Special Report: Seven things to watch at China’s 19th Party Congress

Special Report: Seven things to watch at China’s 19th Party Congress

China’s 19th Party Congress (19PC) will answer some key questions that are preoccupying China-watchers: will Xi Jinping stay on as President? And how centralised will power become? In this Special Report, GRI’s James Tunningley presents a guide of what to expect during the coming weeks.

On October 18th, the 19th Party Congress (19PC) of the Communist Party of China (CCP) will open in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Nearly 3,000 delegates, who collectively represent almost 90 million Communist Party members across China, have been chosen to attend the highly coveted event. Held every five years, the Party Congress features the election of the new Central Committee (205 members and 171 alternate members), which in turn elects a new Politburo (25 members) and Politburo Standing Committee (5-9 members).

In traditional Confucian ideology, the number 7 is considered to represent harmony. And if there is one thing Xi will be hoping for at the 19th Party Congress as he tries to tighten his grip on power, it’s harmony. So here are our top 7 things to watch at the 19PC:

1. Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power

Xi Jinping is expected to stay on as President, Commander-in-Chief, General Secretary of the ruling CCP, Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and “core” leader for at least another term.

However, it is also likely that he will attempt to consolidate his position in order to stay on beyond 2022 and serve a third term. Chinese law stipulates that a President of China cannot serve more than ten years, or two consecutive terms. There are, however, no legal limitations on how the length of service of a General Secretary or Chairman of the CMC.

An indicator to watch in terms of Xi’s ambitions will be whether he increasingly uses the title of ‘Chairman’ – previously only used by Mao Zedong. During his recent inspection of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops at their barracks in Hong Kong in June of this year, Xi was referred to as ‘Chairman’.

Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj Vladimir Putin Xi Jingping

Xi Jinping with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj.

2. Constitutional amendments

The Chinese constitution contains references to contributions the country’s leaders have made to the official ideology of the CCP. The current constitution upholds ‘Mao Zedong Thought’, ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’, the ‘Three Represents’ (Jiang Zemin’s legacy) and the ‘Scientific Outlook on Development’ (referring to Hu Jintao). Only Mao and Deng are explicitly named.

Xinhua News, the PRC’s official press agency, confirmed that the constitution will be amended to “include the key theories and strategic thoughts” – making it likely that Xi and his “Chinese dream” will be immortalised. In the arcane hierarchy of the CCP,  semantics matter: if Xi is mentioned by name, and if his contribution is referred to as ‘Thought’ (like Mao) rather than ‘Theory’ (like Deng), this will be a strong indication that Xi has consolidated power.

3. Bending retirement age rules

The “67 up, 68 down” rule is likely to be bent during the upcoming Congress. The rule, introduced in 2002, stipulates that officials who are 68 or older cannot serve a new term on the Politburo Standing Committee – the most powerful decision-making body in China.

By this logic, five of the current seven members of the Standing Committee are due to retire. At least three of these five are opposed to Xi, who will benefit from their departure. However, the rule also serves as a potential check on his ability to serve a third term, as Xi will be 72 in 2022. If Xi bends the rules by keeping 69-year old Wang Qishan, the current head of the anti-corruption campaign, on for another term, this will be a sign that Xi himself may seek to stay in power.

4. The future of Wang Qishan

What will happen to Wang Qishan is one of the less predictable elements of the 19PC. Wang went missing for a few weeks after the secretive annual meeting at Beidaihe, where senior CCP members – both incumbent and retired – gather to discuss leadership changes and policy reform. This seemed to suggest that he was fading from the scene. However, when Wang resurfaced he made two consecutive high profile appearances, reaffirming his importance.

If Xi does not sidestep existing age-related measures and find a ‘special arrangement’ to keep Wang on, he will likely find him a different prestigious role. There are even suggestions that Wang could replace Li as Premier.

Jim Yong Kim Wang Qishan

Wang Qishan (right) meeting with World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim

5. Which key players are out?

At the Standing Committee, as noted above, four members are mandated to retire. These are Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC); Yu Zhengsheng, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference; Liu Yunshan, Secretary of the Secretariat and Leader of the Propaganda Leading Group; and Zhang Gaoli, Vice-Premier.

There will also be a significant shake-up further down. As a result of the anti-corruption drive, 150 ‘tigers’ (senior officials) have been purged, including 17 full members of the Central Committee. Adding those who were purged to the 90 members who are due to retire, it is clear that 107 seats out of 205 total will be empty.

The most important Ministries to watch where personnel will change are the General Office, Ministry of Public Security, Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Ministry of State Security, Organisation Department of the CCP, and the military.

6. Who’s getting the call up to the Standing Committee?


Xi and Li Keqiang – the current Premier – are both likely to stay on, although there are rumours that Li could leave his post but stay in the Standing Committee by becoming Head of the National People’s Congress. Li Zhanshu, the current Director of the CCP’s General Office, has the best cut shot of going up, most likely as Chairman of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – assuming, of course, that Wang Qishan definitely leaves. Vice-Premier Wang Yang also has a good chance of going up, probably as Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, although Wang maintains a low profile and claims to have no aspirations for the Standing Committee.


Former Xinjiang Party Chief and now Deputy Leader of the Leading Group for Party Building, Zhang Chunxian, has a good chance of going up, possibly as Executive Vice-Premier. The intellectual powerhouse and current Director of the Central Policy Research Office, Wang Huning, who himself has been a driving force in CCP ideology might go up, although he is the only candidate never to have held a provincial-level leadership post. Shanghai municipal party secretary Han Zheng could also get promoted, perhaps to Chairman of the NPC, although this is increasingly unlikely.

No Chancers

Elsewhere, Zhao Leiji might have an outside shot at going up – although he is very young and thus could go up in 2022 instead, whereas others such as Liu Qibao, Xu Qiliang and Sun Chunlan have almost no chance of promotion.

Two to watch closely: Hu and Chen

Guangdong provincial secretary, Hu Chunhua, has good prospects, although as one of Jiang Zemin’s men and the protégé of Hu Jintao, he is not in Xi’s inner circle. On the other hand, rising star Chen Min’er – current Party Secretary of Chongqing – is tipped to go straight to the Standing Committee from the Central Committee – skipping the Politburo. Chen is Xi’s confidant and earlier this year replaced Sun Zhengcai as Party Secretary after Sun was expelled from the Party on corruption charges.

Importantly, by virtue of their youth, only Hu Chunhua and Chen Min’er, are in a position to eventually replace Xi as the next President of China in 2022 (or 2027). If Chen goes up and Hu does not, then Xi’s men will be in power for at least the next 15 years. If Hu goes up – either with or without Chen, likely as either First Secretary of the Party Secretariat or Executive Vice-Premier – then the risks to Xi’s long-term outlook are greater.

7. Seats in the Standing Committee

The final thing to look out for will be the number of seats in the Standing Committee, which could change depending on who rises or falls. Historically, it can be anywhere from 5 to 9 and there were murmurings at the beginning of 2017 that Xi might reduce the number of seats in the Standing Committee from 7 to 5. However, the majority of 19PC projections now believe it will be 7. This would be consistent with the fact that in 2002 and 2012 the number of seats has changed, but in 1997 and 2007 it stayed the same.




Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

James Tunningley

James Tunningley is a GRI Associate Analyst. He is the Director of the Young China Watchers in London having previously held positions at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and the China-Britain Business Council. He is on the Young Leaders Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum, a Fellow at the Royal Asiatic Society and a Junior Member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford.