- Gordon Dumoulin
20th CCP Congress… a unique opportunity to learn about China’s roadmap
With only a couple of days to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP congress) in Beijing, opening this coming Saturday on October 16, Western media outlets have not been short of speculations about the status of President Xi Jinping, the dynamics of power inside the Chinese political arena or the consequences for the Chinese economy and geopolitical circumstances. Needless to say many speculations overwhelmed with negatives tones and projections.
Despite all media speculations not so many people have a clear idea what this congress is actually about, its structure and how it relates to the governance and political system in China, probably except for who is going to be the next in charge and speculations about the agenda.
This paper provides a brief introduction about the CCP Congress and political structure in China. The essay concludes with recommendations how to read the outcomes of the Congress for the benefit of a better understanding of China’s political roadmap today and towards the future.
— — — — — What is the CCP Congress about ?
Known in the West : A new cohort of senior party leaders for the next 5 years…
In the past months, Western media have expressed endless speculation and debate of who will be ‘in’ and ‘out’ during this prestigious congress of the world’s largest political party with over 90 million members. Especially speculations about the internal support for current President Xi Jinping’s mandate to run another term, along with the economic and geopolitical implications for China and the world have been hot topics.
Despite this large focus on personnel reshuffle at the top, the CCP congress is much more than establishing the top team for the next years. Elections have taken place in provincial, regional and local layers of the Party all over China in recent months for representative positions in the Party all over China during the next 5 years.
Three major functions of the CCP congress...
Aside the elective and nomination process before and during the Congress, the second function is to present the Party’s principal agenda across all policy sectors. It is the most authoritative body in the CCP organisational hierarchy and so its policy prescriptions reflect the CCP’s authoritative interpretations on all issues that the Congress addresses. During the congress, a consensus-based evaluation of the Party’s work over the past five years since the previous Congress will be presented including a thorough examination of the Party’s present situation. It also sets the principal guidance for the Party’s priorities and tasks for the next five years.
The third key function for the Party Congress is to evaluate and possibly revise the Party Constitution in coming Congress period. Examples of changes could be amending the Party’s ‘guiding ideology’ set out in the constitution, Party recruitment criteria, or stipulations on membership in top leadership bodies. A recent example of amendment in the Party Constitution during the current 19th CCP Congress, extensively published and opinionated in Western media is the abrogation of the two term limits for the Presidency and Vice-presidency (2018).
These major three congress functions; elections and nominations, the presentation of the Party’s principal agenda and evaluation of the past Congress, and an evaluation with possible revisions of the Party’s Constitution are fundamentally intertwined. Assessments of the success or failures of the Party’s work in the previous five years affect the reputation and prospects of party leaders delegates for the coming Congress period.
The importance of plenums : The CCP Congress is not a single event, it is about setting a team and road map for coming 5 years
As one can imagine, all work, management and elective operations cannot be prepared during the days of the CCP Congress alone. The actual congress is technically the kick-off for the first plenum (or assembly) of the new CCP Congress 5-year period with a total of seven plenums organized during this course of time. The seventh and last plenum usually takes place just before the new CCP Congress in final preparation for the first plenum of the next Congress.
Not only the CCP Congress itself sets major influences and directions, specific plenums can have major impact during the course of the 5 year long period. Read in following article, published by China Briefing, some highlights what has been decided or presented at different plenums during the current 19th CCP Congress (2017–2022) :
What usually happens at the plenums and how many are held in a term? (China Briefing November 12, 2021)
— — — — — Who participates in the CCP Congress ?
The CCP Congress is attended by around 2,300 delegates from all levels of the CCP hierarchy across 31 provinces. You can think of them as a ‘pyramid’ with five layers. At the bottom layer, there are about 1,800 party members chosen from across the country. They are usually governors and deputy governors at township-city level. In addition celebrities from sports, science, media, art or other as well as “ordinary” workers from a range of state and private business sectors mark up this layer (naturally provided they are party members).
On the fourth layer is the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CDIC) with about 130 members and the third layer being the CCP Central Committee has about 200 members. Members for these two layers are usually coming from various central governmental ministries and provincial governments as well as key State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), the Central Bank, and the People’s Liberation Army.
The first two layers are the Politburo and at the top the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). The second layer Politburo with 25 members includes leaders of some key municipalities and heads of some of the most important ministries (not including the foreign minister). The first layer is the Politburo Standing Committee, currently with 7 members and headed by Secretary General Xi Jinping. The PSC members are also member of the Politburo.
The 25-member Politburo is the highest policy-making body in China. Constitutionally, the Politburo is elected by the Central Committee though prior deliberations and considerations usually select the members beforehand. A closed book for the outside world and prior speculations by media or foreign China analysts during previous CCP congresses have rarely been flattered by accuracy.
The official mandate of the Politburo Standing Committee is to conduct policy discussions and make decisions on major issues when the Politburo is not in session. Though usually the PSC is the supreme authoritative body to approve or reject decisions and policies.
