MONTHS OF PLANNING and secretive dealmaking have led to this moment. On October 16th the Communist Party of China will open its five-yearly congress in Beijing. It is the 20th such event: congresses date back to the party’s foundation in 1921. Despite the extraordinary change that China has experienced in recent decades, the choreography of the congress has remained much the same. The week-long event will see some 2,300 delegates gather in the Great Hall of the People to hear long, impenetrable speeches. It will be meticulously stage-managed. The party boss, Xi Jinping, will keep his job for a third five-year term, tightening his grip on power. (At its annual session next year, probably in March, the national legislature will give Mr Xi another five years as China’s president.) Important policies will be discussed at the congress, but none are likely to change. So what do party congresses actually do?
Not much, is the short answer. More important is what they reveal. One reason these events are so closely watched is because they mark a huge turnover of the party’s leadership. Delegates will cast ballots to select a new Central Committee, a body comprising about 370 high-ranking officials, military commanders, bosses of large state-owned companies and other grandees. Supporters of Mr Xi already fill many of these positions and will dominate the committee. On the day after the congress ends the reshuffled committee—more than half of its members will be new—will “elect” a new Politburo and Party Military Commission, which sets policy for the armed forces. In reality, who gets seats in these bodies has already been decided. Mr Xi will be given new five-year terms as chief of both. He will also have decided who will join him in the Politburo’s standing committee, the top leadership body, which now has seven members.
The congress may also provide clues to the party’s long-term priorities in domestic and foreign affairs. Mr Xi will deliver a report, read aloud on the first day of the gathering. The speech—which took more than three hours in 2017—will praise the party’s achievements over its decade in power while skating over problems, including a sputtering economy and property crisis. Much of it will focus on ideology. There will be few details about economic policy or the “zero-covid” strategy. But China-watchers will be looking to see what Mr Xi emphasizes. In the past he has focused on corruption and inequality. At the congress five years ago he gained the attention of Western countries by talking of China “moving closer to center stage” in global affairs. This time he may resist China’s challenge to the liberal world order, and warn America against supporting Taiwan.
The most striking thing about this congress will be how much it showcases the power and achievements of one man. The party has already made moves to enhance Mr Xi’s authority, such as establishing him as the leadership’s “core” and his political thinking as part of its guiding ideology. These “two establishments” have been drilled into delegates at pre-congress training sessions. Delegates may also endorse tweaks to the party’s charter, such as shortening the name of Mr Xi’s philosophy from “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” to “Xi Jinping Thought”. That would evoke the party founder’s philosophy, “Mao Zedong Thought”. A torrent of fawning praise for Mr Xi in state media is intended to make the case that only he can lead China to a “great rejuvenation” and that, therefore, he must remain the party’s boss.
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