Names to watch as Xi prepares for leadership change

China’s top leadership team around President Xi Jinping is expected to change this month at a congress to be held twice a decade. Pictured is the last such congress in 2017, with Xi at the center.

Nicolas Asfouri | AFP | Getty Images

BEIJING — China is set to reshuffle top officials surrounding President Xi Jinping at a much-anticipated congressional meeting this month.

China’s ruling Communist Party is set to launch its 20th National Congress – held once every five years – on October 16.

About a week later, the names of the new team should be announced.

The composition of the team will reflect the political influence of Xi and his associates, and the degree of support the president wields for ideas – such as preferences for greater state control over the economy.

Xi, who is 69, is expected to largely consolidate his power after leading the party for 10 years. This month’s convention is expected to pave the way for him to an unprecedented third five-year term.

Chinese politics have always been opaque, but there seems to be absolutely no light leaking out of this black box.

Scott Kennedy

Center for Strategic and International Studies

But predictions about which officials will step down or take on new roles remain speculative.

“China politics has always been opaque, but there seems to be absolutely no light leaking out of this black box,” said Scott Kennedy, senior adviser and director of the chair of Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in the United States. .

“As a result, you hear a lot less speculation now compared to previous leadership transitions,” he said.

“The irony of this mystery is that Chinese officials routinely lecture foreigners on how little they understand about China,” Kennedy said. “Part of the problem is how little information is actually available to us.”

Here’s what’s publicly known – and some of the names analysts are watching for the next shakeup:

Political structure

This month’s congress decides which officials will become the leaders of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

About 2,300 party delegates are to meet in Beijing to select a new central committee, made up of about 200 full members.

This committee then determines the ruling core – the Politburo and its standing committee.

The current Politburo, or political bureau, has 25 members, including Liu He. Liu has been at the forefront of trade negotiations with the United States in 2020 and 2021. In China, he heads the central government’s financial stability committee.

However, Liu is not part of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest circle of power. It currently has seven members, including Xi and Premier Li Keqiang.

Xi holds three key positions: general secretary of the Communist Party of China, chairman of the Central Military Commission and president of China.

He is expected to retain the top two titles at this year’s party convention. State posts such as president and prime minister will not be confirmed until the next annual meeting of the Chinese government, usually held in March.

Economic policy: who will replace Premier Li?

One of the most watched changes in the political reshuffle is the future of Premier Li Keqiang, who turned 67 this year.

While high-level economic policy in China is largely set by members of the Politburo, Li has been an official face and implementation leader in his role as prime minister and head of China’s business council. state, the supreme executive body of China.

Li said in March that this year marked his last premiership, a post he has held since 2013. However, he could remain on the standing committee, JPMorgan analysts said, pointing to a precedent at the party’s 15th congress. .

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Over the past decade, Li has met regularly with foreign companies to promote investment in China. Since the start of the pandemic, he has supported cutting taxes and fees for businesses instead of offering consumer vouchers. Li studied economics at Peking University.

All of modern China’s prime ministers except the first were previously deputy prime ministers, JPMorgan analysts said.

The current deputy prime ministers are Han Zheng, Hu Chunhua, Liu He and Sun Chunlan – the only woman in the Politburo.

“Anyone who becomes prime minister actually sends a signal about Xi Jinping’s primary need, or his political and political consideration,” Cheng Li, senior fellow at Brookings, told a conference hosted by the think tank on Tuesday.

He named four people to the Politburo who could join or stay on the standing committee, and stand a chance of replacing Li Keqiang as prime minister.

  • Han Zheng — Han is a member of the Standing Committee. Becoming prime minister would reflect “political continuity”, Brookings’ Li said.
  • Hu Chunhua — Hu has close ties to Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Promoting it would signal “leadership unity”, with Xi Jinping appointing people outside his faction, Li said.
  • Liu He — Liu studied at Harvard Kennedy School in the 1990s. More recently, he led the Chinese delegation in trade negotiations with the United States and spoke on several occasions with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. If Liu became prime minister, it would be for his “international popularity”, according to Li.
  • Wang Yang — Wang is a member of the standing committee and served as vice premier from 2013 to 2018. He is known to be market-oriented, and choosing him as premier would reflect “a sea change in policy,” Li said.

Among Xi’s followers…

Analysts at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s China Analysis Center have presented an alternative scenario in which Xi’s protege Li Qiang, Shanghai Party secretary and Politburo member, could become prime minister.

Other staunch Xi allies named by analysts include:

  • Ding Xuexiang — member of the Politburo and “essentially Xi’s chief of staff, as well as responsible for his personal security, which means he is part of Xi’s most trusted circle”, according to the Asia Society report .
  • Chen Min’er – a member of the Politburo and party secretary of Chongqing Municipality, a post he obtained thanks to Xi’s “brutal ousting” of the former secretary, Asia Society pointed out.
  • Huang Kunming, a member of the Politburo and head of China’s propaganda department, who worked closely with Xi in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, according to the report.

Foreign policy: Sino-American relations

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Liu Jieyi “seems most likely to succeed Yang” as foreign affairs director, Neil Thomas, senior analyst, China and Northeast Asia, Eurasia Group, said in a report.

Liu is director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council and previously represented China at the United Nations. Such an experience “would suggest that Beijing will heighten its diplomatic focus on global governance reform and deter ‘Taiwan independence,'” Thomas said.

At 64, Liu is “the most senior diplomat who is not ready to retire”, the Eurasia Group said in its report, while noting “rumors” that Foreign Minister Wang Yi could succeed Yang instead.

Wang is a member of the party’s 200-member central committee and previously headed the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council. He will be 69 in October.

China has a flexible retirement age of 68 for its civil servants.

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“If Wang Yi replaces Yang Jiechi in the Politburo as the top foreign policy official, one would expect the tougher foreign policy to continue,” said Tony Saich, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, in a September article.

The publicity department of the Communist Party of China’s central committee did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment sent during a one-week Chinese holiday.

All eyes are on Xi’s successor

For many China watchers, the biggest question is not how 69-year-old Xi will consolidate power, but who his successor might be and how he will groom the person in the years to come. .

Under Xi, China’s bureaucracy has become less autonomous and more tied to him personally — especially since there are few checks on power, wrote Yuen Yuen Ang, an associate professor of political science at the University. of Michigan, in the Journal of Democracy in July.

The threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power, she said, “will be the succession battles resulting from Xi’s personalistic regime.”

In the “best case scenario”, China can remain stable under Xi’s rule until 2035, she said.

In the “worst-case scenario,” Ang said, “a sudden vacuum could cause violent power grabs.”

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