The congresses of China’s Communist party — held every five years — are a time for reshuffles at the apex of Chinese power. They are also a rare window to understand Beijing’s economic reforms and international ambitions. At past conclaves, however, messages have often been blurred by infighting, factionalism and opaque slogans.
Such ambiguity is unlikely at the 19th party congress, which opens in October, in one respect at least. The supremacy of Xi Jinping, the party’s general secretary since 2012, is beyond doubt. Indeed, the main questions surrounding his authority involve how long he wishes to remain in power and how high he ranks in a pantheon of past leaders headed by Mao Zedong.
Mr Xi’s penchant for control suggests that he will pack the politburo standing committee — the highest echelon of Chinese power — with officials loyal to his cause. Beyond personnel changes, the congress is also expected to unveil a raft of economic, political and strategic policy guidelines. These will not only be concerned with the next five years but will probably also reveal a vision for China’s domestic development and its place in the world to 2050. The outside world will be watching whether this vision includes a closer partnership with the west or a greater rivalry.
In the past, party congresses have tended toward a domestic focus, but Beijing thinks that China’s increasing international clout requires it now to paint on a global canvas. Such ambitions were presaged in January this year when Mr Xi defended globalisation and free trade at Davos, drawing a line between himself and the “America first” policies of Donald Trump. Other aspects of Beijing’s mission are captured in “One Belt One Road”, a grand design to win diplomatic allies and finance infrastructure in more than 64 countries between Asia and Europe.
Notwithstanding China’s globalising verve, Beijing’s leanings are very different from the liberal democratic order that has…