Simone Gao: Whenever there is a lot of red in China’s news media, you know something important is happening. It is either the Chinese New Year or an important political event. In this case, it is the prelude of the Chinese Communist Party or CCP’s 20th National Congress-The Seventh Plenary Session of the 19th CCP Central Committee.
Don’t get confused by their long names. The whole 20th National Congress of the CCP has one core mission that matters to the world: Xi Jinping’s so-called re-election into the top leader position of the Party and the country. So Let’s just call it Xi’s re-election conference.
The conventional wisdom is that Xi has subdued his opposition and will get a third term as the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and president of the People’s Republic of China, an incident that would violate the Communist Party’s long standing rule of top leadership’s serving only two terms. Nevertheless, Xi would most likely get his way. But just a few days ago, this gentleman, Gao Wenqian, an expert on the history of the Chinese Communist Party, revealed an important detail that he thinks could change Xi Jinping’s fate at the last minute.
What is it? It is the formation of a small committee whose lifespan is about 10 days.
This committee is called the Standing Committee of the Presidium of the 20th National Congress. It is the highest decision-making body during the Party Congress. Decisions on major matters must first be decided by the Standing Committee, then communicated to the Presidium, and then to all the delegates.
Why does this matter? You see, by the time the previous Central Committee has ended its work, the new Central Committee has not yet been elected. During this short period, who will lead the Party? Not Xi Jinping since he is the General Secretary of the Party elected by the outgoing Central Committee. It is this standing Committee of the Presidium which is elected by the outgoing central committee. It will preside over things during the Party’s congress until the new Central Committee is elected. In other words, Xi Jinping will not be in total control of the Party during those 10 days. This committee should be announced on October 15, the day before the opening of the 20th National Congress.
But… wait a minute, the Communist Party never has real elections, so can Xi decide who will be “elected” into the Standing Committee of the Presidium? Well, here is the thing.
Based on the Party’s precedent, the Standing Committee of the Presidium has a certain fixed composition of members which contains past, current and future members of the Politburo Standing Committee and some current politburo members and other high ranking officials. The Politburo Standing Committee is the Party’s highest ruling body so its members are considered the ones who really govern the country.
Keeping that in mind, now let’s see who is in the Standing Committee of the Presidium for the 17th National Congress right before Xi became the top leader.
It consists of 41 members. 7 from the future or upcoming politburo standing committee, 9 from the current or outgoing politburo standing committee, 12 from the earlier Politburo standing committees, and 15 from the current lower level politburo and other departments.
Xi Jinping is most concerned with the members from the past Politburo Standing Committees. These people are called political elders and there are quite a few of them who oppose Xi.
What could these opponents do? According to the CCP’s rules, the Standing Committee of the Presidium performs a range of functions including studying the major issues related to the conference, and submitting opinions to the conference presidium for discussion and decision. In other words, they have the right to submit special motions for the Central Committee to discuss. This is where unexpected things could happen, and things similar in nature have happened in the past.
In 1978, right before the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee , A Politburo Standing Committee member Chen Yun raised some controversial issues regarding the Cultural Revolution. His remarks had wide resonance which led to the change of the original agenda for the conference. The conference was prolonged to 36 days, during which the theoretical foundation of then Chairman of the Party Hua Guofeng （华国锋）was criticized; multiple political figures have been rehabilitated. Not long after the conference, Hua’s power was replaced by Deng Xiaoping. China entered a new era.
What a terrifying example for Xi Jinping and there are more in the CCP’s history! According to historian Gao Wenqian, the essence of such events is that when the elders of the Party gather together, it is very hard to stop them from voicing their opinion. If one person raises his hand, can you not let him speak? If his remarks have resonance, things could get out of control. The Standing Committee of the Presidium could propose a special motion for the National Congress to discuss certain issues.
And there are many issues people would like to discuss regarding Xi’s policy. The collapse of the Sino-U.S. relations, the questionable alliance of China and Russia; the notorious zero-covid policy and the failing of the Chinese economy, to name just a few. However…
Guess what? If you and I have thought about these scenarios, I guarantee you Xi Jinping has thought about them too. In fact, Xi has made thorough preparations to avoid such surprises.
In May, 2022, the General Office of the CCP Central Committee issued an Opinion that pointed out the necessity to ensure that retired cadres, especially Party members who have held leadership positions, continue to listen to the Party’s words, follow the Party’s words, and consciously align with the Party Central Committee with Xi Jinping at its core. The Opinion specifically forbade arbitrary discussion of the major policies of the Party, spreading of negative political remarks, and participating in activities of illegal organizations.
This is to prevent the political elders from getting together to plot against Xi Jinping. It is reported that eavesdropping of these people is prevalent. They don’t dare to talk about sensitive things over the phone. If they had no preparations, no communications beforehand, would they improvise such a high risk operation at the meeting in a concerted effort? I highly doubt it. But historian Gao Wenqian seems hopeful. He said among the political elders, some of them are from Xi’s father’s generation. Some of them promoted him, others did him huge favors, still others hold strong opposing views on Xi’s policies. So this is a group of people Xi has a hard time dealing with.
Another preemptive move from Xi’s side is to make the Party incorporate the so-called Two Establishments into an important Party resolution last November. What are the Two Establishments? They are Establishing Comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Party Central Committee and the core of the whole Party, and establishing the guiding position of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.
Narration: This resolution was passed by the last Plenary Session of the 19th CCP Central Committee. In other words, it was adopted by the same group of people who will attend the upcoming 7th Plenary Session. What does that mean? It means if Xi Jinping’s position and Xi Jinping’s guiding thoughts were to be changed or altered, the same group of people not only denied themselves, but also would need to bear responsibilities for making such a mistake to adopt the Two Establishments in the first place. That will mean the dysfunction of the CCP as a whole. Therefore, such an outcome will turn out to be highly unlikely. In fact, the Two Establishments and some other doctrines that aim to establish Xi’s permanent leadership position will be written into the Party Constitution during the 20th National Congress. That will pave the way for Xi to get a life-long tenure.
According to the Communiqué of the 7th Plenary Session of the CCP Central Committee, The Party will continue to unite around the Central Committee with Xi Jinping at its core. This is an indication that Xi will get a third term. But the Standing Committee of the Presidium of the 20th National Congress is still the thing to watch for. If the number of political elders is reduced, it will mean Xi has changed the rules once again, but it also shows Xi is concerned about them. If there is no change to the composition pattern of the Standing Committee, it could mean Xi is confident that there will be no surprises. It could also mean Xi does not have the authority to change this long standing tradition of the Party. In either case, its implications will only be revealed after the 20th National Congress.