The 20th Party Congress: Xi Set to Score Big in Composition of Next Leadership Corps

General Secretary Xi Jinping presides over a Politburo meeting in December 2019 (source: Xinhuanet)

Introduction

Despite the resentment among many top cadres against the personality cult that has been relentlessly built up around President and commander-in-chief Xi Jinping, the Machiavellian infighter is expected to remain on top when seats for the Politburo and other top-level leadership bodies are unveiled at the upcoming 20th Party Congress this fall. As the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) and the country’s “chairman of everything,” the CCP General Secretary bears ultimate responsibility for the nation’s dire economic conditions, which include mounting indebtedness incurred by enterprises and regional administrations (China Brief, July 18). In terms of foreign policy, Beijing’s “no limits” quasi-alliance with Russia – and its prolonged military drills around Taiwan in the wake of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit–has exacerbated the “new Cold War” between the pro-democracy Western alliance and the “autocratic axis” formed by China, Russia, North Korea and other authoritarian states.

Xi is not known as a brilliant or skilled policy-maker in either the economic or diplomatic arenas, but the supreme leader is a master of personal empire-building, particularly in enlarging the influence of the so-called Xi Jinping Faction in CCP politics. This clique, which was miniscule when Xi became party chief in late 2012, has become the CCP’s dominant faction. Members include Xi’s former aides and cronies from Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, where he served from 1985 to 2007. Many of Xi’s protégés hail from his home province of Shaanxi as well as the putative New Helmsman’s alma mater, Tsinghua University. In the past ten years, the lingxiu (领袖- “leader”), as some accolades now refer to Xi, has also promoted a dozen odd cadres and scientists from the  军工航天系 (jungong-hangtianxi) or defense-aerospace industry sector leaders to top civilian slots (Chinafocus.com, July 15; China Brief, May 27).

By contrast, the two formerly predominant cliques in the party–the Communist Youth League Faction (CYLF) and the Shanghai Faction–have lapsed in importance. This is despite the fact that two of the current Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members – Premier Li Keqiang (born 1955) and Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Wang Yang (1955) – are CYLF stalwarts, as is Politburo member and Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua (1963). Two PBSC members with initial connections to the Shanghai Faction – Executive Vice-Premier Han Zheng (1954) and ideology czar Wang Huning (1955) – seem to have crossed over to the Xi camp. Xi is poised to break with long-standing party conventions by seeking a third – and maybe a fourth – five-year term of leadership at the upcoming 20th Party Congress. It is also possible that another well-recognized rule called qishangbaxia (retirement at 68, and one more term for 67-year-olds) may only be selectively applied at this year’s Congress.

Predicting the Politburo and its Standing Committee

The balance of power in the CCP – and future policy directions – will to a large extent depend on the factional orientation of members of three bodies to be endorsed by the 2,300-odd deputies attending the week-long congress. The Central Committee has around 205 full and 170 alternate (meaning non-voting) members. After their “election,” full Central Committee members will choose from amongst themselves the Politburo of around 25 members. In turn, the Politburo affiliates will choose the seven most powerful men in the country who make up the PBSC (Asia Society Policy Institute, August 4). So-called voting by the deputies, however, is for all purposes ceremonial as the name lists for all three top-echelon committees will have been determined in advance by the current PBSC and Politburo members while taking into consideration the views of faction leaders and former PBSC members (HK01.com; January 1; Reuters Chinese, November 18, 2021).

The current Politburo, which was formed at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, is already dominated by the Xi Faction. These Xi loyalists include the Director of the Central Committee General Office and the Head of the Xi Jinping Office, Ding Xuexiang (born 1962); Party Organization Department head Chen Xi (1953), Propaganda Chief Huang Kunming (1956); the two vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission, Generals Zhang Youxia (1950) and Xu Qiliang (1950); and the Director of the Central Political and Legal Commission Guo Shengkun (1954). Also on the Politburo are representatives from provinces and major cities, including the Party Secretaries of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Tianjin, and Guangdong, respectively Cai Qi (1955), Li Qiang (1957), Chen Min’er (1960), Li Hongzhong (1956), and Li Xi (1956) (VOAChinese, July 18).

Out of these senior cadres from the Xi Faction, Ding Xuexiang, who is sometimes known as Xi’s alter ego, is a shoo-in for the PBSC to be rolled out at this year’s Congress. Xi is known to be anxious to promote one or two regional rising stars, for example, Chongqing Party Secretary Chen Min’er or Shanghai Party Secretary  Li Qiang, to the  inner sanctum of the CCP (Chinanewscenter, July 23; VOAChinese, March 21). If Xi is successful in securing an additional one or two terms – as well as promoting three protégés to the seven-member PBSC – the Xi faction will be able to dominate this topmost decision-making body. However, Li Qiang’s reputation has been dented by the disastrous two-month pandemic-related lockdown in Shanghai. Likewise, the chances that Guangdong Party Secretary Li Xi, another Xi protégé, will be promoted have been damaged by his province’s lackadaisical recent economic performance (United Daily News, June 29; Netease, May 24).

