Who will succeed Xi Jinping as China’s leader? It’s complicated

INTERNATIONAL DESK: All eyes are on Xi Jinping at the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress that begins in Beijing on Sunday. Barring a major upset, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades will extend his rule, undoing the previous convention of top leaders serving two five-year terms before stepping aside.

With authority tightly held in one man’s hands, it’s easy to forget the remaining 2,295 delegates attending the conclave in Beijing. But it is among these jockeying cadres that experts in Chinese politics search for clues about just how much power Xi has — and how long he is liable to hold it.

The primary focus will be on the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the seven-member body at the pinnacle of decision-making power. If Xi is able to stack the committee with loyalists, then there will be few signs of checks on his personal control.

Turnover at the top of the party had previously been encouraged by an informal age limit known as “seven up, eight down” whereby officials who are 67 years of age or younger take on new positions, while those 68 years old and above retire. Sticking to this rule-of-thumb would create two new slots for Xi to fill with allies.

But that norm may no longer hold. Xi, who is 69, is at minimum set to ignore the purported rule for himself — and may also do so to promote allies to the Politburo. “It’s not about age any more. It’s about whether you are on Xi’s side,” said Yang Zhang, a sociologist at American University’s School of International Service.

One key indicator of Xi’s power will be if extra members of the current committee are pushed into early retirement, with most attention being on Premier Li Keqiang, who at 67 has not reached the informal age limit.

The other big question is whether a successor will emerge from the reshuffle. Before Xi, a pathway for future leaders had begun to form, where an heir-apparent took on a Standing Committee position and the vice presidency five years before they were appointed to the top job. Both Xi and his predecessor, Hu Jintao, ascended in this manner.

But that precedent, too, was broken when no officials young enough to serve three terms made the Politburo Standing Committee in 2017. Analysts tracking Chinese politics warn against expecting an anointed successor this year either, arguing that Xi’s extended rule could bypass entirely the generation that will dominate the 370-odd full and alternate members of the Central Committee (the body below the Politburo) over the next 10 years.

“It’s in everyone’s interests not to mention the issue of succession,” said Zhang. “Even if politicians born in the 1960s make it to the Politburo Standing Committee, they will merely be Xi’s technocrats.” It’s more likely that the eventual successor will be from the 1970s generation, but that crop of leaders is currently too young and inexperienced for a clear favorite to be selected at this juncture, Zhang said.

Even if none of them will head the party, officials born in the late 1950s and 1960s are the ones who will implement, interpret and, perhaps occasionally, challenge Xi’s policy agenda as he forges ahead with ambitious plans to tackle inequality and social ills while simultaneously securing the country’s position as a military, economic and technology power.

Here are four officials who, if they make it onto the stage in the Great Hall of the People at the meeting’s conclusion, could provide clues about Xi’s degree of control as party leader and China’s president.

Hu Chunhua, 59

Having risen through the same Communist Youth League faction as Li, Hu was the youngest official to make it to the Politburo at the last Congress. Before Xi, his fast rise made him appear like a potential successor.

But his relative lack of experience working alongside Xi compared with contemporaries means few now consider him a candidate for the top job. His appointment to the Politburo Standing Committee could, however, indicate a degree of power-balancing between total Xi loyalists and other networks.

Chen Min’er, 62

The party secretary of Chongqing, Chen hails from the eastern province of Zhejiang, an important location in Xi’s power base.

He built a reputation as a loyal lieutenant for Xi during his tenure as party boss of impoverished Guizhou province on the front lines of Xi’s war on poverty.

His real break came in 2017 when he was parachuted into Chongqing after the dramatic takedown of the city’s former party boss, Sun Zhengcai, who was once considered a contender to replace Xi.

Ding Xuexiang, 60

Few current Politburo members up for promotion to the Standing Committee have worked as closely with Xi as Ding. As director of the general secretary’s office, he is equivalent to Xi’s chief of staff.

Their relationship stems from a period working together in Shanghai in 2007, when Ding helped Xi mop up a corruption scandal that felled the city’s party boss. His other position since 2017 on the party’s Central Secretariat, the body that conducts day-to-day operations on behalf of the Politburo, has made him a crucial enforcer of Xi’s policy agenda.

Li Qiang, 63

Li Qiang attends a meeting of the 19th Communist Party Congress on Oct. 19, 2017. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
As party secretary of Shanghai, Li had a rough start to the year. He became the focus of widespread anger during a coronavirus outbreak after city authorities told residents that Shanghai would not go into lockdown — then did just that for two months.

But Li is also considered an ally of Xi, having worked under him in Zhejiang, and Li’s forceful response to the outbreak was in line with central government demands to stick with a “zero covid” approach.

These four men are far from the only officials eyeing a position at the apex of party power. For the Politburo Standing Committee, other candidates floated by experts include propaganda chief Huang Kunming and the party bosses of Beijing, Tianjin and Guangdong, Cai Qi, Li Hongzhong and Li Xi respectively. Out of those, only the two Lis are not dyed-in-the-wool Xi men.

Beyond the top jobs, even more changes will take place. About half of the 25-member Politburo will be replaced and two-thirds of the positions on the Central Committee could switch hands over the course of reshuffle.

Of particular interest for the United States is who might replace Liu He, an important economic adviser who has been the main point of contact during U.S.-China trade negotiations. He Lifeng, head of the National Development and Reform Commission, the Chinese economic planner, is considered one likely candidate, given his experience governing areas with a focus on international trade and investment.

New positions for the current and former party bosses of Xinjiang, Ma Xingrui and Chen Quanguo respectively, will be closely watched by those concerned about a harsh security clampdown in the region under Xi. If Chen receives a promotion, that would be an official stamp of approval on his hard-line approach.

Analysts also debate whether China will appoint a new foreign minister to replace Wang Yi, who will be 69 by the time the meeting ends. Some argue that Wang is likely to stay on as an influential Politburo member even if he steps aside from the ministry role.

His replacement, if there is one, is likely to lean into China’s assertive foreign policy turn under Xi. One option is Liu Jieyi, current head of the Taiwan Affairs Office, the institution responsible for managing Beijing’s increasingly fraught relationship with Taipei. Another is current top vice foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu, who recently underscored the need for a “diplomatic struggle” to protect China’s interests. (The Washington Post)

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