Opinion / What’s really focusing President Xi?

“Recent and persistent scuttlebutt in Beijing suggests that General Secretary Xi and his strongest supporters have their eyes firmly fixed on a third term,” writes China watcher PETER PHILLIPS

WHILE the average observer or occasional punter from the West could be forgiven for restricting his or her current focus on China to the question of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s willingness or ability to rein in the alarming excesses of North Korean leader, the nuclear-armed Kim Jong-un, it would perhaps be timely and worthwhile to look a little more closely at matters currently facing and challenging (and commanding more of the attention of) China’s leader.

Peter Phillips.

First – and for President Xi, most important – is the forthcoming national Congress of China’s ruling Communist Party which is scheduled to convene in Beijing on Wednesday, October 18 – only the nineteenth occasion on which the Party has met at this level in its 96-year history (the Party was founded in 1921 and has ruled China since 1949).

While the grandeur and solemnity of the event will in themselves be enormously impactful, for Xi Jinping the key achievements and outcomes of the Congress will be contained in the decisions made and formalised in relation to the Party’s leadership, including most critically the position – or positions – of Xi himself. While Xi is routinely – and properly – counted and described as China’s national President, his tenure of this position derives from his standing as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. As General Secretary, Xi is also and automatically the Secretary of the Standing Committee (currently comprising seven members – all men, by the way) of the 25-member Political Bureau (or Politbureau) of the Party.

Emerging consensus amongst China-watchers considers the early announcement – in August – of the actual date (an occasion more traditionally shrouded in speculation and mystery until it actually occurs) on which the Nineteenth Congress of the Party will convene ( ie, October 18) indicates that vitally important headcounts and machinery have been conducted and fine-tuned in advance, but confirmation and fulfilment will come for Xi with the announcement by the Congress of the re-election of the Party’s General Secretary (and Secretary of the Standing Committee of the Politbureau) to serve a further five-year term from 2017 until the Twentieth Party Congress in 2022.

China’s President Xi Jinping… also General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

For closer and more forensic observers, scholars and commentators, the composition of the 25-member Politburo and of the Standing Committee (the latter being most likely to remain at seven – five of whom will be newly appointed to replace retirees) will be of great importance and significance: for it is currently being mooted in “insider” circles in Beijing that next month’s Congress will, inter alia, set the scene for the 64-year-old Xi Jinping to be appointed to remain in office beyond the completion of his second term of office in October/November of 2022 – at which time he will be 69 (President Xi was born – in Beijing – on June 15, 1953).

Current Party orthodoxy (albeit not a Party Constitutional requirement) has Politburo Standing Committee members retiring from their positions on the PSC if they have reached the age of 67 by the time at which a Party Congress convenes. Recent and persistent scuttlebutt in Beijing suggests that General Secretary Xi and his strongest supporters have their eyes firmly fixed on a third term – the formal announcement (or unmistakably strong indication) of which could become the most notable and portentous single outcome of the Chinese Communist Party’s Nineteenth Party Congress.

Watch this space.

Immediate past President of the ACT branch of the Australia China Business Council, Peter Phillips is a former diplomat at the Australian embassy in Beijing. He is an ANU Asian Studies graduate and Chinese linguist and a director of the National Press Club.

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