The Party is Just Getting Started6 min read

Notes on the Nineteenth Party Congress – by Jude Blanchette


In August 1980, Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader until his death in 1997, addressed an enlarged session of the Political Bureau (Politburo) of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Committee. Having just emerged from the wreckage of the ten-year Cultural Revolution in 1976, China was plagued with what the Party’s aging Marxist revolutionaries liked to call “contradictions.”

For Deng, four such challenges confronted the Party and the political system it dominated:

  1. There was an “over-concentration of power” at the top of the leadership structure.
  2. Party leaders were holding too many concurrent posts. “There is a limit to anyone’s knowledge, experience and energy,” said Deng.
  3. The Party was crowding out the government, and it was time to “distinguish between the responsibilities” of the two and to “stop substituting the former for the latter.”
  4. Finally, and most importantly, “we must take the long-term interest into account and solve the problem of the succession in leadership.”

It’s worth revisiting Deng’s speech upon the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China today in Beijing. The Congress, which, since 1977, has been held every five years, serves a function loosely equivalent to a presidential and congressional election, a constitutional convention, and a strategic planning meeting. According to state-media in China, the convening of the 2,300 CCP delegates from across China is to “set the Party’s national policy goals and elect its top leadership.” As far as it goes, this is true. The Congress is indeed the formal venue for selecting the 200-plus members of the Central Committee, which is the highest administrative body in the CCP, for making changes to the Party’s Constitution, and for outlining policy direction for the coming five years.

Yet the optics surrounding the Congress – with its emphasis on formalism and procedure – belies a more unsettling truth: Deng’s warning, delivered 37 years ago, has yet to be heeded. Under Xi Jinping, the four challenges Deng outlined remain acute. Power is overconcentrated at the top, with the Politburo’s Standing Committee, where the real decisions are made, reduced from nine members to seven in 2012, and speculation that it might go down to five this year. Xi Jinping alone has over a dozen concurrent roles. Party interests can seem predominant over government interests. But the most notable issue is the succession problem.

Despite clear precedence that the General Secretary of the CCP now serves a total of ten years (two five-year terms), the conventional wisdom now holds that Xi Jinping will remain in office past the previously-assumed retirement date of 2022. As Ian Johnson recently predicted, “The idea of the 64-year-old Mr. Xi retiring quietly in five years seems remote.” The question is not who will replace Xi Jingping, but whether anyone will need to.

For Deng – the architect of China’s post-Mao political and economic trajectory, for all his faults – the succession problem was the “biggest, most difficult, and most pressing problem” facing the CCP’s organizational structure. Powerful cadres were reluctant to hang up their spurs, but as Deng noted, this inhibited younger and better trained officials from moving up the leadership ladder. As Deng put it, “The temple isn’t big enough for too many deities.”

The problem today is not too many deities, but too few – or more precisely, just one. In this, the CCP is merely reconfirming a well-worn thesis: authoritarian systems struggle with leadership succession and the normalization of politics. As Alice Miller of the Hoover Institution has noted, “No Soviet leader succeeded to the top through a process of planned leadership transition. Instead, every paramount Soviet leader died in office except Khrushchev, who was overthrown in a leadership power struggle in 1964, and Gorbachev, who presided over the demise of the USSR itself.” Yet since 2002, when Hu Jintao became General Secretary, it was widely perceived that China had solved its succession issue, and had again proved itself more resilient and adaptable than other communist and post-communist systems.

Given the uncertainty that now swirls around the nineteenth Party Congress – Will Wang Qishan retire? Will the Standing Committee shrink to five positions? Will the title “Chairman” be reinstated? Will a potential successor emerge? – perhaps we’re seeing less a deviation from the road to normalization and more a reversion to the mean of authoritarian politics. Indeed, as the scholar Bruce Dickson observed, “In one form or another, the succession issue has been the central drama of Chinese politics almost since the beginning of the People’s Republic in 1949.” That statement, made in 1997, holds up well today.

Not since the fourteenth Party Congress in 1992 has the event been enveloped in such rampant and wide-ranging conjecture. Back then, the world was still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The blow had been especially acute for the CCP, which saw striking parallels between its own reforming communist system and the one Gorbachev had unintentionally dismantled. (“My father thinks Gorbachev is an idiot,” said Deng Xiaoping’s youngest son.) The West, meanwhile, was brimming with end-of-history chauvinism. The big question framing that year’s Congress in Beijing was simple: would China commit to a robust agenda of reform, or would it slide into atrophy and decline?

Twenty-five years later, China confronts not so much a crossroads as a Rubicon. Since the period of Reform and Opening began in the late 1970s, the operative assumption has been that the country would pursue a twin agenda of economic opening and political normalization. In both instances this was not a matter of China becoming more like the West, nor should it have been: there are many paths towards modernity. But it was assumed that in actions and appearance, China under the CCP would become more predictable. The 19th Party Congress has called into doubt that very premise. The question is not: Is China closing? The question is: How far will it close?

Xinhua recently proclaimed that “the 19th CPC National Congress is a good window into the inner workings of Chinese politics,” a statement that is more instructive than Xinhua intended. For at least the past five Party Congresses, journalists and analysts could gain a sense of the likely leadership lineup several weeks, if not months, before the actual leadership announcement, which immediately follows the completion of a Congress. This time is different, and the absence of any clear leadership signals perfectly encapsulates the iron Leninist discipline that Xi Jinping has enforced on the Party.

In this new normal, even the most experienced and careful China analyst have been reduced to the crudest forms of Pekingology. From Beijing to DC, third- and fourth-hand anecdotes are carefully passed from one happy hour to the next. Rumors gain potency not owing to their connection to reality, but because they have come around the rumor mill for a second pass. Even though the sources of these stories are universally known to be dubious – someone who know someone who knows someone with connections to high ranking officials – they are the currency of the China analyst community.

That this level of opacity exists for the world’s most populous nation and its second largest economy is remarkable. Deng Xiaoping would have been dismayed. ∎