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The 20th Party Congress and the crowning of Xi Jinping

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Chinese President Xi Jinping claps after his speech as China's new Politburo Standing Committee members meet the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 25 October 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee).

In Brief

The 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) commenced on 16 October and will run for seven days. The Congress takes place every five years and is the most important political event in the People’s Republic of China.


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At the Congress the CCP General Secretary, currently Xi Jinping, presents a work report, outlining progress during the previous five years and goals for the next five. The documents are an authoritative insight into the Party’s evolving priorities and strategic goals.

The most important function of the Congress is to oversee the peaceful transition of leadership at the top ranks of the party. This includes the 205 full members and the 171 alternate members of the Central Committee, the 25 members of the Politburo and, most importantly, the currently seven members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo. These are the people who run China — the bureaucracy, key economic institutions, the military and the domestic security apparatus.

Officially, the Party Congress of 2296 delegates elect the Central Committee, which in turn elects the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee. In practice the selection flows in the other direction as the slate of candidates nominated for ‘election’ rarely exceeds the number of positions vacant. The top men of the party (there are no women on the Politburo Standing Committee) choose their deputies.

But who chooses the top men — including the General Secretary, the most powerful man in China?

In the wake of the Tiananmen massacre and political crisis Deng Xiaoping chose Shanghai conservative Jiang Zemin to run the Party and the country. Before his death Deng also anointed Hu Jintao as Jiang’s successor and Party elders groomed him for future leadership. But by the time Hu took the reins Deng and other revolutionary elders had died. It is believed that Xi Jinping, the first post-Deng leader not chosen by Deng himself, was chosen through a process of consultation among retired leaders and serving Politburo members. The Party also claimed that it conducted a straw poll of central committee members before choosing Xi and other top leaders.  But the process of Xi Jinping’s rapid elevation to the top ranks remains something of a mystery.

What is not a mystery is Xi Jinping’s intentions to break with Party norms and formally install himself as Party boss for a third five-year term at this week’s Party Congress. This comes on the back of a second term in which Xi conspicuously failed to appoint a potential heir to the Politburo Standing Committee. Xi has dispensed with the practice of straw polling of party officials which was used as a reference for choosing Politburo members. Xi now handpicks his Politburo. To ensure his personal domination at the apex of Party power, Xi is not expected to appoint a successor at this week’s Congress, and that would confirm Xi has a fourth term in mind, and maybe even a fifth.

Xi’s manoeuvrings, long in the planning, threaten to upset a bedrock of CCP durability — that is, the Party’s ability to ensure a peaceful and regular transfer of power. His domination also presents a host of potential challenges for China, as Carl Minzner points out in this week’s lead essay.

For Minzner, China’s slide back toward personalistic rule rings alarm bells. First, the quality of decision making deteriorates as sycophants increasingly tell the Supreme Leader what he wants to hear and critical voices are sidelined. Second, the purge of rivals and rival factions does not bring an end to political intrigues: on the contrary, ‘court politics multiply and infect day-to-day operations of the bureaucracy. Officials start to rapidly fall in and out of favour with the paranoid, declining ruler. State policies begin to careen wildly as aides pander to his whims and smear their rivals’.

Minzner notes the perils of strongman rule from China’s own past. Dominant leaders are prone to fomenting internecine conflict when support for their rule wanes, as Mao Zedong did in launching the Cultural Revolution, devastating China’s society and economy in the process. And the inevitable deterioration under one-man rule can of course be seen in Russia under Vladimir Putin. Minzner notes that Putin has had a full quarter-century to ruin Russia, whereas Xi Jinping has so far had only 10 years at the top. The world must prepare itself for another decade of Xi Jinping as China’s supreme leader.

At this week’s Party Congress Xi Jinping might be anointed ‘Party Chairman’, putting him on an equal footing with Mao Zedong. If that happens it will be a sign that his control over the Party is total. The other clear indication that Xi is planning to rule indefinitely will be appointments to the Politburo and its Standing Committee.

If there are appointees aged in their 50s, they are potential successors. If there are no appointees aged under 60 it will confirm that leadership succession is not even on Xi’s mind.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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