Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a new top leadership stacked with loyalists Sunday, as the ruling Communist Party’s twice-a-decade national congress wrapped with Mr. Xi securing a third term as leader.
At a highly choreographed event in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Mr. Xi brought out members of the 20th Politburo Standing Committee to meet the press. In a brief speech, he said China was “embarking on a long journey, one filled with glories and dreams.”
That journey will be led by the 69-year-old Mr. Xi, now confirmed to remain as leader for at least another five years. By securing a long expected, and largely unprecedented, third term, Mr. Xi has confirmed his absolute authority over the world’s second-largest economy as China reaches true superpower status, upending the military and diplomatic status quo not just in Asia but around the world.
No members of the committee revealed Sunday fit the mould of a potential successor, with most being too old, and the youngest, Ding Xuexiang, lacking the type of experience typical of future leaders.
What they all share is a track record of loyalty to Mr. Xi. Predictions that he might be feel pressure to elevate members of rival factions within the Communist Party to its top body did not turn out to be accurate.
“Factions are a thing of the past; you’re either loyal to Xi Jinping and part of the team pursuing his political agenda or you’re not,” said Drew Thompson, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “You don’t have liberal reformers; you don’t have people with their own vision. It’s Xi’s way or else.”
One of those loyalists is Li Qiang, the man who walked out just behind Mr. Xi. That position is usually reserved for the person who will be the next premier, though Mr. Li’s promotion will not come until a meeting of China’s parliament early next year.
Mr. Li, 63, was Mr. Xi’s chief of staff when the now-President ran Zhejiang province in the early 2000s. When Mr. Xi joined the central leadership in 2013, Mr. Li was promoted to replace him as governor, and then to a series of other senior roles typical of those being groomed as future leaders.
Since 2017, he has been party secretary of Shanghai. But Mr. Li appeared to stumble on his path to the top this year when his administration had to lock down the metropolis to contain a COVID-19 outbreak, causing misery for millions and hurting the economy.
Mr. Thompson said while some had seen the Shanghai lockdown as hurting Mr. Li’s chances, “he did exactly what was expected and required of him; he accomplished every political goal set.”
“He’s not measured on the happiness of people in Shanghai,” Mr. Thompson added.
Mr. Li is joined on the standing committee by Cai Qi, 66, until recently party secretary of Beijing.
“These were people who followed what they were told on lockdowns even though it was very unpopular,” said Ryan Manuel, founder of Bilby, a Hong Kong-based startup that uses artificial intelligence to predict Chinese policy. “They toed the line.”
Aside from Mr. Xi, two members of the previous standing committee stayed on: Zhao Leji, 65, and Wang Huning, 67. While neither was seen as an ally of Mr. Xi’s when he assumed the leadership in 2012, they have proven key to implementing his agenda in the decade since.
Mr. Wang, who has served in prominent roles under three Chinese leaders, is the party’s ideological czar, crafting key policies including the “China Dream” and “Xi Jinping Thought,” the country’s current guiding political philosophy. He also played a key role in drafting a historic resolution, passed in November of last year, which further codified Mr. Xi’s absolute power.
Mr. Zhao has for the past five years run the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the body given the task of implementing Mr. Xi’s sweeping anti-corruption crackdown. Tens of thousands of officials have been drummed out of the party or imprisoned in recent years, including many potential rivals to Mr. Xi.
That role will now be taken by another Xi ally: 66-year-old Li Xi, until this week party secretary of Guangdong, the southern economic powerhouse and one of China’s richest provinces.
The 60-year-old Mr. Ding, the youngest member of the new Politburo Standing Committee, is the only one who will be under the unofficial retirement age of 68 at the time of the next party congress. While this norm has been bucked by Mr. Xi and several close allies, it is unlikely the current leader, if he ever voluntarily steps aside, would do so for someone the same age or older.
While Mr. Ding’s age might make him a potential successor, his track record does not. He has served Mr. Xi in a variety of adviser roles over the latter’s career, but he has never worked as a provincial party secretary or governor, considered key experiences for future leaders.
Mr. Xi also installed loyalists in the Central Military Commission, promoting generals Zhang Youxia and He Weidong to co-vice-chairs. In recent years, Mr. Xi has implemented sweeping reforms and purged corrupt officials throughout the People’s Liberation Army, shoring up the military’s loyalty to the Communist Party and its ability to fight future wars.
An amendment to the party constitution passed Saturday enshrines a commitment to “resolutely oppose and contain Taiwan independence,” and, in a speech last week, Mr. Xi reiterated Beijing’s commitment to take the self-ruled island, by force if necessary.
In addition to the standing committee revealed Sunday, Mr. Xi’s influence extends into the broader Politburo, now stacked with allies and bereft of rivals from other factions.
Also missing are any women. China’s most senior female politician, Sun Chunlan, stepped down from the Politburo last week, and no other woman has been promoted to replace her. The party’s standing committee has never had a female member.
China’s outgoing premier, Li Keqiang, joined Ms. Sun in retirement. Mr. Li was term-limited from remaining as premier, but some had predicted the 68-year-old might stay on the standing committee in another role. Instead, he stepped back from front-line politics, as did Wang Yang, a former leader of Guangdong who had been pegged to replace him.
Mr. Wang is 67, and he and Mr. Li are the first officials in decades to retire from the standing committee under the unofficial age of 68. Both were associated with the Communist Youth League, a key faction within the party that has been ruthlessly disempowered and purged by Mr. Xi.
The CYL was once led by Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, who took centre stage Saturday in what appeared to be the only unscripted moment of the week-long congress.
Minutes after journalists were allowed into the Great Hall of the People to watch the central committee adopt a series of procedural measures, the 79-year-old Mr. Hu was led from his seat by masked attendants. He appeared confused and initially reluctant to leave the room, stopping briefly to speak to Mr. Xi and Mr. Li, his former protégé.
The incident was captured on video by foreign media across the room but not mentioned at all in the Chinese press. Speculation immediately exploded online that Mr. Hu was being purged, while others pointed to his long-standing health issues and apparent frailty attending other events this month.
Late Saturday, the verified Twitter account of China’s state news agency Xinhua said Mr. Hu “was not feeling well during the session” and “his staff, for his health, accompanied him to a room next to the meeting venue for a rest.” The report, which was not carried anywhere else, was credited to “Xinhuanet reporter Liu Jiawen,” an unusual caveat for the government mouthpiece.
Chinese elite politics is a black box, one that has only grown more opaque under Mr. Xi, so the incident may never truly be explained. But whether by design or chance, it provided the symbolic image of Mr. Hu, the only Chinese leader to fully surrender power when his two terms were up, being hurried off stage amid the coronation of a successor who seems poised to serve forever.
The Globe and Mail, October 23, 2022