17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China

15. Oct 2007

Introduction to the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China

Comment by Jesper Schlæger

The 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China will convene in Beijing on 15 October 2007. The congress is formally the highest body within the Communist Party of China and it is convened with the purpose of, most importantly, determining leadership succession issues, amending the party constitution, and selecting a Central Committee.

The resulting documents of the Congress are very important for Chinese politics: they divide competences between the party leadership, and as the Communist Party is the ruling party, the leaders’ position within the party also relates to the position they are going to assume within the government. Decisions on policy and personnel are generally made by the Central Committee before the Congress. The Congress is thus mostly a showcase for the agreements reached, and some amazing footage will be shown of a hall full of people simultaneously raising their hands to vote.

When the hands go up the rhetoric of the leadership is institutionalized. This time the Central Committee has decided to enshrine Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three represents’along with Hu Jintao’s ‘scientific concept of development’ within the party constitution. Note that the wording in the party constitution avoids calling either of the theories by the name of its progenitor, like the Mao Zedong Thought or Deng Xiaoping Theory, and consequently hamper the progenitor’s right to interpretation of the theories.

Leadership changes at senior levels are going to take place, as the older members of the Politburo will retire. In Chinese elite politics position means powers, and the seats vacated are coveted by contenders from different factions of the party mainly built around Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. But how does one get a position? Who determines the rules of the game?

There are no formal rules that guide the leadership selection. Hence the process is characterised by bargaining – and bargaining has been tough leading up to this year’s party congress. Since 16th Party Congress changes in provincial leadership have been carried out that reflect a support for the policies of ‘harmonious society’ proposed by Hu Jintao, but the outcome of the preparatory meeting of the Central Committee friday left room for a strengthening of the Jiang Zemin supporting wing within the party. Hu will probably retire by the 18th Congress in 2012, and the 17th Congress will give some clues as to who is likely to become his sucessor. Currently the two most likely candidates are Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who rely on different party factions for support.

Important policy issues to be discussed during the congress relate to environment, public health, pension reform, and education, and the signs of an overheating economy; in short, questions pertaining to the legitimization and adaptation of the Communist Party faced with development related social conflicts and challenges of increasing wealth disparity on provincial level as well as between rich and poor. The Congress will give indications on how these problems are to be tackled, in the shape of frames determining the limits of acceptable policies.

Fighting corruption has already been underscored as an important theme with the Central Committee’s confirmation of the ousting of former Shanghai mayor and member of the Central Committee Chen Liangyu along with other party members found guilty on charges of corruption.

Delegates to the Congress are a mixture of some of the most powerful people in China and delegates, who represent different minorities alongside a number of ‘model workers’. The latter do not necessarily have any significant impact on national policy, but their presence underlines the legitimizing purpose of the Congress. 2,213 delegates will participate in the Congress. Originally the delegates numbered 2,217 but one was expelled for disciplinary reasons and three have deceased in the period from the elections till now.

The media coverage of the event is substantial. Both Xinhua and China Daily provide theme pages on the 17th Party Congress. The Congress is scheduled to end on 21 October.