China gears up for Xi Jinping's power play at communist congress

Communist Party gathering set to consolidate Xi Jinping political strongman status

Performers prepare for the 19th Communist Party Congress in Huaibei in China’s eastern Anhui province. Photograph:  AFP/Getty Images

Performers prepare for the 19th Communist Party Congress in Huaibei in China’s eastern Anhui province. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images


China is putting up the last red flags and revolutionary icons around Tiananmen Square ahead of this week’s 19th Communist Party congress that will consecrate Xi Jinping as the country’s most powerful leader in a generation.

A total of 2,287 delegates have been chosen to attend the twice-a-decade congress, which kicks off in the Great Hall of the People on Wednesday with a speech by the president and party secretary that is likely to be heavy on Marxist-Leninist ideology.

When he walks out on to the dais a week later, at the head of the all-powerful standing committee of the politburo, we can expect him to have secured his grip on the party and become the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

The 64 year old has already been given “core leader” status, strengthening his position. The meeting will pick a 200-member central committee and a 25-member politburo, and will also reveal the make up of the standing committee, a body of seven members led by Mr Xi.

The composition of the standing committee is generating massive interest, as it will show which factions hold the power in China. Mr Xi and the premier, Li Keqiang, are expected to remain in place, but the other five positions are technically up for grabs because of conventions about top politicians retiring at the age of 68.

Trusted ally

However, it’s possible Mr Xi will allow his trusted ally Wang Qishan (69) to stay on despite his age, and there are even rumours he could replace Mr Li with Mr Wang as premier.

Other rumours suggest he might cut the membership of the standing committee to five, which would be a major sign that Mr Xi is concentrating power between himself and his closest associates. Even as he begins his second five-year term, there are also lingering rumours that Mr Xi is planning to stay on for a third term beyond 2022.

Among the names being mentioned as candidates for the standing committee is Hu Chunhua, the party secretary of Guangdong province, who recently led a large trade mission to Ireland.

Also in the frame is Chen Min’er, who has recently been named head of the party in Chongqing after another rising star, Sun Zhengcai, who had been seen as a possible successor to Mr Xi, was ousted on corruption charges, a move that took China-watchers by surprise.

Mr Chen is said to enjoy a close relationship with Mr Xi.

Economic liberalisation

Once Mr Xi has solidified his grip on the reins, attention will turn to whether he plans to introduce reforms. Democratic reforms are unlikely, but there is talk of more economic liberalisation, particularly in deals with the big state-owned enterprises and how the Communist Party gets along with large Chinese IT companies, such as Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu.

“Xi Jinping is more ambitious than all his predecessors since Mao Zedong. His aspirations extend far beyond the defence of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power,” said Sebastian Heilmann, director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

“In the wake of digital transformation, something new has arisen in China: a ‘digital Leninism’. This new form of big data-supported governance exploits the dominant market positions of a few large IT corporations which are forced to provide the government with comprehensive data about citizens, companies and financial as well as societal processes,” said Mr Heilmann.

“Digitisation and oligopolies play into the hands of the authoritarian system and open new possibilities for centralised control and management,” he said.

The Global Times newspaper in an editorial said the party had consolidated and strengthened in the five years of Mr Xi’s reign.

“Problems that once bewildered Chinese society have been clarified and China’s development direction is widely recognised by the public,” it said.

“China is forming a robust growth momentum and its development is shifting the world toward a winning direction. China’s development has never been so important to the world as now,” the commentary said, adding that the party, and the congress, bore a “heavy responsibility”.