Two CYLF stalwarts have a chance of either remaining or making the PBSC. Premier Li, who will be 67, could stay on the supreme council given the credit he earned the past few months for handling difficult problems in the economy. Since under the Constitution, Li can only serve two terms as head of the central government, he might move on to chair the National People’s Congress, whose current leader and Xi ally Li Zhanshu (1950) is well over the informal retirement age of 68 (ANI news, May 18). Li Keqiang might also insist that Vice Premier Hu Chunhua replace him as Premier (Mingjingnews.com, July 27). After all, among all the candidates for this usually second-ranked spot on the PBSC, only Hu has the requisite qualification of having been a vice-premier. Wang Yang and Wang Huning, both 67, are both tipped to call it quits.

For Xi, the most problematic member of the new PBSC could be Zhao Leji, who, having been born in 1957, is the youngest current member of the supreme council. Zhao, who was party secretary of Shaanxi Province from 2007 to 2012, was originally deemed to be close to Xi. However, the two fell out over the illegal construction of private villas – and the large-scale destruction of forests – along Mount Qin in Shaanxi (Chinaaffairs.org, January 23; BBC Chinese, January 17, 2019). From the superstitious point of view of fengshui or Chinese geomancy, Mount Qin is the “spiritual backbone” and “anchor” of emperors and dictators in Chinese history. While Xi gave repeated personal orders to take down the villas after his ascendency to power, it was only in 2018 that the illegal structures were demolished. Zhao, whose portfolio includes the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – the nation’s highest anti-graft unit – is said to have to share some of the blame. Moreover, Zhao was responsible for the recent disciplinary and corruption-related investigation of two Xi favorites, the party secretary of Hangzhou Zhao Jiangyong and the party secretary of Zhengzhou, Xu Liyi (SCMP, April 11; Global Times, January 21).

Control of “The Gun, the Knife and the Pen”

Within the larger Politburo, attention is focused on who will control the army and police, as well as the ideology and propaganda apparatuses. After all, the combination of “the gun, the knife and the pen” is considered to make up the CCP’s primary toolkit for staying in power. While Xi may struggle to place all his men in the PBSC, he already commands the loyalty of a high proportion of the upcoming 25-member Politburo – and he can count on a smooth succession in the top-ranked military and police posts. The two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) members of the Politburo, Generals Zhang Youxia and Xu Qiliang are both due to retire. Leading candidates to succeed them include General Li Zuocheng, who is Chief of the General Staff Department; and Miao Hua, the Director of the Political Work Department. Xi has good personal ties with General Li, so the fact that the latter will be 69 at the time of the Congress may not disqualify him. Miao (born 1955) previously worked in Fujian province and the former Nanjing Military Region, where he crossed paths with Xi. Another Xi confidante, Wang Xiaohong, who was recently promoted to be Minister of Public Security, served some 20 years in Fujian. Wang (1957) is tipped to join the Politburo as Head of the Central Political and Legal Commission, a powerful body with jurisdiction over the police, the secret police and the courts.

Incumbent propaganda chief Huang Kunming (born 1956) could in theory stay for one more term as the party’s “pen” or mouthpiece. But Xi’s crony from his Zhejiang days has been accused by members of opposing factions of reviving a Mao-style personality cult around the supreme leader. He is expected to be given a pre-retirement sinecure at the NPC or the CPPCC. The new Politburo member in charge of propaganda is expected to be well-known scholar Li Shulei (born 1964), who was recently promoted executive vice-director of the same department. Li served as Xi’s deputy at the Central Party School from 2007 to 2012, and he has been a speech-writer for the supreme leader (Jfdaily.com, June 6; Sohu.com, June 5). Equally crucial for preserving the strength and loyalty of cadres is the Director of Organization Department. Hu Heping, the current Minister of Culture, is tipped as a dark horse candidate to succeed Xi confidant Chen Xi. Hu (1962) has close ties to Xi’s Tsinghua University alumni network; he has also held important posts in the Zhejiang provincial party committee in addition to being the governor and party secretary of Shaanxi Province. Hu has been one of the most vocal regional officials to repeatedly underscore “the imperative of upholding the authority of comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the party” (Radio Free Asia, October 29, 2021; Chinaaffairs.org, October 26, 2021).  Another candidate for Head of the Organization Department is Jiang Xinzhi (1958), who is now serving as the deputy of its current head, Chen Xi. Jiang was Director of Organization in Fujian Province, another power base of Xi’s, from 2011 to 2015.

A New Breed of Technocrats

As Xi is widely expected to obtain his “leader for life” designation  – and maintain his faction’s domination of the PBSC –– radical policy changes are not expected to be announced at the Congress (Radio Free Asia, April 7; Radio French International, May 3). Doubts, however, have been raised about the qualifications and political proclivities of the new Central Committee and Politburo.  Foremost is the perception that market-oriented, professional technocrats may be lacking in the new leadership cohort.

