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The 17th Congress of the Communist Party of China

Dr. Raviprasad Narayanan was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • October 15, 2007

    The Communist Party of China (CPC) will convene its 17th National Congress from October 15. The "highest decision-making body" of the CPC, the party congress is mandated to convene every five years. The 17th Party Congress assumes importance as its pronouncements and anticipated leadership shuffles would indicate the direction of state policy in the coming years. Reports in the state controlled media have referred to the 17th Party Congress 'electing' a fresh CPC Central Committee as well as a Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

    As widely reported, the 17th Party Congress will comprise of 2217 delegates 'elected' by 38 electoral units across the country. The electoral units are made up of provinces, municipalities, the Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Regions, a unit each representing Taiwan, Overseas Chinese and the PLA.

    Reflecting perhaps the current nature of political discourse on 'ensuring transparency' and 'accountability', the more than 70 million members of the CPC, and increasingly, ordinary citizens, may contact the Party Congress and its delegates to address their complaints and grievances. The CPC does not disguise the fact that strengthening the role of the Party Congress is to be done under the leadership of the Party with 'democratic centralism' as the core. 'Rule by law' (yifa zhiguo) is the term used to describe the limited nature of political reform in post-Deng China. The avenue through which the CPC could introduce a 'rule by law' has been to pay more consideration to the place and role of the Party Congress. To strengthen the Party Congress' legislative and supervisory role, the CPC has been amending the constitution and has declared that it would establish a 'socialist legal system' by the year 2010.

    The credit for commencing the process of revitalising and ensuring a process of orderly formalism in Chinese politics goes to Deng Xiaoping. The effect of growing 'political institutionalisation' in the PRC has led to the creation of a vertical political structure in which 'formal institutions' play a significant role over 'informal networks' - also known as 'connections' (guanxi). Under Deng's stewardship, the Party Central Committee recommenced regular functions, meeting at least once a year as mandated by the Party constitution, in striking contrast to its irregular convocation during the last fifteen years of Mao's leadership. Throughout the Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin years, party congresses and the National People's Congress (NPC) - China's legislature - have met fastidiously following the five-year schedule stipulated by the Party (Article 18) and PRC (Article 60) constitutions. For the Hu Jintao leadership, the mantra guiding political thought and action of the CPC is of 'realising institutionalisation, standardisation and procedural formalisation (zhiduhua, guifanhua, chengxuhua) of socialist democratic politics.'

    Reflecting a 'pro-society' slant, the central theme of the 17th Party Congress is widely expected to be on 'Harmonious society.' Under Hu Jintao's leadership, the policy refrain revolves around two axioms - 'harmonious society' (hexie shehui), and its foreign policy equivalent 'harmonious world' (hexie shijie). The Central Committee of the CPC during the 6th Plenum of October 2006 adopted the ideological plank of 'Building Socialism and Harmonious Society' leading to a quasi official campaign on 'harmonious society.' The 17th Party Congress is expected to include 'harmonious society' in the CPC's charter (mirroring Jiang Zemin's 'Three Represents'). 'Harmonious society/world,' from a perspective of the Hu Jintao - Wen Jiabao leadership, attempts to chart the direction of China's 'socioeconomic development' and setting the tenor of national priorities.

    A noteworthy aspect of the current Chinese leadership (and possibly of the new leaders to emerge from the 17th Party Congress) is that they are highly qualified and technically trained, and that background has largely influenced their approach to decision-making in the political, economic and strategic spheres. Being representative of a non-revolutionary generation of leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have since 2002 had to seek legitimacy and a new power platform through procedural authority and 'institutional innovation' (zhidu chuangxin). As representatives with a technocratic background (all members of the current Standing Committee are engineers), the leadership, it could be interpreted, has deferred to expertise and institutions to forge policies and consensus.

    As a result of political institutionalisation, the very temperament and structure of politics in China is undergoing a process of transformation. First, the fixed tenure nature of the highest political office from one political leader to another can be considered politically meaningful and orderly. Second, institutional loyalty as opposed to personal loyalty is becoming the norm. Third, the political space has vastly expanded to accommodate diverse interests. Fourth, with party ideology becoming more accommodative to suit the current socio-economic reality (the 'Three Represents' being a case in point) political legitimacy for the leadership continues. Lastly, having gone through the chaos and autarky that was the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when the entire body politic was 'hollowed out,' there seems to be general consensus amongst the political class in Beijing that institutionalisation of the political structure is necessary to ensure political stability and accommodate growing social concerns.