The largest assembly of perhaps the largest secret society on the planet has convened in Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party calls the event its 18th National Congress, and by its conclusion it is expected that a new batch of communist cadres will be crowned to lead the regime for a decade.
The opening ceremony for the Congress will be held at 9 a.m. on Nov. 8 in the Great Hall of the People—the only Congress-related event that day. The night before a representative announced that the event would run for seven days, until Nov. 14.
By the conclusion of the conclave a new set of leaders will be unveiled to the public, supposedly having been elected during the Congress. A political work report will also be presented summing up the Party’s ruling ideology, achievements, and direction over the next five years.
In fact, the new leaders have been chosen in advance, and the work report was prepared ahead of time. No real decisions will actually be made over this following week in Beijing, according to experts.
The observance of carefully crafted ritual is essential for the Communist Party, particularly given its self-narrative since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of institutionalization of Party leadership, according to Chen Kuide, editor of the influential Chinese website China In Perspective.
They hold it every five years. Everything is set up in advance. It has no real meaning or significance.
—Chen Kuide, editor of the influential Chinese website China In Perspective.
“It’s merely a ceremony,” he said in a telephone interview. “They hold it every five years. Everything is set up in advance. It has no real meaning or significance.”
It is, however, crucial for the Party to endow its rule with a semblance of legitimacy, and the Congress is thus taken very seriously.
At the broadest level there are two sides to what will take place in Beijing over the next week: the superficial, or technical questions, of how the Chinese Communist Party organizes itself and shuffles around and divides its personnel.
The other is the reality of the backroom dealing that goes on before the event. This year’s internal political struggle has been particularly intense, after in February a police chief named Wang Lijun fled from Chongqing in the southwest to a nearby U.S. Consulate.
That set off political tumult that continues, pitting a faction led by former regime leader Jiang Zemin, allied with Bo Xilai, Wang’s patron, and Zhou Yongkang, the security chief, against the incumbent and incoming leadership of Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and Xi Jinping.
The outcomes of the Congress represent consensus forged through backroom, secret dealings and struggles between these factions and other players in the communist apparatus.
The 18th National Congress will be composed of 2,268 “delegates,” selected to represent a cross-section of the Party’s constituencies. There are delegates, for example, from provinces, autonomous regions, the People’s Liberation Army, the Party organization, from all over the bureaucracy, from state-owned enterprises and banks, and from the security forces.
According to Alice Miller, a scholar of the Communist Party at the Hoover Institution, there are three reasons why the Party Congress—any congress—is important: they establish the Party line on all major policy fields, they make revisions to the Party’s constitution, and they elect a new Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and a new Central Committee.
The Central Committee is the group of currently 371 cadres that, at its first plenum, held on the day after the Party Congress closes, makes the series of weighty appointments that inaugurates a new leadership.
This includes appointing the new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee, the group of 22–25 and 7–9 officials respectively, that wield supreme power; the new Central Military Commission, which controls the armed forces; and the new Secretariat, which implements Politburo decisions. The committee also appoints the new general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, which is expected to be Xi Jinping.
Thus, as the Party would tell it, the congress of 2,268 elects the committee of about 370, which elects the Politburo of around 22 (or perhaps 25), which elects the Standing Committee of 7 (expected this year to be reduced from the current 9). This is called intra-Party democracy.
In the real world the process goes from top to bottom, rather than bottom to top, according to Cheng Xiaonong, an economist now living in the United States who used to be an aide to Zhao Ziyang. Zhao was the Party leader who was ousted after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.
“It’s called ‘democratic centralism,'” he said. “All the party members follow the center of the Party. No one is supposed to have his own mind; you just do what you are supposed to do and what you are asked to do by the leaders. It has nothing to do with democracy.”
The “election” of the Central Committee by the 2,000-some delegates has actually already been decided, according to Cheng.
“You vote for the person the top wants you to vote for. If you say, ‘No’ or write the wrong name, that’s a problem. Somebody is going to talk with you and warn that if you want to survive you’d better do the right thing. You don’t have a choice. You are just a rubber stamp.”
In the 1980s Cheng once had the job of being the political monitor of a delegation to the congress and saw first hand the secretive operations of how “votes” are decided by higher-level officials ahead of time.
“This year has been particularly important in the history of the CCP,” Cheng said. “It’s the first time since 1949, when the Party took power, that there has been a real power struggle between two groups at the top, fighting each other for a year or more.”
He went on: “There have been lot of scandals and a lot of fights, and a lot of information released to foreign media to attack the other party. We have seen all those things in the last year.”
The struggle has primarily been for who controls the supreme power wielded by the Standing Committee, and how big the committee is.
“This time the officials want a smaller Standing Committee, so it will be easier to control. The Soviet Communist Party did this in the Stalin era. The Chinese Communist Party copied that model. The real teacher is Stalin.”
Editor’s Note: When Chongqing’s former top cop, Wang Lijun, fled for his life to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on Feb. 6, he set in motion a political storm that has not subsided. The battle behind the scenes turns on what stance officials take toward the persecution of Falun Gong. The faction with bloody hands—the officials former CCP head Jiang Zemin promoted in order to carry out the persecution—is seeking to avoid accountability for their crimes and to continue the campaign. Other officials are refusing any longer to participate in the persecution. Events present a clear choice to the officials and citizens of China, as well as people around the world: either support or oppose the persecution of Falun Gong. History will record the choice each person makes.
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