On October 18, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will convene in Beijing for its 19th Party Congress. The Congress will lay out China’s path for the next five years: appointments will be made to the Party’s powerful Central Committee (CC), Politburo, and Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), and the Party will decide on a five-year policy agenda, all without popular consent. The gathering is called a “Congress,” but it is not a democratic affair. The approximately 2,200 communist party delegates involved will be passing a pre-approved agenda.
The CCP holds a Congress every five years, but they are not all equally important. Because of the political ambitions of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, this year’s Congress is shaping up to be the most important in recent memory. The occasion will give Xi a chance to cement his power by filling open slots with loyalists—half of CC posts are up for grabs, along with three fourths of Politburo and PSC seats. Xi also hopes to have his name literally written into the party’s guiding ideology alongside “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory.” Rounding out his ambitions, Xi aims to influence the Party Report, the consensus document that outlines the Party’s future policy goals. If Xi is successful in these three areas, it will be a good indication that he has consolidated power enough to circumvent the term limits and age restrictions placed on most Chinese leaders.
Behind closed doors, political elites have already started jockeying for positions on the CC, Politburo, and PSC. At the end of June, Party elites held a straw poll to choose their favorite candidates and will create a shortlist by August. Preliminary policy discussions took place this spring at the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). These events, and the speech by Premier Li Keqiang that closed them out, provided a good overview of Chinese policy goals.
Xi’s own actions must also be considered. He has centralized China’s military and security organs, giving himself the power to declare war, deploy troops, and launch nuclear weapons. Beginning with his instatement at the 18th CCP Congress, Xi and his anticorruption czar Wang Qishan have been squashing both tigers (corrupt Party bigwigs) and flies (low-ranking functionaries). By arresting Zhong Yongkang of the CCP’s Political Science and Law Commission and Ling Jihua, who ran the CCP General Office as if it were his own fiefdom, Xi has both removed potential rivals and demonstrated his power over the Party.
Xi has also used his anticorruption drive to methodically purge powerful members of the security forces. In recent days, three members of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) have been detained for questioning on unspecified charges. If they are sacked, they will join two other former vice-chairmen of the CMC who have already been purged. Loyal security services may come in handy in Xi’s rivalry with other leaders in the CCP, most notably Premier Li Keqiang.
Xi’s determination to suppress any hint of instability is taking disturbing forms. The mysterious police abductions of two Chinese billionaires, Xiao Jianhua and Wu Xiaohui, have been linked to the upcoming Congress. Both Mr. Xiao and Mr. Wu had financial dealings with high-level members of the CCP, leading to speculation that Xi was uncomfortable with their leverage over him and his associates. Meanwhile, another Chinese billionaire, Guo Wengui, has transfixed Chinese politics with the public accusations of corruption at the highest echelons of the CCP. Xi’s willingness to imprison potential disrupters paints a picture of a leader more concerned about grasping power than protecting the rights of his people.
Xi is concerned with more than the politics of the moment. His aims for the Congress are high. If he can lock his loyalists, ideas, and policies into place during this meeting, he can make his preferences the Party’s preferences for the next five years. Xi’s overarching project is the “China Dream,” a plan to restore China’s place among the great nations, both economically and politically. Abroad, one of its biggest components is the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, an ambitious infrastructure project designed to link together Asia, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. At home, Xi is implementing an ever-more-repressive vision of social control, tightening the screws on China’s NGOs, strengthening internet censorship, and even introducing a “Social Credit Score” system, which will reward or punish Chinese citizens based on how closely they hew to the CCP’s wishes.
The 19th CCP Congress promises to be a seminal event in Chinese politics. If successful, Xi will emerge from the Congress as the next Deng or Mao. Through his ruthless pursuit of power, Xi is showing the world just how easy it is to turn one-party rule in one-man rule.