The Communist Party of China (CCP) convened its 20th Party Congress on Sunday (Xinhua, October 16). When the proceedings conclude, a new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) will be revealed (China Brief, September 20). General Secretary Xi Jinping is expected to continue his third term as party chief and paramount leader and will also retain the key role of Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman. Although the continuation of Xi’s tenure undermines former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to institutionalize the CCP’s top-leadership succession, the unwritten rule of “seven up, eight down” (七上八下, qi shang, ba xia) still heavily affects the selection process of the other twenty-four politburo members (China Times, October 19). Within the Politburo, those who have reached the age of 68 are required to retire from their positions and duties. With several PBSC and Politburo members headed for retirement, many are wondering who will take their place.
Since the beginning of the 19th Party Congress in late 2017, China has faced numerous domestic and international challenges. Under the ruling CCP, the Party-state has grappled with reducing the wealth gap and eliminating extreme poverty; rooting out monopolies in the technology industry; cracking down on official corruption; managing the needs of an aging population and numerous other economic and social challenges. In 2021, the overleveraged property sector, which was epitomized by Evergrande Group’s debt struggles and the Henan bank default protest, forced the CCP to take extensive measures to stave off an economic implosion (China Brief, September 20).
The liquidation problem that happened earlier this year have drawn the CCP’s attention to the risk of potential financial turmoil. Last but not least, the “Zero-Covid” policy has forced cities and provinces to go through strict quarantines and lockdowns, disrupting supply chains and resulting in underperforming economic progress. (China Times, September 16; Voice of America, September 18).
China has also experienced growing pushback from the international community due to the human rights situations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as Beijing’s pressure campaign against Taiwan. Even though China has adopted a “neutral” stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the perception in the West is widespread that Beijing has provided Moscow with at least tacit support. Meanwhile, the U.S.-China relationship remains dominated by competition on trade, military, technology and many other areas. Relations soured further when U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August.
Since 2021, China had been underscoring the importance of “stability” (稳定, wending) in all policy areas (Economic Daily, May 25). This emphasis has undoubtedly sought to lay the groundwork for Xi’s third leadership term (The News Lens–FBC2E, March 16). It further explains why most sensitive topics, such as Taiwan, the North Korea nuclear crisis, or even Russia-Ukraine War, are rarely mentioned during sensitive times to prevent international awareness and misinterpretation that would leave China in the spotlight.
New Faces in the Politburo
The CCP has preserved the unwritten retirement regulation for senior leaders since Jiang Zemin. The upcoming 20th Party Congress will also elect new members under the age of 67 into the Politburo, while those who have exceeded 68 or above will be retired-qi shang ba xia. However, people speculate that some, who have not reached 68, will be disposed of from power for various reasons. Xi’s ability to abrogate qi shang ba xia in order to place his supporters on the Politburo is a key test of his clout in the system.
Through observations, we predict there will be 15 new members elected to the 20th Politburo when the curtain rises at the end of the Party Congress next week. The following senior cadres are likely to be promoted: He Lifeng (Minister of the National Development and Reform Commission), Miao Hua (Military Commission and PLA Navy Admiral), Wang Xiaohong (Minister of Public Security), Zhang Jun (Procurator-General of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate), Ying Yong (Deputy Procurator-General of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate), Jiang Xinzhi (Executive Deputy Head of the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China), Zhang Shengmin (Military Commission and PLA Rocket Force), Liu Jieyi (Director of Taiwan Affairs Office), Jiang Jinquan (Director of Central Policy Research Office), Ma Xingrui (Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), Chen Wenqing (Minister of State Security), Chen Xiaojiang (Executive Deputy Head of the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party), Liu Haixin (Deputy Director of National Security Commission of the Chinese Communist Party), Li Shulei (Executive Deputy Head of the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party), Liu Jianchao (Director of the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party). He Lifeng’s background and close relationship with Xi is likely to earn him membership on the PBSC. He Lifeng would presumably be in charge of the economic issues once Li Keqiang moves on from the Premiership and Liu He steps down.
South China Morning Post has postulated that current State Councilor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, could enter the Politburo (South China Morning Post, September 5). Although Wang is already 68, foreign policy may well become a major priority following the 20th Party Congress. With Yang Jiechi, the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission General Office, over seventy and almost certain to retire, Wang could provide continuity in the top foreign policy leadership roles of State Councilor and Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission General Office. Furthermore, Le Yucheng, who is purportedly a staunch supporter of the Sino-Russian “no limits” partnership and was once considered a potential candidate to succeed Wang, is now out of the running. He was reassigned from the role of deputy foreign minister to become deputy director of the National Radio and Television Administration earlier this year (Xinhua, June 14). In addition, the vice ministers of foreign affairs, Ma Zhaoxu and Xie Feng are less experienced in comparison to other hopefuls. Hence, the current Director of the CCP International Liaison Department, Liu Jianchao, may be the best option to succeed Wang as the PRC’s next Foreign Minister.
