Reading the Chinese tea leaves

It is necessary to understand how politics will be shaped by the national congress and vice versa

October 12, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 08:11 pm IST

Chinese President Xi Jinping and fellow delegates raise their hands as they take a vote at the closing session of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing, in 2017.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and fellow delegates raise their hands as they take a vote at the closing session of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing, in 2017. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The Communist Party of China (CPC)’s 20th national congress is scheduled to begin in Beijing on October 16. Held every five years, this week-long political event has some crucial tasks including reshuffling personnel, amending the party constitution and announcing future policy. The party general secretary will present a comprehensive political report. However, this edition marks a significant departure in China’s political landscape, especially in elite politics.

Seeking absolute power

Xi Jinping is galloping towards a third term. Though the party charter is silent on the term limits for the general secretary, the state constitutional amendment in 2018 scrapped the two-term limit of the state presidency. Extending the presidential term limit will lead to alignment of government and party posts. As per the 1982 state constitution, the party and state positions were held by different people. Only in 1993 did the two apex positions begin to be held by a single individual. Jiang Zemin, who was appointed party general secretary in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square crisis, and was again elected to the 14th CCP National Congress in 1992, served as party general secretary until 2002 and as state president from 1993 to 2003. Hu Jintao occupied the same positions for two terms. However, Mr. Xi’s goal for a third term looks certain. The much-touted retirement age cap of 68 will not impact his prospects. Mr. Xi is 69, but being the ‘hexin’ or ‘core’ of the party Central Committee makes him the ‘yibashou’ or the ‘first hand’, which signifies his absolute power.

In China, the state president is usually referred to as ‘guojia zhuxi’ or state chairman, so it would not be a surprise if Mr. Xi takes a similar position in the party, as Mao Zedong and Hua Guofeng did. The post of the party chairman will put Mr. Xi above the Central Committee’s apex leadership body, the Politburo Standing Committee. This absolute power of the ‘guojia zhuxi’ can be observed in the selection of Congress delegates. Unlike previous congress sessions, this time, the central organs of the party and the state personnel delegate list are merged. Likewise, the People’s Liberation Army and the Armed Police delegates are clubbed together. Besides, front-line workers who won honorary titles in ‘Xi’s new era’ in the corps or provinces have also been elected delegates. On the other hand, Mr. Xi’s protégé, Ying Yong, the former Hubei party secretary and a Central Committee member, who was appointed as deputy prosecutor general at the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in August, did not figure in the list of congress delegates. Mr. Ying will likely be promoted to the head of a national leadership position in March next year.

Mr. Xi’s third term will reinforce his position as the new centre of the factional power base. Already maintaining a robust patron-client relationship with his protégés from Zhejiang, Fujian and Shanghai, Mr. Xi is also building a coalition, especially with the Communist Youth League group, in which Hu Jintao, Premier Li Keqiang and Chair of the Chinese People Political Consultative Conference National Committee, Wang Yang, are some prominent leaders. Hu Haifeng, son of Hu Jintao, has been elected to his first party congress from Zhejiang. Former Premier Li Peng’s son Li Xiaopeng is transport minister and Central Committee member. This trend indicates that Mr. Xi is co-opting princelings, even from rival factions, to have more elbow room in ‘winner takes all’ politics.

At the Seventh Plenum of the outgoing 19th Central Committee, members approved the policies and draft amendments to the CPC’s constitution which will be formally unveiled at the congress. The Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, which was enshrined in the constitution in 2017, may likely be amended to Xi Jinping Thought. Likewise, amendments on deepening governance through the party’s self-reform and improving its conduct vigorously would be other crucial agendas.

Implications for India

For India’s China watchers, the upcoming party congress is crucial. Some ‘honoured’ delegates include 2020 Galwan valley veterans and others serving in military districts across the India-China border. Likewise, the other significant development is the fate of two former Chinese ambassadors who had served in Delhi. Le Yucheng, a Central Committee alternate member, has been shifted from the foreign ministry. Once a third ranking member in the Chinese foreign ministry, Mr. Le is not even a delegate this time. On the other hand, Mr. Le’s successor, Luo Zhaohui, who heads China’s foreign aid agency, is a delegate. Given Mr. Xi’s stress on major country diplomacy, Mr. Luo will likely get a seat in the 20th Central Committee. Mr. Luo’s experience in South Asia, especially with India during the 2017 Doklam crisis, has improved his chances.

Notebook | In China, fire without smoke

Apparatchiks are not shying away from strengthening party control over every state function. Reading the Chinese tea leaves is necessary to understand how politics will be shaped by the national congress and vice versa.

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