Military band members prepare inside the Great Hall of the People before the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Photo: Reuters/Aly Song
Military band members prepare inside the Great Hall of the People before the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Photo: Reuters/Aly Song

Today the Communist Party of China (CPC) struts into their-twice-a-decade National Congress with confidence not felt in China for centuries. Xi Jinping standing at its helm, China’s central government has guided the world’s most populous country through precarious terrain to continue an economic rise unprecedented in scale.

This is the message Chinese media has for foreign suspicion of Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power and skepticism towards his reform agenda. The lead story run on major Chinese news websites on the eve of the meeting, entitled “Writing the epic scroll of the era of great rejuvenation – a record of central party leadership with comrade Xi Jinping as its core,” extolled the Chinese people’s “new, greater contribution to mankind.”

China’s official Xinhua News Agency went a step further to proclaim in an English-language editorial that “Enlightened Chinese democracy puts the West in the shade.”

Xi Jinping speaks during the opening session of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Photo: Reuters/Aly Song

Exaltations aside, the 19th National Congress of the CPC will have important implications for:

  1. The legacy of Xi Jinping, which will be measured by appointments to key positions and the possible enshrining of his political philosophies into the party’s constitution, and;
  2. China’s economic reform agenda.

Political observers as well as the markets will anxiously await revelations on these two fronts. We won’t likely see the composition of the 19th Party Congress Politburo and Standing Committee until the last day (Oct 25), but Xi’s work report was revealed today. Observers have already begun scrutinizing the report, and will continue to do so in the days to come.

Who will get voted onto the island?

For the uninitiated, the party congress is billed as a bottom-up election, with constitutional authority bestowed on several thousand congressional delegates to vote on a 200-member committee, which in turn elects around 25 Politburo members, five to ten standing committee members and the party’s general secretary – China’s top leader.

As actually implemented, the positions are decided in advance of the meetings through a process of jostling and closed-door deliberations among the country’s top leaders.

What we know:

Xi Jinping will be reelected to a second term as General Secretary of the CPC

What everyone wants to know:

Speculation as to whether anticorruption tsar Wang Qishan will stay on the Standing Committee for the next five years has dominated discussions about this party congress. There are several schools of thought on this, none of which are conclusive.

Having passed an informal party retirement age, if Wang were to make the cut it would be a show of Xi’s political capital. Some have noted his recent high-profile involvement in Chinese foreign relations as evidence that he will keep his position. Wang met recently with Steve Bannon in a meeting reported to have been arranged while Bannon was still White House chief strategist. In the same week, Wang met with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. We will finally find out by next week if those events mean anything.

China’s President Xi Jinping (R) speaks to Wang Qishan, the head of China’s anti-corruption watchdog in Beijing. Photo: Reuters/China Daily

Contenders for the standing committee:

Chen Min’er, the replacement for recently ousted Chongqing Party Secretary Sun Zhengcai, has been identified as one Xi ally who could make the cut.

Hu Chunhua, whose work as the Party chief of Guangdong Province received a surprise endorsement from Xi last April, is also seen as a strong contender, though he is not seen as a close Xi ally.

Sinologist Francesco Sisci notes that some of the leading contenders, including Chen and Hu, fit the mold of the founding fathers of the Mao era in one respect. He argues that, unlike the Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao generation of technocrat leaders, they have political interest and the vision to support Xi Jinping’s efforts to reestablish a strong ideological basis for the party’s rule:

The first generation of Chinese leaders were professional revolutionaries, like Mao, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping. They were men of vision but not really managers of the country. A second generation, like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, were engineers, technocrats in charge of developing the country. This third generation is something different.

The new-new guys who are expected to enter the Standing Committee, like Chongqing party chief Chen Min’er and Guangdong party chief Hu Chunhua, graduated with degrees in Chinese literature; they were aspiring writers and poets. Xi himself studied philosophy and law. In this their upbringing looks similar to that of the founding fathers of the Chinese Communist Party, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, who were trained classical scholars with a political interest and saw the future of China through the lens of a broad vision, a dream.

Pictures of late People’s Liberation Army soldier Lei Feng, Chinese President Xi Jinping and late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong overlook a courtyard in Shanghai. Photo: Reuters/Aly Song

Xi enshrined in the constitution?

While much attention has been paid to the leadership reshuffle, some Chinese politics aficionados are more transfixed on whether and how the General Secretary’s theoretical contribution will be written into the party’s constitution. Noted China scholar Willy Lam explains that enshrining Xi’s theoretical contribution as “thought” would be another sign he has achieved an elevation to the level of Mao:

Yet only Mao’s ideas and pronouncements have been put together as Mao Zedong Thought, which is deemed on par with Marxism-Leninism. While Deng, the Great Architect of Reform deserved much of the credit for the “Chinese economic miracle,” his sayings were compiled as Deng Xiaoping Theory. In Party parlance, “theory” is at least one rung below “thought” in terms of authoritativeness and weight.

To deleverage or not to deleverage

Much of the speculation regarding Chinese economic policy that has immediate impact on markets has revolved around China’s campaign to crackdown on debt. Since the start of the year, many have wondered how far Xi would be willing to stick out his neck to reduce risks associated with excess leverage, while trying to maintain strong economic growth ahead of the congress. Those questions were muted after China defied all expectations of growth in the first half of the year. Many expect the congress will affirm the commitment to reduce risk in the financial system through continued efforts to reduce debt, and will tolerate slower growth after the meeting.

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