Communist Party Holds Significant Party Congress In November, Selects Top Leaders

November 7, 2012

The Chinese Communist Party 18th Party Congress, which meets every five years, will open on November 8, 2012. The Congress is significant for several reasons. At the Congress, the Party chooses the Party's top leadership. China’s political system is authoritarian based on one-party rule, so Party leaders become leaders of the country. Despite official claims that "elected" delegates to the Party Congress choose members of two top Party leadership bodies, China's leaders in practice are chosen by a select number of incumbent top Party officials through a non-transparent and largely undemocratic process which is contrary to international human rights standards. The Party also will issue a "political report" at the Congress that reportedly strives to "establish ideological guidelines and the political resolutions of the collective leadership." Typically, there has been some limited input by non-Party members during the drafting stages of the report, but debates over ideology and policy direction have been non-transparent. In addition, the Congress will likely amend the Communist Party's constitution.

(For more information regarding the topics outlined above see paragraphs below, and these sources: Xinhua, 28 September 12; Constitution of the Communist Party of China, Article 18; Alice Miller, "The Road to the 18th Party Congress," China Leadership Monitor, No. 36, Winter 2012, 6 January 12; Cheng Li, Preparing For the 18th Party Congress: Procedures and Mechanisms," China Leadership Monitor, No. 36, Winter 2012, 6 January 12; and Susan Lawrence, Michael Martin, Congressional Research Service report, "Understanding China's Political System," 10 May 12.)

Non-Transparent, Top-Down Selection of China's Leaders

Selection processes for Party leaders are not transparent to the public (China Media Project, 25 September 12). The general public and international media are left to speculate on the final number of Political Bureau (Politburo) Standing Committee members that will be selected, including conjecture that the current number of nine may be reduced to seven (Economist, 29 September 12; Reuters, 29 August 12). There also is supposition about the make-up of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, sometimes based on journalist sources inside China (NYT, 6 August 12; Reuters, 19 October 12). According to the October 19 Reuters article, the only two certainties in the line-up of the standing committee are Xi Jinping, the successor to Hu Jintao (General Secretary of the Party and President of China) and Li Keqiang, the successor to Wen Jiabao (Member of the Politburo Standing Committee and Premier of the State Council). The other seats on the Politburo Standing Committee and other leadership bodies are still subject to change.

According to Article 19 of the Party Constitution, the Party National Congress "elects" Party Central Committee (Party CC) members. The Party CC then "elects" the Party Central Committee General Secretary, the Politburo, and the Politburo Standing Committee. In practice, however, the outgoing Politburo Standing Committee largely determines the list of leaders for positions on the Politburo (Li, 5). The selection of China's Party leaders and therefore, China's state leaders, takes place within the Party and does not involve the vast majority of Chinese citizens. This runs counter to the standards outlined in Article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, "[t]he will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures."

Chart depicting hierarchical structure of top Party organizations (approximate and definite numbers from Economist, 29 September 12; Lawrence and Martin, "Understanding China's Political System," p. 4; and Li, "Preparing for the 18th Party Congress: Procedures and Mechanisms," pp. 2, 5).

While the selection processes for Party leadership posts are largely determined by the Party Organization Department and top Party leaders, some innovations have been introduced. Since 1987, there have been more candidates than seats in Party CC selection processes (Li, 5, 7), introducing the potential for competition over a low percentage of seats. For example, in 2007, there were 8.3 percent more candidates than seats for full members of the Party CC (Li, 7). In addition, in 2007, Party leaders introduced a new feedback procedure for Party members in the selection process for members of the Politburo. In this process, a "democratic recommendation" (minzhu tuijian) procedure is used to provide feedback on the nominees put forward through a process supervised by the Party Organization Department (Miller, 9). Miller writes that the procedure resembled a "straw poll." In May 2012, the Party polled 370 members and alternate members of the Party CC about their preferences for members of the Politburo (South China Morning Post, 8 June 12 - subscription required). News reports did not provide information on the standing of potential nominees before and after the straw poll, so it is difficult to assess the impact of the poll on the selection of nominees. A November 6, 2012, Reuters article reported sources as saying that this year for the first time, there was a proposal to have 20 percent more candidates than seats for Politburo members. The article also noted foreign experts who cautioned that the proposal might not be adopted.

