Beginning on Wednesday and expected to last for about a week, the event brings together 2,300 Communist Party members from across China. It's where the party will select its leadership — and with it, its policies — for the next five years. Given China's huge population, economy and military strength, the 19th National Congress could set the agenda not only for Beijing, but also for much of the world.
Most observers predict that the congress will put power increasingly in the hands of one man: Xi Jinping.
Xi became the leader of China after its last party congress in 2012, and this year's edition will almost assuredly hand him a second five-year term, which has become near-automatic for Chinese leaders. But some think that Xi is setting himself up to spend a far longer time holding the reins of power.
“What he wants to do is create a very personalized style of leadership where it seems there is no alternative to Xi Jinping in terms of taking the country forward,” said Rana Mitter, a professor of modern Chinese history and politics at the University of Oxford, to The Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief Simon Denyer recently. “The point of comparison is Vladimir Putin, who also runs a very personalized style of rule.”
Such proclamations may be surprising to anyone who has gone to China recently and seen what seems to be an ever-less-ideological society, happy to embrace capitalism when it suits. Xi even presented himself as a defender of international economic cooperation during a speech in Davos at the start of the year, an address many analysts saw as a rebuttal to the protectionist ideas of President Trump. “We must remain committed to developing free trade and investment,” Xi said through a translator.
But observers point to a number of worrying signs that what Xi doesn't want is an increasingly open China. Instead, they think, he seeks a totalitarian quashing of dissent.
The most obvious component of that move is the rapid restrictions being placed upon dissent within the Communist Party itself. “The clear objective is to eradicate the organizational means to establish and sustain patronage networks that are not controlled by Xi or his clear close allies,” Victor Shih and Jude Blanchette wrote for Foreign Policy this week, pointing to the shutdown of the Communist Youth League and other actions as evidence.
Xi has used a widespread crackdown on corruption to eliminate powerful rivals, including those with strong links to previous party leaders. “Since Xi took power, the number of arrests of senior Central Committee or provincial Standing Committee officials has increased dramatically — 28 officials in 2014 alone, which is nearly six times greater than the highest number of arrests” during the second term of Hu Jintao, Xi's predecessor, Shih and Blanchette write.
At the same time, restrictions on the freedoms of average Chinese citizens seem to be expanding. Take China's famous “Great Firewall” that restricts the country's access to the global Internet: In the weeks running up to the 19th National Congress, further restrictions were added to the censoring system — including one that effectively bans anonymous users — and the government cracked down on virtual private networks, tools long used by residents of China to circumvent the firewall.
Chinese citizens' online actions are also under tighter scrutiny. The government is requiring Internet companies to establish a system to rate and score users' online conduct, and those scores would be integrated into an already-in-development system of “social credit” that has been widely compared with an episode of the dystopian sci-fi series Black Mirror. Steven Lee Myers and Sui-Lee Wee of the New York Times reported this week that in the aftermath of the political disruption allegedly caused by Facebook and other online services in the United States, Beijing feels vindicated by its new restrictions.
Even China's move toward capitalism and open markets may be pulled back. Lingling Wei of the Wall Street Journal makes a persuasive case that China's declining economic fortunes are leading Xi to turn away from markets and back to state intervention. “Xi’s increasing emphasis on ideological purity leaves little room for Western-style capitalism,” Wei writes.
If Xi continues to push China in this direction, the impact could be huge. China is not just an economic giant planning an ambitious “One Belt, One Road” international infrastructure project, but a geopolitical one. Richard Bush, a Clinton-era national intelligence officer for East Asia and former head of the American Institute in Taiwan, has suggested that Xi may even set a deadline for resolving the ongoing dispute with Taiwan, potentially drawing the United States into that problem. China's role in the ongoing North Korea crisis also puts it squarely at the center of high-stakes geopolitics, although the issue is unlikely to come up at the party congress.
Perhaps worst of all is the sense that Xi's desire to tighten his grip isn't born of confidence, but of insecurity — of the idea that any cracks in China's totalitarian state would lead it to crumble. The worry for the world ahead of the Party Congress is that what he cooks up instead could be worse.