Over its history of 91 years, the Chinese Communist Party has held 18 national congresses. Seven came before 1949 when the CCP came to power and 11 were convened since then. Only 12 delegates attended the first Congress, representing about 50 members of the Party, whose founding was financed by Moscow. When the 7th Congress was held in Yanan in 1945 before the Chinese Civil War, more than 700 delegates attended, representing 1.2 million members of the Party. In those years, the meetings were often held in secret and were highly irregular. Most decisions since 1936 were made by Mao Zedong, who used the 7th Party Congress to establish his supremacy in leadership and subsequently shelved such meetings.
After Mao’s fighters dismounted from their horses in 1949, they took up positions behind desks in a corner of the Forbidden City called Zhongnanhai. But Mao saw himself as a new emperor, and failed to establish a regular pattern for Party congresses. The 8th Congress was not held until September 1955. By this time the Party had grown to more than 10 million in members. The 9th Congress was not held until 1969, a full 14 years after the previous gathering. Liu Shaoqi, one-time anointed successor to Mao, was expelled from the Party at the 12th Plenary Session of the 8th Congress, and died shortly before the 9th Party Congress was convened, which established Lin Biao as Mao’s successor.
The 10th Congress was held in August 1973 with 1,249 delegates representing 28 million members. Only four years elapsed between the 9th Congress and the 10th, but many tumultuous events happened in-between. Moscow and Beijing clashed along their countries’ border, and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev even considered using nuclear weapons against China. Lin Biao died in a fiery crash in Mongolia in 1971. President Nixon visited China in 1972. Mao’s health was deteriorating. The Gang of Four, led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, was leading the nation into a ditch of economic stagnation, ideological rigidity, and revolutionary fervor. The country was inching toward collapse.
Mao died in September 1976. Barely a month later, the Gang of Four was arrested and the new leader, Hua Guofeng, selected by Mao shortly before he died, vowed to follow Mao’s policies and dismissed Deng Xiaoping, who was also brought back by Mao to restore order. Mao’s comrades did not like Hua and they maneuvered to bring Deng back. Hua continued as the nominal leader, but decision-making was now in the hands of Deng.
The 11th Congress was held in August 1977. A five-year interval between CCP congresses was finally institutionalized. But transitions of power were yet to be institutionalized. Between December 18 and December 22, the 3rd Plenary Session of 11th Congress met in Beijing. Momentous decisions were made to abandon Mao’s legacy. The policy of reform and opening up was introduced. Three days before the meeting, Beijing and Washington decided to normalize relations. China was finally able to climb out of anger and isolation.
Ten years later, in October 1987, the 13th Congress was held. With support from Deng Xiaoping, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang formally announced that the Party would move forward with political reform. On April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang – Deng Xiaoping’s first choice of Party Secretary, who was forced resign by the old guard of the Party – died. Popular mourning for him led to the tragic crackdown on June 4, 1989. Zhao Ziyang was dismissed from the position of General Secretary of the Party and Jiang Zemin, an obscure Party secretary in Shanghai, was abruptly brought in to be the new leader. Zhao was never allowed to appear again publicly, and he died in 2005.
In 2002, Jiang Zemin, who served as the CCP’s General Secretary for 13 years, finally stepped down. Hu Jintao, who was chosen by Deng Xiaoping as the fourth general leader and became a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo in 1992, finally became the General Secretary. He assumed the presidency of the republic in March 2003, but Jiang Zemin did not relinquish his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. He wanted to “babysit” Hu for a while. Wen Jiabao -who was Zhao Ziyang’s chief of staff and accompanied Zhao to Tiananmen Square where he bid farewell to the world – was now in charge of the State Council. Initially, there was euphoria about the new leadership. The Hu-Wen administration’s response to the case of Sun Zhigang and its efforts to inject accountability in the wake of the SARS outbreak convinced many in China that they were witnessing a New Deal. Hu and Wen’s emphasis on the welfare of the people rather than GDP growth alone also caught the imagination of the reform community. However, the signs of a can-do administration quickly dissipated. Even after Hu assumed the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission in 2005, there was no significant attempt to introduce political reform, despite Wen Jiabao’s repeated statements to foreign visitors that the Hu-Wen administration planned to do so.
In October 2007, the 17th Congress was held. Before the meeting, there was a lot of speculation about who would be named to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and more important, who would be groomed to become top leaders of the fifth CCP generation. It was quite a surprise when Xi Jinping, who was only a member of the Central Committee, catapulted into the Standing Committee and was slated to be the next Party leader. Li Keqiang, who was Hu’s protégé and favorite to succeed him as president, was chosen instead to replace Wen Jiabao as premier in 2013. While details of the back room dealings of the personnel arrangement of the 17th Congress are yet to emerge, it is clear that Jiang Zemin was the chief engineer of the sudden shakeup at the top.