Debates Regarding Policy Direction Non-Transparent, Limited Non-Party Review

In the past, the "political report" to be presented at the Party Congress has provided clues to the main ideological and policy directions the new leaders will take the Party. The Party leadership, however, reportedly is not a "monolithic group whose members all share the same ideology and policy preferences" (Li, 14). In the past, during the drafting process, some non-Party members have been invited to review the text of the political report (Miller, 2, 5-6). For the 17th Party Congress in 2007, a draft of the report was circulated inside the Party to more than 5,560 select Party members and select non-Party personnel. (Miller, 5-6). As reported by Li, Party leader Tian Peiyan described the drafting process of a similar Party report for the Fourth Plenum of the 17th Party Central Committee and argued that the Party "has established a comparatively mature democratic decisionmaking mechanism" (Li, 11). Li noted that Tian undercut his claim of "democratic openness" within Party decisionmaking processes by not including discussion of controversial issues debated during the drafting process. (Li, 11). In addition, in October 2012, the Chinese press indicated the 18th Party Congress would revise the Party constitution to include the "main strategic ideology" outlined in the "political report," but gave no further information regarding the revision (Beijing Daily, 23 October 12).

Party Congress Delegate Selection Processes: Some Innovation But Still Top-Down and Non-Competitive

Higher-level Party personnel appear to continue to have influence over the selection processes that produce nominees for Party Congress delegates:

  • County and municipal-level Party committees reportedly generate lists of delegate nominees after encouraging grassroots Party organizations to make recommendations. Party standing committee members make the final cuts to the lists. The relevant Party organization department in conjunction with various local Party committees investigates potential nominees. The resulting lists of candidates is made available to Party members for input and also shared with the general public. Provincial-level Party committees then reportedly vote on the lists of nominees and give the list to the Central Organization Department for review. Provincial-level Party congresses then hold elections that in some cases involve more candidates than seats (Li, 2-3).
  • Incumbent Party leaders potentially influence delegate selection processes in the name of "optimizing" the nominee list to make it broadly representative of Party members. Authorities similarly "optimized" nomination lists during the last round of local people's congress elections, and in some instances used this excuse to prevent politically sensitive individuals from running (CECC analysis, 23 December 11; CECC 2012 Annual Report, p. 18). In November 2011, central Party authorities reportedly issued a plan to guide Congress delegate selection that stipulated predetermined percentages for minority delegates and an increase in the number of women delegates (Xinhua, 2 November 11). The same article outlined specific percentages for workers and "front line" cadres. An August 13, 2012, Xinhua article reported on an official statement that indicated the delegates who had been chosen for the 18th Party Congress "extensively represented" Party members and had met the set proportional requirements. The article, however, did not discuss how the proportion requirements were implemented.

In addition, it appears that the development of competition in delegate selection processes has stalled. For the 18th Party Congress, the requirement was to have "more than" 15 percent additional candidates than seats overall. For the 17th Party Congress five years ago, the requirement was nearly identical. It was to have "not less" than 15 percent additional seats than candidates. (PRC Central People's Government, reprinted in China State Commission for National Defense Mobilization Net, 14 August 12).

The Chinese press, however, highlighted new developments in the delegate selection processes for 18th Party Congress delegates that "expanded interparty democracy," according to the August 14 PRC Central People's Government article. The same article noted three such developments:

  1. Standardizing the five phases of candidate selection processes and having more candidates than seats during the investigation phase (average was 13.4 percent more candidates than seats);
  2. Improving nomination processes, including seeking suggestions from Party organizations and Party members at the next lowest grassroots level and not including any candidates on nomination lists who were not "recommended" by the majority of Party organizations and Party members at the grassroots level;
  3. Making greater efforts to publicize the list of nominees to Party members, as well as to the general public.

For more information on political reform and the role of the Party in governance, see Section III-Institutions of Democratic Governance in the CECC 2012 Annual Report, pp.125-132.