The 19th National Congress of China’s Communist Party

Stephen Fallon, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security

Key Issue
Given the consequences for Australia of Chinese economic and strategic decision-making, it is timely to consider China’s forthcoming 19th Party Congress, scheduled to take place in October or November 2017.

How does it work?

The National Congress of the Communist Party of China takes place every five years, bringing together approximately 2,200 Party delegates from across the country. Some delegates are selected in provincial elections while others are drawn from bodies such as state-owned enterprises, the military and financial institutions. The role of the Congress is to elect the Central Committee and approve the General Secretary’s outline of the Party’s agenda for the next five years. However, given the opaque nature of Chinese politics, it is difficult to assess how decisions announced at the Congress are reached. It is commonly assumed that most, if not all, key decisions are made by senior leaders before the Congress.


The 18th Congress, held in 2012, anointed Xi Jinping as China’s leader and it is expected that he will serve for a second five-year term, scheduled to conclude in 2022. According to convention, Xi will then be replaced by a new younger ‘sixth generation’ leader who will have been promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) in next year’s Congress. The PSC is China’s supreme decision-making body and is currently comprised of seven men, among whom Xi Jinping is supposedly first among equals.

This institutionalised process was established and refined by Chinese leaders of the post-Mao reform era in order to prevent power from becoming concentrated in the hands of one individual. Mao’s leadership, punctuated by disasters such as the Great Leap Forward, the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution, provided ample evidence of the dangers inherent in a dictatorship buttressed by a cult of personality. By promoting limited terms and collective leadership through the PSC, the Party has sought to avoid the emergence of another Mao.

However, since Xi ascended to the presidency (he is also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China), some critics have argued that he has begun to construct a cult of personality reminiscent of that wielded by Mao. He has taken command of several small working groups—affording him great influence over policy formulation—and appears to have marginalised the Premier, Li Keqiang, who would typically be responsible for economic policy but whose leading role in this sphere has been eclipsed by Xi.

Xi has also prosecuted an anti-corruption campaign that has ensnared both ‘tigers and flies’, powerful officials and lowly functionaries. Among the most notable of those convicted of graft are Bo Xilai, former party chief of the city of Chongqing, who sought to parlay his popularity into a position on the PSC; Zhou Yongkang, a former PSC member responsible for internal security; and in July 2016, Ling Jihua, a close advisor to Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, and head of the United Front Work Department.

Though corruption is endemic in China and widely recognised as a threat to the Party’s legitimacy, many believe that Xi has used corruption as an excuse to purge opponents. A February 2016 Economist article, however, noted that recent prosecutions have tended to focus on individuals who are not linked to identifiable factions.

Nevertheless, Xi’s concentration of power, growing cult of personality and penchant for eliminating rivals through corruption trials has not gone unremarked in China. In March 2016, a letter was published on a government-linked website condemning Xi. Signed by ‘loyal Communist Party members’, it criticised him for abandoning the principle of collective leadership, concentrating power in his own hands and called upon him to step down. Though the letter was quickly removed from the internet, it did lead to a number of arrests.

What to look out for

This is the environment in which the 2017 Congress will be held. Observers will parse its announcements for clues about Xi’s intentions. If he does wish to overturn the conventions that have guided China’s senior leaders, one indication would be a failure to promote to the PSC any candidates who could be groomed to succeed him when his second term ends (traditionally such future leaders are selected by the current General Secretary’s predecessor). If no such candidate is promoted, it may indicate that Xi has amassed sufficient power to ignore Party conventions.

Academic Willy Lam has argued that it is no secret that Xi wishes to buck the tradition of having his predecessor pick his successor, and is grooming his own protégés. That they lack sufficient stature to be promoted to the PSC may, Lam contends, be a convenient excuse to delay handing over the baton for at least one additional term.

Supporting the thesis that no heir apparent will be appointed, the analysis and advisory consultancy, Oxford Analytica, has highlighted that the 2012 Party Congress promoted two sixth generation figures to the Politburo (one level below the PSC). The elevation of these up-and-coming leaders, Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai, was seen as preparing the ground for them to replace Xi and Li Keqiang at the 2022 Party Congress. However, both are linked with the Communist Youth League (CYL) faction, a network that Xi has marginalised. He has criticised the CYL, describing it as ‘paralysed from the neck down’, cut its funding and slashed staff. It therefore seems unlikely that he would welcome the promotion of Hu and Sun to the PSC.

Moreover, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has destroyed the convention that new leaders do not persecute their predecessors, family members and associates. It is plausible Xi may fear that stepping down could enable the incoming leadership to investigate him and those linked to him. The notion that it may be advantageous to extend the duration of his leadership in order to cement a faction loyal to his interests will likely have occurred to him.

Why does this matter to Australia?

The political direction of China matters to Australia because of the strong economic relationship between them. China buys Australia’s resources, invests large sums in its property market and is a lucrative source of foreign students for Australian universities. Meanwhile, its foreign policy is becoming increasingly assertive and promotes norms contrary to those long-espoused by Australia.

Australia therefore has a profound interest in the kind of leader Xi seeks to become. The forthcoming Congress may demonstrate whether Xi will be bound by convention or chart a bolder, less predictable path.


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