Beijing, November 8th - 14th, 2002

Some 2,114 delegates gathered in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for one of the most significant political events in the world this year - where the party that rules the lives of a quarter of the world's population sums up its achievements to date and sets out its work programme for the next five years (which is the time interval between CPC National Congresses in the modern era).

Another significant item on the agenda was personnel changes, and it is this that has excited most interest both here and abroad - as was widely predicted, Party leader Jiang Zemin (江泽民) stepped down to make way for his younger protegé Hu Jintao(胡锦涛). Along with Jiang went all but one of the Party's Central Committee, in a hard fought deal that saw both hardliner Li Peng (李鹏) and the relative liberals Zhu Rongji (朱镕基) and Li Ruihuan (李瑞环) hand over to younger men (and for the first time since the 1970s a woman too - Wu Yi , former trade minister joined an expanded Politburo). Factional in-fighting between cliques centred around Li Peng and Zhu Rongji has been a feature of Chinese politics for some years. The number of members of the Politburo has been increased from seven to nine, with analysts saying that at least five can be considered placemen for Jiang Zemin, as he hopes to continue to exercise power from behind the scenes.

This Congress is seen as marking an important transition in more than just musical chairs in the Politburo. Jiang's willingness to step down lies in the fact that he sees his political legacy as secured, with this Congress formalising that fact (indeed, his political theory of 'the Three Represents, was formally added to the Party constitution, placing on a par with Mao Zedong thought and Deng Xiaoping theory). His Third Generation leadership (after Mao Zedong (毛泽东) and Deng Xiaoping (邓小平)) has finally jettisoned all but the merest formality of communism and remoulded itself as a pragmatic party that can deliver continued economic growth (and continued monopoly of political power). John Gittings, the Guardian's China correspondent notes that in his keynote report to Congress on the opening day, Jiang failed to make the customary reference to the ultimate goal of communism, a first for such a speech.

In his opening day report (delivered on the 8th November), Jiang chose to sum up not just the last five years, as is usual, but the whole legacy of his thirteen years at the top. Some highlights of what he said include:

  • Laying claim to being the first Communist Party to successfully create a 'socialist market economy', and linking the party's continued political legitimacy to this achievement. The Party's slogan, closely associated with Jiang, is to 'move with the times' (与时具进), placing pragmatism higher than ideology, or perhaps making pragmatism the ideology would be better.
  • As noted above, the elevation of his own 'important thinking' - the 'theory of the Three Represents' (三个代表) - to the pantheon of Party doctrine. This is a further turning away from any semblance of orthodox Marxism - the party will now represent all the 'advanced productive forces in society', including private business entrepreneurs, who are now welcome to join what was once the dictatorship of the proletariat. The other two things the Party will 'represent' are 'the interests of the broadest mass of the Chinese nation' and 'advanced forces in science, technology and culture'. Don't worry if this sounds impossibly vague, not many Chinese people are sure what it's supposed to mean either, despite endless study sessions for cadres up and down the country.
  • Emphasising again the Party's historical mission to unite China, and reserving the right to use force against Taiwan should she declare independence.
  • Welcoming globalisation and seeing opportunities for China in the process (she has been a member of the WTO for a year now).
  • Whilst making some vague references to 'citizen participation', no hint of political reform beyond continued experimentation with direct elections at grassroots level (village, township and urban resident committees).

At the time of this revision (24th November), reaction to the Congress is a mix of praise for the first peaceful transfer of power in modern China, and despair at the conservative nature of the change. Despite China's numerous problems, meaningful political reform seems still a distant prospect - and without reform, widening gaps in wealth and a lack of social justice look set to continue. Bao Tong, a senior official arrested for his support for the democracy movement in 1989 (and still under house arrest today) lamented this lost opportunity for reform, and pointed out that whilst the Party uses the perceived need for stability as an excuse for glacially slow political change, it is precisely the Party's monopoly of power that has been behind most of the crises in modern China.

I'd like to note here that whilst the significance of the Party in Chinese political life can hardly be overemphasised, governance in China is not the monolith it may appear to outsiders, and various interest constituencies, political, economic and regional all contest policy. Sadly, as currently constituted, the mechanism most excludes the poorest and weakest (hardly, it must be said, a phenomenon unique to China). Citizens have not been allowed to lobby their delegates. Whilst trumpeting its achievements in the period of 'reform and opening' (改革开放), the Party rules an increasingly polarised country - almost 20% live below the World Bank poverty line of USD 1 per day (including many newly impoverished urban workers), and disparities between the wealthy coastal provinces of the east and the 'backward' western interior continue to grow. Amidst the optimism and self-congratulation, the Party is well aware that it faces difficult challenges as it prepares its first work programme of the new century.

Read about the Congress on its official website: (in English, French, Russian, Arabic, Spanish, Japanese and Esperanto (!) as well as Chinese.

John Gitting's Guardian report at:,7369,836713,00.html