When former premier Zhu Rongji was head of the central government from 1998 to 2003, he promoted a large number of technocrats who were talented finance experts to ministerial or vice-ministerial positions in bureaucracies such as the People’s Bank of China, the Ministry of Finance, and banking and insurance watchdog entities (Netease, August 5, 2020). Yet almost all of these technocratic cadres, including the reform-minded former finance minister Lou Jiwei (born 1950) (Aisixiang.com, June 21) have retired or are going to call it quits. The two most senior economics-related officials tipped for promotion at the 20th Party Congress, aspirant for the premier’s position-Hu Chunhua and strong candidate for the post of vice-premier in charge of finance-He Lifeng (1955), are veteran party apparatchiks rather than professional managers (Radio Free Asia, July 27; Newscenter.com, March 11). They owe their probable elevation mostly due to being leaders of powerful factions such as the Xi  and Communist Youth League Factions.

The group of technocrats that Xi has groomed in the past ten years consists of experts and top managers in the defense-industry, particularly aerospace. As the post of Party Secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) usually comes with a Politburo seat, Ma Xingrui (born 1959), a former General Manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and Director of the China National Space Administration, will likely become the first jungonghangtianxi member to be inducted into the Politburo (Nikkei Asia, December 28, 2021). Other outstanding representatives of this latest sub-sect of the Xi faction include the Party Secretary of Hunan Province Zhang Qingwei (The Diplomat, February 19). A renowned rocket scientist and former head of the CASC, Zhang (1961) played a key role in China’s moon exploration project. Zhang became a full Central Committee member in 2002 when he was barely 41 years old. Another rising star from the same sector is the Party Secretary of Zhejiang Yuan Jiajun (1962). Since Zhejiang is a key power base of President Xi, Yuan, another alumni of the CASC, is a strong contender for the Politburo five years later (Reddit.com, December 8, 2021).

Given the negative reaction of not only the U.S. and its European allies, but also Asian powers such as Japan and Australia to Beijing’s Ukraine stance – as well as the PLA’s apparent “overreaction” to U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent Taiwan visit– Xi needs to put in place a team of professional diplomats who know more about building partnerships than showing off the country’s muscular “wolf warrior diplomacy.” The most likely replacement of Politburo member in charge of foreign affairs and former ambassador to the United States Yang Jiechi (born 1950) is the current Foreign Minister Wang Yi (born 1953). Apart from the fact that Wang will be 69 (and thus one year beyond the normal retirement age of 68), he is a noted exponent of the “wolf warrior diplomacy,” which has been responsible for the PRC’s relative isolation in the global order (VOAChinese, July 23; Financial Review, July 7). Wang’s deputy until May this year, Executive Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng (born 1963), was unexpectedly moved to the National Radio and Television Administration apparently due to the fluent Russian-speaker’s mishandling of the country’s response to the Ukraine crisis (Nikkei Asia , July 23). Western officials fear that if Beijing lacks a powerful Politburo member in charge of foreign policy, the generals will exercise an even greater influence on national security issues.

Conclusion

The dearth of so-called Seventh-Generation (7G) cadres with a chance of being promoted to the Politburo is also problematic. The highest-ranking officials born in the 1970s have only reached the vice-ministerial level or equivalent– and only a relatively few are slated to become full or alternate Central Committee members at the 20th Congress (SCMP, May 23). If, as expected, Xi will remain supreme leader until the 22nd Party Congress in 2032 – and even beyond – many Sixth-Generation Politburo members will have reached the retirement age of 68 by then (China Brief, November 12, 2021). By contrast, ex-president Hu Jintao, who was in power from 2002 to 2012, paid a lot of attention to grooming up-and-coming Sixth-Generation (6G) neophytes (Saiscsr.org, July 31, 2021). Xi’s lack of interest in advancing the careers of 7G cadres could be due to the fact that he intends to rule for 20 years, in which case he still has ten more years to settle on a 7G successor among his younger protégés.

As Xi has repeatedly emphasized that loyalty trumps competence as the foremost criterion for elevation, he does not seem overly concerned about the lack of professionalism among members of the new ruling contingent (People’s Daily, March 24; Prnewswire.com, September 4, 2021). In the past month or so, even prominent members of opposition factions such as Hu Chunhua have penned articles eulogizing the “extraordinary wisdom” of Xi’s agrarian policies, which is part of Hu’s portfolio (Gov.cn, July 27). A Central Committee, Politburo and PBSC that consist of fawners and minions of the supreme leader, however, will wreak havoc on the quality of CCP rule. But given Xi’s focus on securing the status of “party core for life”, this does not seem to be the uppermost concern on the mind of China’s self-proclaimed Mao Zedong of the 21st century.

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor in the History Department and Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of six books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (2015). His latest book, The Fight for China’s Future, was released by Routledge Publishing in 2020.