The membership of the PSC is commonly ranked in protocol sequence. Historically, the General Secretary (or Party Chairman) has been ranked first in the Standing Committee. Other common positions in the PSC during different CCP Congresses over time have been the President, Premier, first-ranked Vice Premier, Chairman of the National People’s Congress, the Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
Political ambitions in world’s largest party are subject to strict criteria of experience in time, performance and behaviour results, expertise and knowledge, and ideological conformity. Apart from these criteria, the political skillful and careful manoeuvring in the dynamic political arena is the game changer (as in practically all political arenas around the world).
— — — — — A look back to the 19th CCP Congress
While everyone is talking and speculating about the upcoming 20th CCP Congress, let’s take a look back at the 19th CCP Congress from 2017–2022 for a better impression of what a 5-year CCP Congress period is about.
The policy agenda
One of the most important development goals for the term of the 19th Party Congress was to “comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society” and “start a new journey of comprehensively building a modern socialist country”. The goal of reaching a “moderately prosperous society”, a concept first raised by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, was set to be reached by 2020 during the 16th Party Congress (October 8 to 14, 2002).
Achieving this goal is defined by a range of economic indicators laid out during the 16th, 17th, and 18th Party congresses. They include doubling China’s GDP and GDP per capita from 2010 to 2020, reaching an urbanization rate of 50 percent, a university enrollment rate of 20 percent, and an average disposable income per capita of urban residents of RMB 12,000 (US$1,686), as well as eradication of absolute poverty, among other factors.
In addition to reiterating the goal of achieving a moderately prosperous society by 2020, the 19th Party Congress laid out two phases of development for the country over the next 50 years, or two “centennial goals” to reach by the middle of this century.
These goals are:
Phase one (2020 to 2035): Building on the foundation of a moderately prosperous society and basically achieving socialist modernization. The economic and development goals to achieve “socialist modernization” during phase one include:
Greatly increasing China’s economic, scientific, and technological strength to rank among the top most innovative countries in the world.
Guaranteeing people’s equal participation and development rights.
Establishing a country, government, and society under the rule of law.
Significantly increasing the proportion of middle-income groups.
Significantly narrowing the gap in development and living standards between urban and rural areas and residents.
Fundamentally improving ecosystems and the environment
Phase two (2035 to 2050): Building on the foundation of modernity, build a prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful modern socialist country. No specific economic or development goals had been set at that stage for achieving this vision; instead, the focus is on more general improvement to society, governance, and prosperity, which include:
Comprehensive improvement to the country’s material, political, spiritual, social civilization, and ecological civilization.
Modernization of the country’s governance system and capacity.
Basically achieving “common prosperity” for all people
Economic development since the 19th CCP Congress
The economic goals of the 19th Party Congress have basically all been achieved in the subsequent five-year term. At the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, 2021, President Xi Jinping announced that China had succeeded in becoming a moderately prosperous society, making good on over three decades of development targets. Earlier that year, President Xi also announced that China had succeeded in eradicating absolute poverty in China, meaning that all citizens live on more than RMB 4,000 (US$562) by 2020 terms or US$2.8 per day by the World Bank’s standards.
Looking at the other economic indicators, China has also succeeded in reaching its GDP and GDP per capita targets set out during the 19th Party Congress. In 2020, China’s GDP exceeded RMB 101 trillion (approximately US$14.2 trillion today), more than doubling from the year 2010, which recorded a GDP of RMB 41 trillion (approximately US$5.8 trillion today). Meanwhile, GDP per capita reached US$10,500, more than doubling from US$4,628 ten years earlier.
China’s economy has shown consistent and steady growth over the last five years, maintaining an annual average growth rate of almost 6 percent, despite the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic knocking the growth rate down to 2.3 percent in 2020. Throughout the pandemic, China’s economy has shown remarkable resilience and experienced a rebound in 2021 of 8.1 percent (due in part to the low base effect from 2020).
Above is an extract from an article by China Briefing, read more about developments in regulation and law, environment, technology, industry, policy and legislation and cybersecurity and privacy protection achieved during the 19th CCP Congress:
How Did The Previous Communist Party Congress Proceed With China’s Economy, Policy, and Regulatory Developments? (China Briefing, October 6, 2022)
— — — — — National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party
vs. National People’s Congress (NPC)
The CCP Congress should not be confused with the National People’s Congress (NPC) which usually meets in March every year. The NPC is the highest organ of the State, the national legislature.
About 3,000 delegates are elected in conformity with the Election Law for the National People’s Congress and Local People’s Congresses at All Levels (Election Law) for a period of five years to represent thirty-five electoral units with a designated number of seats in the NPC: the thirty-one provincial administrative regions in mainland China, the Chinese military, as well as Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.
Demographically there are elective regulations for minimum number of representative delegation seats allocated to among others women, ethnic minorities or returned overseas Chinese.
There is a popular misconception about the National People’s Congress. Many seem to think that all delegate seats in the NPC belong to the Communist Party of China.
