Explained: National Congress of China’s Communist party


China’s ruling Communist Party will begin its 19th National Congress on October 18. 

China’s president and the party’s general secretary Xi Jinping is expected to use the twice-a-decade event to consolidate his hold on power in the world’s second largest economy.

A wider government shake-up could also be on the agenda as a majority of the Communist Party’s top decision-making body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, are expected to retire during the meeting.

Here are some of the key questions about the Congress, who it involves and why it matters:

What is the National Congress?

Held every five years since the 11th Communist Party of China (CCP) Congress in 1977 – the year after Chairman Mao Zedong’s death – the National Congress draws together selected delegates from the CCP’s membership base.

Attendees are required to elect candidates to senior party positions, consider the general secretary’s report, and decide on amendments to the CCP’s constitution.

China President Xi Jinping appears set to tighten grip on power

While the meeting is the highlight of the Chinese political calendar, at which the general line for the CCP is established and celebrated, outcomes have already been decided ahead of the event, according to Roderic Wye, associate fellow of the Asia programme at Chatham House.

“The Congress is a celebration of decisions that have already been taken that we don’t know about from the outside [of the party],” Wye told Al Jazeera.

The week-long gathering is held in Beijing.

China’s new leaders will be unveiled at its conclusion which is believed to be on October 25.

How does it work?

The Congress will bring together 2,287 CCP delegates to shape policy and decide on political positioning.

Only those showing “unshakable belief” and the “correct political stance” are invited to attend, according to the government-owned newspaper China Daily.

Xi will begin proceedings with his report at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People and will use the address to outline the party’s priorities over the next five years.

The report will then be studied during the Congress, though it is widely expected to be accepted and implemented by delegates without challenge.

Delegates, representing an estimated 90 million party members nationwide, will also elect about 200 members to the CCP’s Central Committee.

The committee is then tasked with appointing members to the 25-member Politburo, which in turn decides on membership of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee that sits at the apex of Chinese politics. 

CCP attendees are also tasked with deciding on amendments to the party’s constitution. Since its creation in 1922, the constitution has been changed at every Congress.

What to watch out for?

Chinese politics, and the workings of the CCP Congress, are shrouded in secrecy.

However, this event is likely to reveal the extent to which Xi has consolidated power since rising to the role of general secretary in November 2012.

Elections and constitutional amendments decided at this summit are being watched closely by analysts for signs that the Chinese leader has tightened his grip at the helm of his party.

Xi will almost certainly have attempted to exert his influence over the renewal process, Hongyi Lai, an associate professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham, told Al Jazeera.

It is widely expected that he will try to put in new leaders, ones that have supported him or that he has groomed over the last few years,” Lai said. “[And] it’s also likely that he will put ‘Xi Jinping thought’ into the constitution.”

Appointments to the powerful Politburo Standing Committee will be of particular significance, potentially signifying Xi’s plans for a successor, or his intention to remain in power past China’s current constitutional two-term limit.

Up to five of its seven members – of which Xi is one – are expected to retire having reached the age of 68.

Wang Qishan, 69, is a current committee member and close political ally of Xi. Should he continue in his role, as the country’s anti-corruption chief, it may signal that China’s leader is considering extending his own political life at the helm of the CCP past the next Congress, in 2022.

At least on the surface, Xi has sowed himself more aggressively and obviously into the Chinese political system

Hongyi Lai, associate professor

Xi’s expected move to write his own political philosophy in the CCP constitution may also indicate an intention to prolong his period in power. The amendment would elevate Xi to a constitutional status akin to Mao Zedong, founding member of the CCP and the People’s Republic of China, and Deng Xiaoping.

“This signifies the extent of his influence in the Chinese political system, neither of his two immediate predecessors would have been able to do this at the end of their first terms,” Lai said.

“At least on the surface, Xi has sowed himself more aggressively and obviously into the Chinese political system.”

What does this mean for China, and the world?

Xi’s first five years at the top of Chinese politics have been characterised by consolidation of power as opposed to delivering his plans for reform revealed at the 18th CCP Congress.

Upon assuming office in 2012, he promised to pursue new social and economic policies, including a crackdown on corruption and reduce bureaucracy.

Should he be successful in extending his control over the CCP over the next week, Xi will be under pressure to finally implement such plans during his second term, Lai said.

“The burden is on him [Xi] to pursue new policy and he may want to introduce reforms regarding the economy, society and governance,” he said. “In the second term, the burden is on him to deliver.”

On the international stage, however, this Congress is unlikely to alter the country’s approach under Xi which has seen China increasingly assert itself in global politics, according to Wye. 

“I don’t think we are expecting a sudden swerve in Chinese policy, but there will be a lot of attention given to the country’s One Belt and One Road initiative,” he said.


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