Chinese Communist Party Convenes the 18th Party Congress

After much anticipation, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on November 8 opened the 18th Party Congress. The Congress, which will run through November 14, is the culmination of the more-than-year-long preparations for the CCP’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition, where power will be formally handed from the incumbent fourth-generation leadership cohort under President Hu Jintao to the incoming fifth-generation under Vice President and heir apparent Xi Jinping. Although less attention grabbing than the horse race for seats at the apex of the CCP hierarchy, the Congress also features an important keynote policy address by Hu Jintao and the approval of amendments to the CCP constitution.

Q1: What are the mechanics of the Party Congress? How does it work?

A1: The CCP, through a series of tightly scripted elections, has carefully selected more than 2,000 delegates to attend the 18th Party Congress. The delegates range from incumbent top CCP leaders, cabinet ministers, and senior military generals to so-called grassroots representatives from various walks of life, including workers, scientists, farmers, and sports figures. At the opening of the Congress, Hu Jintao, as the serving CCP general secretary, delivered a keynote address known as the political work report. The delegates will then deliberate on the work report and the proposed amendments to the party constitution throughout the next several days. At the close of the Congress, the delegates will elect a new Central Committee, composed of roughly 200 full members and 150 alternates. The next day, the new Central Committee will hold its first plenum, where it, in turn, will elect the new Politburo and its Standing Committee, China’s top decisionmaking body. The plenum also will elect the new Central Discipline Inspection Commission, the party’s anti-graft watchdog; members of the new CCP Secretariat, the executive arm of the Politburo; and the CCP Central Military Commission, China’s military policy-setting organ.

Q2: What were the key takeaways from Hu Jintao’s political work report?

A2: Politically, the work report boosted Hu’s legacy by elevating his signature ideological construct, the “Scientific Development Concept” (SDC), to “guiding ideology” status. This puts Hu’s contribution to the Chinese Marxist cannon alongside those of Mao Zedong (Mao Zedong Thought), Deng Xiaoping (Deng Xiaoping Theory), and Jiang Zemin (The Important Thinking of the Three Represents), securing Hu’s position among the pantheon of CCP leaders. The language in the work report also makes it almost certain that the proposed amendment to the party constitution will include formally writing the SDC’s enhanced ideological standing into that document.

In terms of pure content, the work report dwelt extensively on the CCP’s commitment to tackling corruption, with Hu noting that, if not dealt with aggressively, the problem could be “fatal to the Party, and even cause the collapse of the Party and the fall of the state.” Hu also stressed the need for CCP cadres to “strengthen supervision” over their families and staff. Such tough language highlights the leadership’s concern about the erosion of the party’s credibility with the public in light of recent scandals such as the fall of former Politburo member Bo Xilai and exposés in the Western press detailing the tremendous wealth amassed by the families of senior leaders.

The report also touted the CCP’s commitment to rebalancing the economy and addressing the wealth gap between urban and rural areas by calling for greater infrastructure investment in the rural hinterlands and building a comprehensive social security system to cover both the rural and the urban population. Underscoring the persistent cross-currents in China’s foreign policy approach, the report emphasized that China would continue to “unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development and firmly pursue an independent foreign policy of peace,” while also calling for more rapid Chinese military modernization and efforts to “enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power.”

Q3: What are the likely amendments to the CCP Constitution? Will they be meaningful?

A3: A communiqué issued on November 4 from the final plenum of the outgoing Central Committee indicated that it had “discussed and approved” the draft of the constitutional amendment to be submitted to the Party Congress, though it did not provide any details as to its content. Aside from conferring “guiding ideology” status on the SDC, it is unlikely the amendments will offer any substantial breakthroughs, despite earlier rumors of more meaningful change. For example, the failure to reference “Mao Zedong Thought” in the Politburo’s October 22 announcement that the Party Congress would take up amending the constitution prompted a round of media speculation that the CCP might drop Chairman Mao’s ideological teachings from the document as a signal of coming reforms. Mao’s thinking was accorded its usual pride of place in Hu’s work report, however, virtually guaranteeing that it will remain in the party constitution. Similarly, some observers had posited that, in the wake of the Bo affair, the amendments would include language clearly emphasizing the importance of the rule of law, but Hu’s work report instead emphasized enforcing party discipline and tightening the CCP’s self-supervision, making this unlikely.

Q4: How likely is it that there will be surprises when the new leadership lineup is announced?

A4: The black box of Chinese leadership politics lends itself to the unexpected. Xi Jinping’s unanticipated elevation to heir apparent and the surprise last-minute ousters of Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members Li Ruihuan and Qiao Shi offer but a few examples from the last several party congresses. Similarly, the apparent dropping of candidates, such as Li Yuanchao, who had been viewed for the last five years as virtually certain to rise to the PBSC has undoubtedly increased the level of rancor within the top leadership, leaving the door open to last-minute counteroffensives. There also is widespread speculation that the intense horse trading over the PBSC lineup has meant that some critical decisions, such as whether Hu Jintao will retain the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, still had not been made coming out of the final plenum of the departing Central Committee.

Christopher K. Johnson is a senior adviser and holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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