The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China will be held in Beijing, China in the autumn of 2017. As an "odd-year" congress - the previous was held in 2012 - the congress is closely watched mostly due to a far-reaching change in the makeup of the top leadership of the Communist Party. A majority of the Politburo Standing Committee is expected to retire at this congress.
The party delegates at the congress will elect the new leadership of the Communist Party of China, including the Central Committee and alternate members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. During the meeting of new Central Committee, the elections of General Secretary, Politburo, Politburo Standing Committee (top decision-making body) and Central Military Commission will be held.
The twice-a-decade party congress is, at its heart, a leadership transition event. The bodies that sit atop the Communist Party organization will see their makeup change significantly. These include the 25-member Politburo, the 7-member Politburo Standing Committee, and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the internal discipline organ that has come to the political foreground since 2012.
There is very little doubt that Xi Jinping, who will be 64 at the time of the congress, will continue for another term as General Secretary, the party's top leadership position. There is uncertainty, however, around whether the other personnel changes at the congress will signal that Xi would stay on for more than two terms per convention. The strongest indication of would be whether officials born after 1960 such as Sun Zhengcai, Hu Chunhua or Chen Min'er are promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee, in much the same way Xi and Li were promoted to the body in 2007. While Xi is constitutionally limited to two terms as President, the offices where real power reside – the General Secretary, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission – are not term limited.
The Politburo Standing Committee is traditionally considered the highest level of power in the Communist Party. Since 2002, its membership selection has become increasingly institutionalized. Age, in particular, has played a significant role. Beginning with the 16th Party Congress in 2002, all standing committee members who have reached the age of 68 in the year of a congress will be required to retire. No one has broken this convention between 2002 and 2017. It is likely, therefore, that five out of the seven members of the 18th Politburo Standing Committee will relinquish their seats: Zhang Dejiang (1946), Yu Zhengsheng (1945), Liu Yunshan (1947), Wang Qishan (1948) and Zhang Gaoli (1946).
Since the 1980s, age-based retirement has become increasingly rigid, codified in a plethora of party regulations dictating promotion and retirement rules based on age. For instance, party rules stipulate that minister-level officials must leave active executive positions by age 65, and vice-minister level officials must retire from such positions by age 60. It is worthwhile noting, however, that at the Politburo Standing Committee-level, age based restrictions are based on convention, not written rules. Therefore it is conceivable, though unlikely, that someone in the current Politburo Standing Committee could break convention and serve for another term. Wang Qishan, the anti-corruption chief, has long been speculated to be slated for a second term. There were reportedly calls coming from within the party for a special exception to be made for Wang. Wang himself, however, has been reticent about this possibility, noting wryly in his remarks to journalists that he ought to step down soon.
If Wang does not remain a member of the committee, and assuming both Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping stay, and further assuming that the committee will retain a seven-member structure, the remaining five members will likely be selected from the 18th Politburo members born after 1950. There are 11 such non-military individuals who fit this criteria. Of these putative candidates, only two, Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, will have completed two terms (ten years) on the Politburo by 2017, and therefore have the advantage of seniority to advance to the standing committee. However, given the changes in the Chinese political landscape since Xi Jinping took power, this is far from assured.
The only two Politburo members born after 1960, Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai, are said to have an age advantage, and will, by convention, need to ascend to the standing committee in 2017 if they indeed hope to advance even further at the 20th Party Congress in 2022.Wang Huning (born 1955) - major figure in charge of theory and ideology in the Communist Party, is said to not show too much political ambition personally but may be elevated to the standing committee in 2017
Liu Qibao (born 1953) - former party chief of Sichuan, and current head of the Propaganda Department
Sun Chunlan (born 1950) - former party chief of Fujian and Tianjin; current head of the United Front Department; her chances to enter the standing committee are low, but if she does make it to the elite body, it would be the first time a woman has achieved this rank in the history of the party. Sun also has the distinction of being the Politburo member with the longest tenure on the Central Committee, joining as an alternate member in 1997
Sun Zhengcai (born 1963) - party chief of Chongqing; Sun is seen as a promising candidate for the "sixth generation" of Communist Party leadership; his track record in Chongqing has been lauded by observers
Li Yuanchao (born 1950) - Vice-President; Politburo member since 2007; a tuanpai member, initially seen as a promising candidate for further elevation, his chances are seen as somewhat reduced due to corruption scandals in Jiangsu province, where he was once party chief. Indeed, some sources speculate that Li may not even retain his own Politburo membership.