Regarding military personnel, two members of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Miao Hua and Zhang Shengmin, have the chance to take over as the Deputy Chairman of the Central Military Commission, replacing Xu Qiliang and Zhang Youxia (China Brief, September 9). At the same time, other members, such as Wei Fenghe and Li Zuocheng, will also reach the age limit of 67 and are expected to retire, but there is potential that Xi would keep one of them as CMC vice chairman. If an exception is made for Wang Yi; the chances of Li Zuocheng remaining would be feasible, as the People’s Liberation Army highly evaluates the Army versus other services. Lin Xiangyang (Commander of the Eastern Theater Command), Li Shangfu (Head of Equipment Development Department), Xu Xueqiang (President of PLA National Defense University), Li Qiaoming (Commander of PLA Ground Force), Wang Qiang (Commander of the Northern Theater Command), and Liu Zhenli (Former Commander of PLA Ground Force) are also thought to be candidates for the CMC. (United Daily News, September 15; Central News Agency, September 23; Jiangsuwanxin, September 30; Caixin, October 2.)
Change and Continuity in the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee
Most, if not all of the members, who have not yet surpassed age 68, will remain on the Politburo in some capacity, including Wang Yang (Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference), Hu Chunhua (Vice Premier), Li Hongzhong (Party Secretary of Tianjin), Cai Chi (Party Secretary of Beijing), Li Xi (Party Secretary of Guangdong), Huang Kunming (Head of Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the CCP), Li Qiang (Party Secretary of Shanghai), Chen Min’er (Party Secretary of Chongqing), and Ding Xuexiang (Director of the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party). Among these politburo members, Hu Chunhua and Ding Xuexinag have the opportunity to be promoted to the PBSC replacing Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng who are both over the unwritten retirement age. Wang Yang may also remain on in his position as a standing committee member and could get promoted to Premier.
The futures of two current PBSC members, Wang Huning and Zhao Leji, have aroused considerable speculation. Reading through People’s Daily, the Party mouthpiece, both Wang and Zhao’s public appearances significantly decreased following the annual Beidaihe leadership conclave this August. Zhao Leji is suspected of being involved in corruption scandals, including one of involving his younger brother Zhao Leqin (China Brief, August 12). If Zhao is “forced” to retire, in exchange for being not prosecuted or even jailed, Wang Huning, who is slightly older than Zhao, could also come under pressure to quit. Regardless, Taiwan’s United Daily News points out that both Zhao and Wang could remain on the Politburo Standing Committee. If that occurs, Zhao is likely to be assigned to duty in the United Front and take over from Wang Yang as head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which would elevate him to the number four position (officially) in the CCP hierarchy.
The incumbent Premier, Li Keqiang, stated in May 2022 that he would be stepping down. The announcement raised eyebrows on who the potential successor of the premier is. Prime candidates for premier would have experience as Vice Premier and have membership in the Politburo and/or the PBSC. Under these circumstances, both Wang Yang, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and Hu Chunhua, the incumbent Vice Premier, are the most suitable candidates, although Wang currently outranks Hu,
According to Taiwan’s Central News Agency, Wang Yang tends to be more opinionated than others, which Xi might not appreciate. However, considering Wang Yang’s age, he would most likely have a one-term premiership, , which would allow Xi to arrange the next successor and not feel any challenge from a rising star in the number two position. Comparably, current Vice Premier Hu Chunhua’s younger age gives him an opportunity to serve two terms if the premiership. Therefore, he is also considered to be a potential candidate for the PBSC. However, Hu Chunhua joined the party through the Communist Youth League under the tutelage of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao and these factional divisions may cost him (Central New Agency, September 13).
Li Keqiang’s term as Premier will not be extended, but he could still retain his position on the PBSC. In doing so, Li may emulate his predecessor Li Peng, retiring from premier position but serving out his tenure as chairman of either the National People’s Congress or the CPPCC. Otherwise, Li could replace Wang Qishan’s current position as PRC Vice President. Some also believe that Li will not receive a new position at all and could be forced into early retirement (Central News Agency, September 20).
The bottom line, playing it safe for the election of seven standing committee members of the 20th Party Congress, the seven standing members will consist of Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Ding Xuexiang, and Hu Chunhua (United Daily News, September 22). This would represent a small shift to cope with major events. However, in July 2021, Xi mentioned the term “Whole-process people’s democracy” during his speech for the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (Xinhuanet, July 15, 2021). Likewise, in December 2021 , the State Council’s Information Office released the white paper titled “China: Democracy That Works” (State Council Information Office, December 4, 2021)
If the term of “Whole-process people’s democracy” is fully practiced, then more of the standing committee members may be reshuffled, including Xi Jinping, Wang Yang, Hu Chunhua, Ding Xuexiang, Li Qiang, Chen Min’er, and He Lifeng. All of which have been close colleagues with Xi during his tenure in Fujian, Zhenjiang, Shanghai, forming the so-called “Jiangnan Faction” with their work experience in China’s southeast coastal provinces.
Dr. James Yifan Chen is an assistant professor at the Department of Diplomacy and International Relations, Tamkang University in Taiwan. He teaches courses at the program such as, American Foreign Policy, US Government and Politics, China’s Political Development, US-China Relations, International Security, etc. He is often interviewed by Voice of America, South China Morning Post and publishes his opeds on United Daily News, China Times, Liberty Times, Storm Media, and Up Media in Taiwan
David Hau Feng is a graduate of Tamkang University with bachelor of arts in English. He had taken dozens of courses at Department of Diplomacy and International Relations. He is interested in Chinese Politics, Japanese Politics, Asian Countries Foreign Relations, US Government and Politics, and International Trade.