This is what will happen at the 19th Party Congress this fall


An introduction to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the much-anticipated event set to kick off on October 18 that will determine the course of China’s next five years.

Quick facts on Party congresses in China

  • Party congresses are the formal leadership-selection process for the Communist Party of China (CPC).
  • The first was held in 1921, the same year that the CPC was founded.
  • Party congresses are held every five years. The 18th Party Congress began on November 8, 2012, and the 19th Party Congress will begin on October 18, 2017.
  • In 2012, Hu Jintao 胡锦涛 handed off leadership of the Communist Party to Xi Jinping 习近平. This year, Xi Jinping is expected to continue for a second five-year term as general secretary.
  • Since 2002, reaching the age of 68 has meant retirement for top officials — but there is speculation, and even an expectation among many China-watchers, that this may change at the 19th Party Congress.
  • No single political event is more closely watched by observers to deduce what direction China will go in next.

How does China choose its leaders?

The Communist Party of China has led the world’s most populous country since the People’s Republic was established in 1949, but the Party itself was founded 28 years earlier, in 1921.

Since then, the National Congress of the Communist Party of China has met regularly, usually every five years, to set the country’s direction and anoint its senior leaders for the next five years. This includes the selection of:

  • Around 200 full members and around 100 “alternate” members of the Party’s Central Committee;
  • Members of the Politburo — currently 25 officials from China’s most important cities, provinces, military branches, and governing bodies, and members of the top leadership body, the Politburo Standing Committee (currently seven members);
  • Members of the anti-corruption watchdog the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI); and
  • General Secretary (Chairman) of the Communist Party.

See an excellent graphic of the Politburo by the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

The conventional wisdom is that all the important decisions are actually made in advance of Party congresses, but the event provides an occasion to finalize details and announce the decisions to the public.

The Central Committee of the 18th Party Congress met in 2012 / CCTV

What will happen this year?

General Secretary Xi Jinping 习近平 — also China’s president, though that is a term for head of state, rather than a position within the Communist Party — is virtually guaranteed to remain for a second five-year term. Under existing precedent, five of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members would be expected to yield their seats this year due to age considerations — 68 is the age at which officials are required to retire. There is, however, intense speculation that this precedent may be broken at the 19th Party Congress, to allow for Wang Qishan 王岐山, head of the CCDI, to stay beyond retirement age. Much of the commentary and speculation about the 19th Party Congress concerns the question of Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power: Will the meeting this fall tell us anything about Xi’s intention to stay on past the two terms that his predecessors limited themselves to?

The official portraits of Xi Jinping and the other six members of the current Politburo Standing Committee

China’s next leadership corps will be tasked with guiding a country that by some measures is already the world’s largest economy, and easily its largest trading nation. Aside from problems on the Korean Peninsula and in the South and East China Seas, tensions with South Korea, India, and the U.S., and maintaining the momentum of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Party faces a population that may be getting old before it gets rich, a slowing economy, a mountain of debt, financial risks everywhere from urban real estate to the stock markets, Party corruption, and truly massive environmental problems.

The question of succession

Revisions to the Chinese constitution made by Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 during the early 1980s explicitly restricted the tenures of China’s premier and state president to 10 years. However, there are no set limits placed on arguably more powerful positions like general secretary of the Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission — roles currently filled by Xi. Xi’s true intentions, opaque as they still are, will become clearer after the next round of Standing Committee members is announced.

Since the 16th Party Congress in 2002, members of the Politburo Standing Committee have, without exception, retired from their seats after reaching or surpassing the age of 68, an unofficial but consistent rule that observers have called “Seven up, eight down” (七上八下 qīshàngbāxià). Adherence to this custom at the 19th Party Congress would vacate five of the current standing committee seats.

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Many of Xi’s allies are approaching retirement age. Will he let them go, or break precedent to keep them in power?

Traditionally, candidates vying for the Party’s general secretary position have all served in the standing committee for at least five years. Xi’s likely successor, then, should be a member of the standing committee after the coming congress in order to qualify for the top job by the 20th National Congress in 2022. Meanwhile, the patronage networks that underwrite Communist Party politics, an intricate web of elder sponsors and rising star protégés, naturally lead to the grooming of young, promising allies, as judged by shared ideologies and proven loyalty. In this important regard, Xi’s bench appears thin.

Only two younger officials from the Sixth Generation, or Party leaders born in the 1960s, were lifted into the Politburo at the 18th National Congress in 2012. Neither of the pair is particularly favored by Xi. The other 23 Politburo members are from the Fifth Generation, who like Xi (born 1953) were born a decade earlier. One commonly speculated outcome among experts, then, is that Xi may block their advancement into the Politburo’s inner circle while promoting his own cast of Sixth Generation officials to fill the Politburo, creating the conditions to extend his tenure at the 20th National Congress due to a shortage of qualified alternatives, while grooming his chosen successors for appointment at a congress further in the future.

Five people to watch:

Chen Min’er 陈敏尔

Guizhou Party chief Chen Min’er seized the top leadership position for the southern municipality of Chongqing after the dramatic fall from grace of his predecessor, Sun Zhengcai 孙政才. In July, Sun became one of the highest-ranked officials this year snared by an investigation into possible Party violations. As the youngest member of the 25-member Politburo, Sun was widely considered a favorite for promotion into the Politburo Standing Committee. His ouster and replacement just months before the 19th Party Congress suggests forces mobilizing in favor of Xi Jinping. Chen, the new Chongqing Party chief, is a staunch Xi loyalist who served as head of propaganda in Zhejiang Province during the president’s tenure there from 2002 to 2007. Many observers expect his promotion into the Politburo this fall.


Hu Chunhua 胡春华


Guangdong provincial Party secretary Hu Chunhua is the only other current Politburo member born in the 1960s. Like Sun Zhengcai, he was favored by former president Hu Jintao, even earning the nickname “Little Hu.” While Xi has publicly approved of Hu’s management of Guangdong since the last Party congress, a promotion for Hu into the Politburo Standing Committee will raise his chances of eventually succeeding Xi, a prospect the current president would surely prefer to reserve for one of his own protégés.




Wang Huning 王沪宁

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Another favorite for elevation into the Politburo Standing Committee, Wang Huning heads the Central Policy Research Center and has a hand in all major policy initiatives. A political theorist who began his career teaching at China’s prestigious Fudan University, Wang is also known for his skillful navigation of shifting political winds. He is among the only senior Party officials to advise three consecutive administrations, beginning in the Jiang Zemin 江泽民 era (1989–2002).




Wang Qishan 王岐山

Wang Qishan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and the Party’s top graft buster, will be closely watched at the 19th Party Congress as a signal of Xi’s willingness to adhere to Party norms. Since 2002, officials who have reached the age of 68 or older by the time of the Party congress have all retired from the Politburo Standing Committee. Wang turned 69 in July, but there have been persistent rumors that he may hold his position for another term. If this happens, it further opens up the likelihood for Xi, who will be 72 at the next Party congress in 2022, to make a bid for a third term.



Li Keqiang 李克强

Li Keqiang’s embattled premiership is no secret. His four-year term has coincided with a gradual loss of stature in the seat as President Xi has consolidated power and assumed new responsibilities for himself. Reports have also circulated of a developing rift between Li’s ideas and Xi’s conservative agenda. Analysts have offered the possibility of Premier Li retiring out of frustration, removing perhaps one of the greatest checks on Xi’s power.




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