5 min read

Guide #1: What is the National Party Congress?

The Chinese Communist Party will convene the 20th National Party Congress late this year. The following guide explains what it is and how does it fit into China's political system?

Transcript (with minor edits for clarity)

The Chinese Communist Party will convene its National Party Congress later this year. We don’t know when yet; they haven’t told us. My guess is sometime in October or November.

‌‌In this guide, I want to talk about what is actually the National Party Congress and how it fits into China’s political system and the Party's politics.

‌‌I’m not going to talk about the upcoming 20th National Party Congress specifically, I’ll leave that for later occasions. Rather, I want to provide you with the background knowledge necessary to understand the institution and process that is the National Party Congress.

‌‌So, first thing first, some terminologies:

The formal name is the National Congress of the Communist Party of China. you add the numbers before it. So the next one is the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, and the one before that was the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which was held in October 2017.

‌‌Second, normally people just say Party Congress to mean the National Party Congress, but there are Party congresses at every level in the Party hierarchy, including for Party organisations of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government (Shanghai and Beijing, for example), and at lower levels too, including say counties.

‌‌Third, some people mix up the Party and the State. The National Party Congress is a Party body while the National People’s Congress is a state body; the first is the top Party body and the latter is the highest organ of state power and China’s national legislature.

‌‌The best way to think about it is that the Party controls the state, but there is a formal and theoretical separation, albeit sometimes blurry, between the Party on the one hand and the state on the other. So don’t mix up the National Party Congress with the National People’s Congress.

‌‌And finally, Party Congress is both a body and an event. As a body, it is formally constituted with delegates and vested with powers and functions by the Party Constitution. It is also an event, in the sense that this body meets over a period of time, usually seven days, usually in Beijing.

‌‌Okay, with that cleared up, let’s look closer at what is a National Party Congress.

‌‌The National Party Congress is the leading body of the Party, meaning that it is vested with the highest authority of any Party organisation under the Party Constitution. The Communist Party is organised according to the Leninist idea of democratic centralism. A core tenet of this idea, as applied to the governance of the Party, is that individuals must obey the organisation, and lower-level Party organisations must obey higher-level organisations. Given that the National Party Congress is formally the highest level Party body, all Party members and organisations must defer to it. Of course, this is in principle; the real world of politics is more complex.

‌‌The National Party Congress has around 2300 delegates elected by the Party membership of around 95 million. The delegates are elected from 38 electoral units, which include the different regions of China as well as from central Party-state bureaucracies, state-owned enterprises and the military.

‌‌According to the Party Constitution, the Party Congress must be held at least once every five years. Under some conditions, it can meet earlier, such as when the Central Committee deems it necessary. But the period between one congress and the next can not be more than five years.

‌‌In terms of functions and powers, the National Party Congress can examine reports of the Central Committee, which exercises Congress' powers when the Congress is not in session. And it can also examine the reports of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Party’s powerful discipline watchdog. It can discuss and decide on major issues concerning the Party. It can revise the Party Constitution, like what we had in 2017 when the Party Congress amended the Party Constitution to add Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era as one of its leading ideologies.

‌‌And last but not least, it can elect the Central Committee and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

‌‌The election of the Central Committee is the most important function because that’s essentially the power to decide who becomes the Party elite, the party leadership.

‌‌So this flows into how the National Party Congress fits into China’s political system and the five-year political cycle of the Party.

‌‌At each National Party Congress, the delegates elect a Central Committee (consisting of 205 members and 171 alternate members). Alternate members are just players on the bench so to speak, so if a member dies, retires or is removed from office for whatever reason, then the alternates would replace them.

‌‌The Central Committee exercises the power of the Party Congress when it is not in session. And it does so, including through its plenary sessions, which happen around once a year. So the last one we saw was the 6th Plenum of the 19th Central Committee, that is, the Central Committee elected by the 19th National Party Congress. That was back in November, and you may remember that the Central Committee adopted the so-called third history resolution, lionising Xi’s achievements over the last decade and singing praise to the historical significance of Xi's thought.

‌‌The Central Committee once elected, then elects 25 among its members to form the Central Political Bureau, or Politburo for short. The Central Committee also elects seven out of the twenty-five members of the Politburo to form the Politburo Standing Committee. These seven people are the most powerful individuals in the Chinese Communist Party, and effectively run China from day to day.

The Central Committee also elects the General Secretary, who is currently Xi Jinping.

What we see is a concentration of power each step up, from the Party as a whole to the National Party Congress to Central Commit to Politburo to Politburo Standing Committee, headed by the General Secretary.

‌‌Now let’s talk about the five-year cycle from one National Party Congress to the next. Let’s use as examples the 18th and 19th National Party Congresses.

Once a Party Congress is held, its immediately followed by the First Plenum of the Central Committee, which selects the Politburo, Politburo Standing Committee, and the General Secretary for the next five years.

‌‌This is followed by one or two plenums per year until it gets to the seventh Plenum just preceding the next National Party Congress, and then the cycle starts again. The Seventh Plenum is the one coming up, which will happen just before the National Party Congress later this year. It will announce the dates for the Congress.

I hope this guide gives you a basic background on the National Party Congress and how it fits into the Chinese political system dominated by the Communist Party.

As we draw nearer to the National Party Congress, I’d like to make a few more guides digging deeper, for example, into the composition and election of delegates, what actually happens at the National Party Congress, its agenda, and other topics that help with putting the upcoming Congress into context.

Please do let me know if you have any questions. I’ll try to incorporate them along with a whole bunch I’ve already got from other folks in future talks.