depart due to their having already passed the informal retirement threshold of 68 years old. Only President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are expected to remain on the Standing Committee.

China’s 19th Party Congress, likely to be held in between September and November will carry enormous import for businesses, as the new leadership will most likely bring about changes to a number of economic and social policies. With slowing economic growth at home and rising populism and protectionism abroad, the outcomes of the political reshuffle and what course the Chinese leaders decide to chart, in a bid to address the rising tide of challenges, will be crucial for the market and the future of China’s economy.

[1] Matthias Stepan and Nabil Alsabah, “China’s 19th Party Congress: setting the agenda and choosing the team,” The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

[2] Matthias Stepan and Nabil Alsabah, “China’s 19th Party Congress: setting the agenda and choosing the team,” The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

[3] Alice Miller, “The road to the 19th Party Congress,” The Hoover Institution, China Leadership Monitor, Fall 2016, Issue 51.

[4] Alice Miller, “The road to the 19th Party Congress,” The Hoover Institution, China Leadership Monitor, Fall 2016, Issue 51.

[5] Oki Nagai, “‘Xi Jinping Thought’ may get pride of place in Party charter,” Nikkei, 21 July 2017.

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