Originally published in The Hindu on October 7, 2017

For China watchers, the popular TV series, ‘Game of Thrones’, is but an anaemic trifle when compared to the backroom intrigue and power play expected at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The Congress will begin on October 18, accompanied by platoons of analysts in paroxysms of tea leaf-reading, attempting to decipher which men — no woman has so far been appointed to the Party’s highest body: the Politburo Standing Committee — will control the levers of power in the country that is increasingly shaping global affairs.

The one name every cup of tea is sure to reveal is that of reigning Party chief, Chinese President Xi Jinping. The million yuan question is whether Mr. Xi will further cement his power base, making him the most formidable national leader in the post-Mao era, or whether there will be a last minute stunner, as a rival faction fights back

Party Congresses are held every five years. Mr. Xi took over the leadership of the CPC from his predecessor, Hu Jintao, at the 18th Congress in 2012. At the time the CPC Central Committee was packed with cadres handpicked by previous leaders, limiting Mr. Xi’s freedom of manoeuvre. But much water has flowed down the Yangtze in the half decade since, with the Chinese President rewriting the rules of institutional workings and bureaucratic promotions, as well as reshaping China’s diplomacy and sense of self in the world.

Consolidating control

Since coming to power, Mr. Xi has strategically centralised control by collecting a smorgasbord of titles. He not only leads the Party and military but is also head of several newly instituted bodies such as the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms and the Central National Security Commission set up to combat terrorism and separatism. In January this year he took over as Chairman of the Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development, only a few months after being hailed by the CPC as a “core leader”, an epithet that has thus far only been conferred on three leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.

Until Mr. Xi’s presidency, China had followed Deng’s diktat of “tao guang yang hui”, or keeping a low profile internationally, biding time while focussing on domestic economic growth. The leadership of the Party had also evolved into a collective practice, resembling a boardroom more than an imperial court, with Chinese politics increasingly tied to predictable procedures rather than ruler’s caprice.

But under Mr. Xi, this settled topography has been upended. The Chinese President is a more charismatic and individualistic leader than his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Moreover, under him, China has come to unabashedly project power abroad, and no longer makes any bones about its geostrategic ambitions.

Three strategies

Shin Kawashima, a China scholar at the University of Tokyo, points out that Mr. Xi has deployed three strategies to amplify his power: an anti-corruption blitzkrieg, a tightening of media control and a restructuring of the military.

The anti-corruption campaign has been a particularly useful tool, serving the dual purpose of toughening party discipline and purging inconvenient rivals. More than 200 officials, many of them in senior positions, have been removed in corruption probes, allowing Mr. Xi to place loyalists or associates of close allies in key positions.

A recent example is that of Sun Zhengcai, former party chief of Chongqing, considered by some to be a contender for future President and a shoo-in for the Politburo. In July, Mr. Sun was abruptly placed under investigation for disciplinary violations (a euphemism for corruption) and removed from his post. He was replaced by Xi-protégé Chen Miner who is now a contender for Mr. Sun’s expected spot on the Politburo’s, innermost, seven-member Standing Committee.

Party Congresses usually last between seven and 10 days. The length of October’s meet will be closely watched. If it’s shorter than usual, it will signal that Mr. Xi’s rival factions found it tough going, while a longer summit would imply the opposite. About 2,300 delegates from different provinces and constituencies like state-owned enterprises and the military will attend the meeting and elect the 200-plus members of the Party Central Committee. The Central Committee will in turn vote for the CPC’s most senior positions. At least 11 of the 25 members of the Politburo are expected to retire, unless an informal rule that requires members to step down at 68 is relaxed. Whether or not Wang Qishan, Mr. Xi’s trusted anti-corruption honcho, stays on the Standing Committee, despite being 68, will be closely watched as an indication of the President’s clout.

Leaving a mark

One likely outcome is the enshrining of Xi Jinping “thought,” the crystallisation of the President’s values and ideals, in the CPC’s constitution. This is standard practice for China’s top leaders. However, other than Mao and Deng, no other leader has had their name tagged on to their “thought”. Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory are known as such. But Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents and Hu Jintao’s Scientific Outlook on Development do not have their names appended in the constitution. Whether or not Mr. Xi’s name is added to his “thought” (which has not been given a formal title as yet) will consequently be another key indicator of his sway within the Party.

Finally, the Congress will be scrutinised for any moves that might enable Mr. Xi to stay in a top leadership capacity even after his second term as CPC General Secretary and Chinese President ends in 2022. For example, he might delay the designation of a successor.

Mr. Kawashima hastens to point out that Mr. Xi is still far from all-powerful. Some push back from sidelined groupings will almost certainly occur. But all Mr. Xi needs to steamroll his vision is the support of four out of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee.

The composition of this group will determine China’s attitude towards global hot spots such as North Korea and border disputes with neighbours like India. A stronger Xi Jinping will likely see an even bolder and more aggressive China regionally and globally.

Domestically, although western Sinologists tend to see the centralisation of authority under Mr. Xi as having a potentially narrowing effect on economic reform, many analysts within the country see his moves as stemming from the need to ride roughshod over vested interests in order to push through difficult reforms. Only time, and perhaps the tea leaves, will tell.