Beneath the hype: What, actually, will China's party congress do?

The Communist Party Congress most certainly will laud President Hu’s review of China's accomplishments over his past five years in office.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP
A man walks past a wall engraved with the insignia of the Chinese Communist Party on Tuesday, Nov. 6, in Shanghai, China. The party will hold its 18th Congress on Thursday, Nov. 8, in Beijing.

Amid all the hype surrounding Thursday’s opening of the ruling Communist Party’s 18th Congress, the headlines declaring it “crucial” to China’s future, and the crush of more than 1,000 foreign reporters accredited to cover the confab, it is sometimes hard to remember that the week-long meeting is not actually going to decide anything.

The only question of interest to anyone outside the Great Hall of the People is who will emerge from the congress at the top of the Communist Party. And that will have been decided in much smaller conclaves before the delegates take their seats.

The congress “is a show for mass consumption,” says Zheng Yongnian, head of the East Asia Institute at the National University of Singapore. “But it matters because it is very symbolic, and the new leaders who have been selected have to go through the formal procedures.”

The 2,270 delegates will in fact elect only the 300 or so members and alternate members of the party’s Central Committee. It is they, meeting next week once the congress is over, who will elect the two dozen members of the decisionmaking Politburo, who in turn will name a handful of men – either seven or nine, rumors vary – to the Politburo Standing Committee at the summit of the pyramid.

“But 95 percent of the election results have been fixed before the congress,” says Li Datong, a former editor of Freezing Point, a Communist Party youth magazine. “The congress has meaning only as propaganda, showing off the achievements of the past 10 years” since outgoing party General Secretary Hu Jintao took the top job.

'Sailing the broad sea'

The slogans are indeed self-congratulatory. “Welcome the successful 18th Party Congress Marking Great Achievements” reads an electronic signboard splashing party propaganda across Tiananmen Square.

“Sailing the broad sea under a boundless sky” proclaimed a headline in Tuesday’s People’s Daily, the official party organ, above a dense page-long account of accomplishments such as the launching of space rockets, the planting of trees, record grain harvests, and the construction of high-speed railways.

The tasks that the congress has supposedly set itself are equally portentous.

“The party needs to figure out how it will draw on past invaluable experience, open up a path of innovation, meet the people’s needs, solve problems concerning the people’s vital interests, and introduce more suitable policies at the macro and micro levels for improving the people’s living standards,” according to another article in the People’s Daily.

Bold moves?

Delegates will do no such thing, say analysts who point out that the Communist Party’s congress, which meets every five years, is not a deliberative body. The meeting will listen to President Hu’s report on his last five years in office, but nobody is expecting his successor, Xi Jinping, to announce any bold moves.

When a new generation of leaders takes charge in China, says David Kelly, an analyst with China Policy, a Beijing-based consultancy, “a few years go by in which the new incumbent settles his political debts, promotes his supporters, pays his respects to his predecessors, and builds enough political capital to launch his own directives.”

“Congresses are a time for political continuity, not political change,” agrees Professor Zheng. “The new leaders have been chosen by the old leaders, and they select people to continue their policies. It is the faces that change at congresses, not policies.”  

Still, party congresses are important, says Dr. Kelly, because behind the headline event – the transition to a new generation of leaders – “a lot must go on. New people who have been bumped up the totem pole will meet for the first time, and new alignments and alliances will be formed.”

Those new alliances will have a lot of challenges to deal with; economic growth is slowing amid other signs that China will have to fundamentally reorient its policies away from cheap exports; popular unrest is growing, to judge by the rising number of spontaneous protests that break out more than a thousand times a week in one part or another of the country; and the ruling party is nervous enough about its future to have allowed public discussion recently of its crisis of legitimacy.

Against that background, argues Kelly, the congress that opens on Thursday has particular significance. “The party has a greater stake than ever in renewing its claim to legitimacy through this leadership transition,” he says. “The congress is a source of that legitimacy, because it shows that something has been renewed.”

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