The 17th Party Congress

At the Chinese Communist Party Congress this week, President Hu Jintao outlined his vision for the next five years. The highlights: an offer to negotiate with Taiwan, up-and-coming party leaders and Beijing’s space program.

The 17th Party Congress concluded in Beijing this week, introducing the next generation of Chinese leaders to their fellow party members and the world. Much like U.S. political conventions, the party congress sought to boost Party members' morale, reaffirm strategic vision and bring forward the Communist Party's next generation of leaders. A new leadership team was identified and named members of the Central Committee, Politburo and most-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. By all accounts, President Hu Jintao has consolidated his power, seeing close allies and protégés promoted and aging rivals retired. The most notable retiree, Vice President Zeng Qinghong, has stepped down gracefully, making way for two prominent members of the next generation of leaders, Shanghai Party Secretary Xi Jinping and Liaoning Party Secretary Li Keqiang. Barring major errors or scandals, these two will likely be named as president and premier at the 18th Party Congress in 2012.

President Hu Jintao opened the congress with a two-hour keynote address which set out his macro-vision for the next five years, encapsulated in the "scientific development" concept, which purports to "put people first" and aims to achieve sustainable economic development and social harmony. "Democracy" was often mentioned during the Congress and in Hu's speech, though political reforms are not being seriously considered, such as expanding the current system of village elections to encompass higher levels of government, including townships.

Notably, President Hu Jintao used his keynote speech to offer to negotiate a peace treaty with Taiwan, though the offer was conditioned by the insistence that talks are conducted under the "One China" principle. Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian quickly dismissed the offer, though both candidates in Taiwan's upcoming presidential election left the door open to future negotiations after the island's presidential elections in March 2008.

The 17th Party Congress itself is not likely to have an impact on U.S.-China relations. However, the Congress has provided Hu Jintao with a more secure political environment, which could provide him with opportunities to tackle issues he has previously neglected at the expense of domestic politics. A new Chinese strategy towards Taiwan would certainly affect U.S.-China relations, though China's course will undoubtedly depend on the island's election outcomes.  The retirement of two politburo members with economic portfolios, Vice Premiers Zeng Peiyan and Wu Yi, will make room for two new vice premiers to be appointed at the National People's Congress in the spring of 2008. Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan and Guangdong Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang, both recently promoted to the Politburo, are likely candidates. Current Minister of the State Development and Reform Commission Ma Kai was also promoted to the Politburo, giving the top leadership solid financial and industrial expertise. With Vice Premier Wu Yi's retirement, a new Vice Premier will be appointed to head the "Strategic Economic Dialogue" with the United States, though there are no indications that China's trade or industrial policies are set to undergo any change or even review as the next generation takes up their new responsibilities.

Celebrating the Party Congress' success, China's ambitious space program will launch a lunar orbiter later this week, marking another step in a growing space race between China, Japan and India. Fielding a successful space program is a key component of the leadership's objective to build China's "comprehensive national strength." The Communist Party's legitimacy remains closely linked to nationalism and the ability to deliver economic growth which will ultimately return China to the global status it once enjoyed prior to the 19th century. Fielding a successful space program with ambitious objectives to put a Chinese citizen on the moon before its Asian neighbors would be a key indicator in China's self-defined "comprehensive national strength" index. If all goes according to plan, China will have the Communist Party committee manning its lunar outpost by 2020.


Drew Thompson is the Director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Center.