China's Communist Party Congress: Q & A

By Malcolm Moore
What is a Communist Party Congress?

The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China will gather more than 2,200 delegates from across the country in Beijing to discuss the party's policies.
Promotions and demotions have been a feature of party congresses in the past, and in 2002 the event was used as a platform to unveil a new leadership. This year, a similar transition is due to take place.

In China, the Congress is known simply as the "big meeting", or just by the Chinese character "Da", which means "Big". This year is the "18th Da".

How often do they take place?

Since Chairman Mao's death in 1977, the meetings have taken place once every five years.

The current practice is to tee up prospective leaders during odd-numbered congresses and then announce them during even-numbered ones.

What happens during the Congress?

What happens during the Congress is a mystery. Apart from the opening and closing addresses, everything takes place behind closed doors. In addition, most if not all of the big decisions have been ironed out well in advance, as the Party's leaders jockey for position.

Two things can be counted on. There will be very long speeches –sometimes running to a somniferous 70 pages – and, at the very end, the Politburo Standing Committee will walk onto the dais in order of  seniority.

This year, the top seven leaders are expected to be Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Zhang Gaoli, Zhang Dejiang, Li Yuanchao and Wang Qishan.

How does the Congress work?

Local congresses have been held in each of China's provinces and autonomous regions (such as Tibet and Xinjiang) and have selected representatives to send to Beijing.

No more than 68 per cent of the delegates may hold leadership positions within the party. The remaining 32 per cent should be "grassroots" party members who hold jobs outside of the party apparatus.

In 2007, at the 17th Congress, the Central Committee had 155 members from the provinces, 125 from the central government in Beijing and 64 from the People's Liberation Army.

The Congress will choose who sits on the 200-person Central Committee, and who its 180 or so alternate members will be. It also chooses the 25-man Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee, which could shrink back to seven men again this year. In practice, all of the
decisions are made not by delegates but by the previous generation(s) of leaders and are handed down and rubber-stamped during the meeting.

Which generation of leaders have we reached?

Taking Chairman Mao as the first generation of the Chinese leadership, the new leaders will be the fifth generation, the first to be born during the Communist era.

They come from a variety of backgrounds, but are generally more experienced in governance, having served in various parts of the administration, and are more educated. Unlike the fourth generation of engineers and economists, many of the new generation are social scientists. A disproportionate number are also "princelings," the children of former Communist leaders.

Four out of the six contenders for Politburo Standing Committee places are princelings, who have risen to power under the wings of their parents and through networks of connections inside the Party.

Who's in, who's out?

This year will see a dramatic upheaval. Out of the 25 man Politburo, 14 are due to retire. In the Politburo Standing Committee, seven out of nine are due to step down.

Many places should also go to the forthcoming "sixth generation" of leaders, who may include Hu Chunhua, Sun Zhengcai and Zhou Qiang. At the same time, around 70 per cent of the leaders of the Central Military Commission, the party arm that runs the People's Liberation
Army, are due to stand down, as is a similar proportion of the executive committee of the State Council, China's cabinet, making this year a hugely important transition.

While the new leadership will be unveiled at this Congress, however, they will not take the reins until next year's National People's Congress.

What happens to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao?

Hu Jintao has moved to consolidate his network of power in the run-up to his official retirement, filling the commanding heights of Chinese politics with his proteges.

Both Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin wielded enormous power and influence over China after they retired, and Mr Hu may be hoping to follow their example. Mr Wen's position is less clear. He has used his final year in office to repeatedly press for reform instead of hustling for position.

What are the key issues for the next generation of leaders?

During the last ten years, Hu and Wen have focused on building the Chinese economy and maintaining stability, rather than carrying out any risky reforms. While the Chinese media is already trumpeting their leadership as a "golden decade", many observers have consequently
tagged it a "lost decade".

The new generation of leaders, then, will inherit many of the same problems that Hu and Wen faced when they came to power in 2002 – a growing gap between rich and poor and between the cities and the countryside, the continuing inequality created by the "hukou", or household registration system, an inefficient financial system, an unfair legal system, an underfunded welfare system, institutional corruption and a range of vested interests within the Party preventing serious reforms, to name a few.

What is the difference between the National Congress and the National People's Congress?

Not to be confused with the National Congress, which is an internal Communist party boondoggle, the National People's Congress is technically a meeting of China's "parliament", with nearly 3,000 members gathering in Beijing in March to vote on new legislation. All
legislation is always passed, and the NPC is little more than a grand rubber-stamp.

The NPC takes place at the same time as the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a meeting of prominent Chinese who are not Communist Party members, and who act as an advisory body. The two meetings together are usually called just that: The Two Meetings.

How does the Chinese government work?

All three branches of the government are controlled by the Communist Party, as is the fourth estate. According to the Chinese constitution, the state operates "under the leadership of the Communist Party".

Aside from a few symbolic exceptions, every senior government official is a party member. However, there is also a powerful Communist Party apparatus, with several departments outranking mere government ministries.

These include the Organisation Department, responsible for managing the Party's personnel, the Publicity Department, responsible for propaganda and censorship, and the United Front Department, which handles relations with overseas Chinese, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Tibet.

In addition, the Party runs China's vast state sector, all religious institutions, think tanks and NGOs, and even some private companies.


NOTE— Malclm Moore is the Beijing based correspondent for The Telegraph


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