A major reshuffle will take place in the Chinese Communist party’s top echelon at the 20th party congress in Beijing this week, a twice-a-decade meeting that began in the capital on 16 October.
The meeting brings together more than 2,000 party members in a process of selecting new officials for the 200-member central committee. Some will be promoted to the 25-member politburo, and some to the elite seven-member standing committee, China’s most powerful political body.
According to party convention, only leaders aged 67 or below can be promoted to or remain in top posts, while those 68 or above at the time of the next congress must retire. President Xi Jinping, who is 69, has however indicated he will not retire – and is seeking an unprecedented third term.
Five of the current politburo standing committee members, including Xi, are expected to stay on, while two retiring members will be replaced. Analysts say Xi will try to assert his authority and place more of his allies in the top decision-making body.
Expected to stay
Xi, who took charge of the Communist party in late 2012, is expected to further consolidate his power and rule for another decade, after he abolished the two-term presidential limit in 2018. Analysts say Xi, who is concurrently the general secretary of the Chinese Communist party, president of the People’s Republic of China and chairman of the central military commission, is likely to retain a firm grip on all three roles. They expect Xi to retain two of those titles at the meeting: general secretary of the party and chairman of the central military commission. He will hang on to the title of president until the National People’s Congress next March, when he is expected to be formally reappointed.
Ranked No 2 in the elite politburo standing committee, Li Keqiang will step down as premier after two terms. He is however expected to stay on the committee, as he is 67. He is likely to retain his current ranking but is expected to take on a less prominent role, such as the chairman of the National People’s Congress standing committee.
Li, who has a PhD in economics, was in charge of overseeing the country’s economy in his first term but became increasingly sidelined in recent years. Li’s focus on economic growth and job creation appeared to clash with Xi’s insistence on the zero-Covid policy, and this has spurred rumours of discord in the top leadership.
Wang Yang, 67, is No 4 in the politburo standing committee as the chairman of the national committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. He is widely expected to remain in the top decision-making body. He is a likely candidate for the next premiership, having had a wide array of political experience.
Wang was one of four vice-premiers in Li Keqiang’s cabinet between 2013 and 2018 and before that, he was the party chief of the affluent Guangdong province and the Chongqing municipality. A member of the 25-member politburo since 2007, he came up through the Communist Youth League, a faction that has been greatly weakened since Xi came to power. Although the pro-reform politician has a relatively liberal image, he told Tibetans to embrace Communist rule and called for intensified “stability maintenance” in Xinjiang.
A key ally of Xi and his top foreign policy adviser, Wang Huning is a current member of the politburo standing committee in charge of party ideology. Wang, 67, also the first secretary of the party’s central secretariat, is expected to stay in the top body. He has been firmly within Xi’s inner circle for years and has reputedly been influential in shaping Xi’s political thoughts.
A former academic known for his theories on “neo-authoritarianism”, Wang advocated a strong, centralised state to counter foreign influence and a strong central leadership, shunning the collective leadership introduced after Mao Zedong’s death. He has chaired the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilisation since November 2017 and served as the director of the central policy research office (CPRO) from 2002 to 2020.
Zhao Leji, head of the party’s top anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, is expected to stay in the politburo standing committee as the 65-year-old hasn’t yet reached the retirement age. Under Xi’s rule, Zhao had headed the party’s powerful Organisation Department, overseeing the appointment of all senior officials across China.
While Zhao has not had long associations with Xi, he has shown his loyalty by bringing Xi’s allies into important positions. Analysts say Zhao’s obedience to Xi as well as his experience in regional administrations, such as running the sparsely populated Qinghai province, helped propel him to the top.
Expected to step down
Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng
Li Zhanshu, 72, the chairman of the National People’s Congress standing committee, and Han Zheng, vice premier, 68, are expected to step down from the politburo standing committee as they have reached the retirement age.
Candidates who could join the politburo standing committee
Ding Xuexiang, a trusted ally of Xi and a member of the 25-member politburo, is a frontrunner to be promoted into the elite standing committee. He is concurrently the director of the party’s general secretary office and the central committee’s general office, running Xi’s office and working closely with him. He was Xi’s political secretary when Xi was Shanghai’s party chief in 2007 and has worked alongside him ever since. Aged 60, he would probably rise through the ranks in the top decision-making body into the next party congress in 2027.
Hu Chunhua, widely seen as a political rising star, is poised to be promoted to the politburo standing committee. Currently a vice premier of the state council, he is also a strong candidate for premiership. Hu ascended the party ranks through the Communist Youth League and has rich regional governing experience. He spent almost 20 years of his career in Tibet and was the governor of Hebei province and party secretary for Inner Mongolia and the affluent Guangdong province. Aged 59, he is one of the youngest in the top echelon. Coming from the Communist Youth League faction, analysts say he is perceived to be a threat to Xi.
Li, the party secretary of Shanghai and a member of the politburo, is a Xi ally and a strong contender to enter the standing committee. After Xi came to power, he promoted Li to be the governor of Zhejiang province (2012–2016) and party secretary of Jiangsu (2016–2017) province. Some analysts believe he is poised to take over the vice-premier position from Han Zheng, who is expected to retire. While some say his prospects have been dented by the chaos of Shanghai’s protracted Covid lockdown, others believe he is still in a strong position.
Other possible candidates
Other current members of the politburo, including Chen Min’er, party secretary of Chongqing, Cai Qi, party secretary of Beijing, Li Hongzhong, party secretary of Tianjin, Chen Quanguo, deputy head of the party’s Central Rural Work Leading Group, have also been named by analysts as possible candidates to enter the standing committee.