Chinese President Xi Jinping has proven himself one of the strongest leaders in recent Chinese history, exercising a deft political hand in his first five years as president and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party to consolidate power.

That power will be on display this week as the party gathers for its 19th Party Congress, a seminal event in Chinese politics held once every five years, in which the party chooses its leadership. While Xi is a lock to be appointed for a second term, there are open questions about other key leadership positions, and how the party will confront the country’s many daunting challenges.

To help understand the politics involved going in to this party congress, we spoke with Anthony Saich, the Daewoo Professor of International Affairs and Director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. The following has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full PolicyCast interview below, or on Apple Podcasts.

Q: What is the 19th Party Congress, and why is it important?

Party congresses are held once every five years, so they are seminal events in terms of electing the leadership for the next five years, summing up what's been going on in the past five years, and giving us a way of looking at where China is heading, who the new leaders are, and what their predisposition is likely to be. They are very important events in the calendar of the Chinese Communist Party.

Q: Xi Jinping has now been president of China and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party for five years, and he is a lock to spend another five years in that position. Traditionally, this midterm Congress has been an opportunity for the next general secretary and president to emerge, but it seems like that may not happen. Why?

At the moment it's very unclear who's going to be promoted, and it's also very unclear how many people will be promoted. Before the last party congress, people were pretty sure they knew who would be general secretary after Hu Jintao, and who would be the next premier after Li Keqiang - the current premier. That's not an unusual way of doing things. There are people who are basically appointed at a young age into the Politburo - they give them the training, they’re looked up and down, and then they moved into the five or seven person standing committee of the Politburo, which is really the key power center in China.

But what has happened this time has been an upset. The person that most people thought was a strong runner to be the next general secretary in five years' time, someone called Sun Zhengcai, has now been removed. He was the party secretary of the Southwest province of Chongqing, a major municipality. Most people saw him as a rising star, but he has now been removed on charges of corruption and will be removed from the party.

It’s interesting because in recent years we have seen at almost every party congress a rival being removed from possible power and corruption being used as the charge against them. In the old days it was ideology: you were leftist this, or rightist that. In the modern world, that doesn't mean very much. So really corruption has been the weapon of choice.

That really means we do not know who would be the likely successor to Xi Jinping. What we do know is that he's been able to put in place in Chongqing someone who is very close to him, who presumably will have a chance to move up in the future. He has been very successful at restructuring the military, restructuring a lot of the civilian and party operators to bring in many of his own supporters. It looks as though after this Congress he'll have a pretty strong base and a majority to push ahead with what he would wish to do.

Now, the related question that's come up is, "Is he really paving the way to stay for a third term?" That again is something we don't know. Nothing should ever surprise you with the Chinese Communist Party. There are no rules and regulations which are hard and fast.

In fact, although the president of China is limited to two terms, there is no such restriction on a general secretary serving beyond two terms. In fact, one of the predecessors Jiang Zemin did stay on longer, which created complete confusion with moving forward.

Q: In recent decades China has operated in a cooperative governance structure within the party, but Xi Jinping has consolidated power perhaps to a point not seen since Deng Xiaoping. Is that upsetting people within the party?

The interesting difference with Deng Xiaoping is that Deng didn't have a formal position when he was really running the show. That shows a change: that really the system has become more institutionalized and more formalized. But what you say is true, he has accumulated power to himself in a way we haven't seen for a very long period of time.

I think when he took over in 2012 he was a lowest common denominator pick by many. They felt that he's not going to overturn the system. He's going to be a safe pair of hands. He's a child of the party. I think people were surprised by what they got. He's moved hard and he's moved fast. I think he thought the system was broken. They had to get things right in the party to be able to keep momentum, and to be able to keep themselves in power moving forward.

Now, are people disgruntled? I have had people say to me that this really is not the way we should be going in the future. China is beyond the stage where we need one single person with an iron fist ruling over the system.

Xi Jinping and his supporters see that differently. They feel that's exactly what China needs to push ahead with very tough reforms, to break the vested interests and the corruption which has been part and parcel of reforms of the last several decades. The jury's out on the way people see that, and I think there are very different opinions expressed, if not publicly, at least privately.

Q: It’s rumored that Xi is toying with the idea of breaking the age limit on Politburo Standing Committee members and letting at least one of his closest advisers, Wang Qishan, stay on. Is this a case of Xi leveraging the power he's consolidated? Or will it just be accepted because of the rule’s malleability?

There are rules and regulations in the party constitution, but they don't really matter if you want to do something different. The age limit is not a rule. It’s, if you like, an informal rule, and it really was introduced a few party congresses ago to get someone out of power that the then-general secretary didn't want staying on. It has become a convention rather than a rule because it means that it can be ignored should that be Xi Jinping's desire.

Now, the question of Wang Qishan… If Xi Jinping really wants it, he will get it. But I also think that it will create dissatisfaction with some party members, including senior party members. Some of whom may see this as blocking their own potential promotion and others who really feel that it's moving a step back from a more predictable way of proceeding.

The honest answer is like with all these things, we don't really know. What we do know is things can change at the last minute. I mean, when Xi Jinping emerged as the party secretary that wasn't expected by a lot of people. I can remember six, seven, eight months before the congress thinking it was unlikely because he had only just been moved in as the party secretary in Shanghai. The idea that he was shuffled along so quickly seemed improbable and yet that happened. No one expected Jiang Zemin to be made the party secretary after the events of 1989, and yet he was. So surprises have happened.

Q: Has Xi Jinping's consolidation of power made it more difficult for Chinese bureaucrats at lower levels to function as well as they might otherwise?

I think that's true. One of the great things about having party controlled media is that if it has a big article saying “the following is absolutely untrue,” then you know it's happening. One of the things they were saying was absolutely untrue was that local officials are paralyzed because they were fearing this investigation and the possibilities of being challenged around issues of corruption.

In my own maneuverings around China I've sensed that local governments are sort of waiting to see what happens after the Congress, which is a sensible strategy. But even after the Congress I think it's debatable whether they're going to feel as empowered to act as strongly as they may have done in the past with one or two exceptions. There are still areas like Shenzhen - the special economic zone in the south of China across the border from Hong Kong - which is still much more open, and is still being licensed by the center to experiment with high-tech development and social engagement in ways that is not possible in the rest of China.

Q: Going into this party congress, what are you looking for? What do you think Xi Jinping is hoping for?

I think on the policy side, we're not going to see very much of significance. That never happens at the party congress. That always happens a couple of years later when they begin to put up more of a policy agenda. I think we know pretty much where we are on the policy front, so I'm not going to look for too much in that area.

Where will I look for things? First of all, will there be changes made to the constitution? Each leader likes to have a reference to their thinking in the constitution. I will be looking to see whether Xi Jinping gets two things into the constitution, or in documents around the congress. One is anything that refers to his key ideas around what he calls the “four comprehensives.” And whether, again in documents, it's reaffirmed that he is the core of the party leadership. That is a very significant Appalachian in Chinese Communist Party language, so that would be very important.

The second set of things that I’ll be looking at is who gets promoted into the Standing Committee of the Politburo. Currently it’s at seven people. It had grown to nine, then reduced to seven. There are rumors about whether it will be reduced to five or not. If it is reduced to five that's difficult because it does mean that some groups within the party will be excluded. But who gets promoted into that, and then who gets dragged up behind that into the Politburo gives us a pretty clear idea of who potential successors will be in five years' time.

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Anthony Saich

Daewoo Professor of International Affairs

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