Wang Yang (born 1955) - former party chief of Chongqing and Guangdong province; Politburo member since 2007; seen as one of the more 'liberal' members of the ruling elite; was speculated as a candidate for the 17th standing committee but ultimately did not make it
Zhang Chunxian (born 1953) - party chief of Xinjiang who was transferred to become deputy leader of the Leading Group for Party Building a year prior to the Congress; observers are split on his chances of advancement
Zhao Leji (born 1957) - head of the Organization Department; Zhao's career is seen as a boilerplate for politicians of his generation, having served as party chief and head of a central department, he would have a flawless resume for entry into the standing committee; however, he is, relatively speaking, younger than some of his colleagues, and thus could conceivably vie for a standing committee seat in 2022 instead
Hu Chunhua (born 1963) - speculated during the 18th Party Congress as an incoming "heir apparent", though the political landscape has changed since Xi's ascension to power; his further advancement is now seen as uncertain; his track record in Guangdong has been defined by the on-going anti-corruption campaign. Guangdong's economic growth rate has slowed from its double-digit pace in earlier years to 8% in 2015.
Li Zhanshu (born 1950) - seen as a major Xi confidant whose chances of elevation to the Standing Committee is considered likely
Han Zheng (born 1954) - party chief of Shanghai; generally seen as having a strong technocratic record; has spent his entire career in Shanghai, which is seen as making his case weaker for the standing committee
There is also some speculation that the Standing Committee will be abolished altogether.
According to convention, Politburo members entering the body in 2017 must be born after 1950. Since the 1990s, individuals ascending to the Politburo generally have experience as provincial party chiefs. It is considered extremely unlikely for an individual to directly 'jump' from a provincial governor directly to the Politburo. As the provincial level remains dominated by cadres born in the 1950s, competition for a seat on the Politburo is intense. Outside analysis to date has been largely focused around former subordinates of Xi who are currently in provincial or ministerial-level leadership positions; these individuals are seen as the most likely candidates for Politburo membership.Chen Min'er (born 1960) - former subordinate of Xi Jinping in Zhejiang province, now party chief of Guizhou; his ascension to the Politburo is considered likely
Li Qiang (born 1959) - former subordinate of Xi Jinping in Zhejiang province, now party chief of Jiangsu
Chen Quanguo (born 1955) - former subordinate of Li Keqiang in Henan, party chief of Tibet (2011-16), party chief of Xinjiang beginning in 2016; his ascension to the Politburo is likely
Li Hongzhong (born 1956) - party chief of Tianjin; Li has experience as party chief of the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, and govenror and party chief of Hubei province. His CV is impeccable from a technocratic and regional-coverage point of view, but he has seen his share of controversies with journalists over the years
Li Xi (born 1956) - considered an ally of Xi; party chief of Liaoning
Xia Baolong (born 1952) - current party chief of Zhejiang, deputy of Xi when Xi was party chief
Du Jiahao (born 1955) - former party chief of Pudong; party chief of Hunan
Liu He (born 1952) - Liu, head of the Office for Financial and Economic Affairs (Zhongcaiban), has been something of a top economic advisor to Xi
Bayanqolu (born 1955) - former subordinate of Xi Jinping in Zhejiang province, party chief of Jilin; should Bayanqolu become a Politburo member, he would be the first ethnic Mongol to hold a seat on the body since Ulanhu, and the first Mongol ever to hold a Politburo seat without having held high office in Inner Mongolia
Zhou Qiang (born 1960) - a tuanpai member, current President of the Supreme Court; while a transfer from the Supreme Court position to the Politburo would be unprecedented, Zhou Qiang is only one of three individuals born after 1960 to have already achieved sub-national ranks on the Communist Party hierarchy
Guo Shengkun (born 1951) - Minister of Public Security; it has been, since 2002, convention for a former Minister of Public Security to take on the post of Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which entails Politburo membership
Huang Qifan (born 1952) - Mayor of Chongqing; there was some speculation that Huang would become Vice-Premier, which would entail Politburo membership; it is also conceivable that Huang will, after serving as mayor for over six years, take over the role of party chief in Chongqing roughly in the same fashion Han Zheng did in Shanghai in 2012. Alternatively, Huang, who will be 65 by the time of the Congress, will need to step down entirely due to reaching retirement age
Peng Qinghua (born 1957) - party chief of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region
Yang Jing (born 1953) - ethnic Mongol, former Chairman of Inner Mongolia and current Secretary-General of the State Council
Ding Xuexiang (born 1962) - Ding, a major political aide to Xi for nearly a decade, is the current executive deputy director of the General Office of the Communist Party of China. Ding's chances at the Politburo is entirely contingent on whether or not he will succeed Li Zhanshu as head of the General Office in the upcoming leadership transition, and whether or not this position continues to come with it a seat on the Politburo
The Central Committee, composed of 200-some members, will also be elected at the Congress. Since 2007 the higher ranks of the party apparatus has seen its median age increase while retaining retirement limits. It is therefore likely that the vast majority of members of the 19th CC will be born between 1955 and 1965. Elected members born after 1965 may give clues as to who the party sees as promising candidates for the 7th generation of leadership who will presumably rise to power in 2032.