This is incorrect, as China’s eight minority political parties, the so-called “Democratic Parties” all have nominal representation in the NPC. And there is also a sizeable proportion of delegates without any stated political affiliation. Quite obviously, the CCP holds a vast majority of about 73% of the seats in the 13th NPC. The next largest group consists of delegates with no affiliation with more than 14% while the eight democratic parties hold together about 12%.
Read more about the NPC Congress elective body in NPC Observer :
Explainer: How Seats in China’s National People’s Congress Are Allocated (NPC observer, March 29, 2022)
Delegates are elected for a term of five years and the NPC convenes once a year with the session usually running for 10 to 14 days in March, in conjunction with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC). Usually called the Two Sessions or Lianghui.
— — — — — How to read the upcoming 20th CCP Congress ?
While international media is focusing on a few highlights with regard to the upcoming 20th CCP Congress such as the possible nomination of President Xi Jinping for a third term, the chance of becoming Party Chairman with its economic and geopolitical implications or speculating about a policy with regard to the Taiwan conflict, the 20th CCP Congress is about so much more and especially about the long term agenda and China’s future direction, domestically and internationally.
Secondly, the CCP Congress is ‘just’ the kick-off for the first plenum of a 5 year congress period with other important plenums to come in coming years in terms of policy and agenda implications. It is not a single event of political importance once every 5 years.
A good example was the sixth Plenum of the 19th CCP Congress in November last year, especially in commemoration with the 100 years birthday of the Chinese Communist Party. The sixth plenum in each congress period is often about longer term perspectives and China’s future direction, sometimes accompanied with new policy phrases as guidelines for new directions such as “Common Prosperity” or “Community of Shared Future and Common Destiny”. Also the Party’s ideologies are usually an important topic for this plenum.
These phrases and possibly excerpts from speeches during the congress or plenums are usually picked up by international media and often start to lead their own lives and conclusions. While the actual policies and total context in plenum reports are by large overshadowed.
More about the 6th Plenum of the 19th CCP Congress last year here :
Understanding the Significance of China’s Sixth Plenary Session (China Briefing, October 25, 2021)
Third and probably most important. Do not solely judge the procedures and agendas from a Western lens of values and perspectives. For example the abolition of maximum two terms for a President to serve has crossed the simple line for many in the West with regard to China turning into a dictatorship.
The political culture in China and the integration of the Chinese Communist Party in Chinese society, civilization and culture is complex and diverse, and certainly distinct from Western political systems. China’s roadmap in the present towards the future is also different depending on cultural values and political exercise. And again this political exercise shows in the proportions between economic and social policies, security but also history, culture and ideology.
— — — — — A last note…
There is a lot to learn from the CCP Congress about China’s present and future, both domestically and its position and role in the world.
However, simple exercises to judge and consider outcomes and policies against a mirror of Western values, systems or norms will definitely not be useful for more understanding and insight where China is heading during coming years and decades.
This is if the West is actually interested to learn more about where China is heading because on the contrary, these mirror exercises will only provide more contrast and polarization without further insight.
The roadmap and team coming out from the 20th CCP Congress is certainly important and another milestone in contemporary history of China, especially because of the current disastrous and confronting geopolitical circumstances in the world.
But China’s roadmap for its own society and land has already been set out in different ways for years with some remarkable achievements up till now such as the amazing eradication of poverty or policies for a greener environment and against corruption.
The roadmap horizon does not change, though teams and policies keep on shaping and adjusting over five year terms how to walk the next miles. Each stretch of the map has a different speed and requires specific mindsets, teamwork and tools, adapting on the domestic circumstances and external environment. Climbing up a mountain is definitely different from a walk on the beach or a run on the athletic tracks. And sometimes patience or a temporary halt is decided upon when arriving a path aside steep canyons.
Experience is being built on the past for better preparations and performance in road stretches ahead. Sometimes continuity is required instead of change or stability instead of dynamics. And some stretches are definitely bumpy with high learning curves. Important to note here is the concept of constant change (or move in the metaphor of the roadmap). Even a halt does not implicate a moment of relaxation or hesitation but merely a time of consideration or necessary patience.
The horizon is in sight but we all know it will (and should) never be reached, a sense and urge of change and improvement by motion is a basic aspect in Chinese culture, as well in governance .
The image of a roadmap is a way to interpret outcomes from the 20th CCP Congress in a broader context presented for China’s position today, its direction in the future and its role internationally.
Whether one agrees or not with the outcomes or directions of the upcoming 20th CCP congress; derogating policy phrases, excerpts from speeches or reports or elected individuals in the light of Western lenses will certainly not provide correct interpretations of China’s next 5 years and beyond. On the contrary… many speculations in the past have proven this.
Even China certainly has their own distinct roadmap in vision, the country is also a vital, highly integrated active member of the global community. Just as any other nation with common opportunities, challenges and responsibilities but also with own ideas, visions and determination to co-shape and co-improve our global multicultural and connected community.
20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party… a unique opportunity to learn more about China’s roadmap