Since Xi Jinping ascended to the highest office of the party, he has surprised many observers with the pace at which he consolidated power. Since Deng Xiaoping, retired leaders have held significant influence in the selection of incoming leaders. Hu Jintao was "anointed" by Deng in the 1990s, nearly ten years before the former took the helm; Xi Jinping similarly was endorsed by senior leadership figures, including former leader Jiang Zemin and former Vice President Zeng Qinghong, prior to his being catapulted into prominence in 2007. This selection process in which a core figure (Deng and Jiang) selects future leaders while also paying heed to factional balance and the views of other senior leaders has led to peaceful transitions of power in 2002 and 2012.
While the Chinese political system has institutionalized to a significant degree since economic reforms began in 1978, political patronage continues to play an important role in the promotion of future leaders. These two often contradictory forces has led to a quasi-meritocratic system where the most suitable candidates generally must have the backing of important incumbent senior leadership figures, in addition to a strong track record free of major scandal at the regional level. Jiang and Hu each cultivated their own factional bases with those they were most familiar, giving rise to Jiang's Shanghai clique and Hu's tuanpai, or Youth League faction.
Xi's regional experience has exhibited a preference to promoting low-key leaders driven by a strong work ethic rather than careerists motivated by personal interest or the economic returns that often comes with holding high office. While some foreign observers have characterized Xi's selection of subordinates as cultivating a political clique for the purpose of amassing power, Chinese-language publications offered a far more nuanced view: that Xi promoted people with whom he was familiar in order to dissect the vast network of interlocking vested interests that have proliferated the Chinese political system since the time of Jiang.
Xi was said to have "gone on strike" prior to his own installation as General Secretary in 2012 in order to pressure senior leaders to place certain individuals he nominated in positions of power. After Xi became General Secretary, he incrementally installed individuals with whom he had directly worked with in the past in nearly all consequential branches of the state-party apparatus. Prior to the 19th Congress, his allies held top provincial offices in Guizhou (Chen Min'er), Jiangsu (Li Qiang), Liaoning (Li Xi), Zhejiang (Xia Baolong), and Jilin (Bayanqolu); the top administrative posts in the propaganda system (Huang Kunming), in the party organization system (Chen Xi), in the party's General Office (Ding Xuexiang), in the party school (He Yiting), in economic implementation (Liu He), in national security (Cai Qi), and in internet control (Xu Lin).
Since 2012, in addition to upsetting carefully calibrated factional balance through a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign, Xi has also made explicit pronouncements to end party factionalism and remold the party from one of pragmatic careerists governing for power's sake to a more streamlined, disciplined organization with unified and clearly articulated goals of governance that cannot be easily obstructed by regional or factional interests. To this end, Xi has attempted to implement the so-called neng-shang neng-xia (lit. "can go up, can go down") framework, whereby cadres can be demoted or laterally transferred from positions of power to ceremonial posts; in the past, cadres that have reached a certain level on the Communist Party's highly regimented grade-based hierarchy could not be demoted unless they were charged with a criminal offense. Through these actions, Xi recognized that some rigid institutional rules adopted in the two decades prior has made the party an inflexible organization in which factors such as seniority and especially, age, became overwhelmingly important in the cadre promotion process. In practice these changes are likely to result in individuals at all levels exiting important positions prior to reaching a party-mandated retirement age (Wang Rulin and Qiang Wei are examples), and others being placed in positions of power even if they would have been considered "too old" under the pre-Xi system (Yu Weiguo and Shi Taifeng are examples).