Party leaders across China all have one date circled in their diaries. On 16 October, the top brass of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will come together in Beijing for the most important political event of the decade. The 20th party congress will be the public culmination of months of behind-the-scenes bargaining and horse-trading, offering a rare glimpse into the inner workings of elite Chinese politics.
This year sees the centenary of the first CCP congress – a secret meeting of less than a hundred party members in a rundown shikumen apartment in Shanghai. In the century since, the CCP has grown to nearly 100 million members and China has re-emerged as an undisputable global power – but secrecy still remains central to how its top leadership operates.
This means, just weeks before it starts, some major questions still hang over this year’s congress. Will mounting challenges threaten the “Chairman of Everything” Xi Jinping’s ability to secure a third term and stack key positions with loyalists? Who will succeed Li Keqiang as China’s second-in-command? Are we seeing an end to some of the party’s most entrenched norms? And most importantly, what will this new intake of leaders mean for China’s direction over the next five years and beyond?
Party congresses are the most significant event in the Chinese political calendar. At these twice-a-decade gatherings, all top-level party positions are reappointed, from the 400-odd Central Committee all the way up to the general secretary himself.
Central structure of the Chinese Communist Party
In theory, the very top jobs will be chosen by the hundreds of members of the Central Committee. In reality, party elites have already spent the past few months – if not longer – jostling for influence behind the scenes to ensure their preferred candidates come out on top. By the time the congress formally begins, the line-up of top leadership is likely to already be a done deal.
The congress is also a powerful reminder of the primacy of party over state. Xi’s power comes from his role as party general secretary, not as state president. And when China’s president and premier are formally inaugurated early next year by the state legislative body, the positions will invariably be held by the leader of the party and his second-in-command both of whom will have been appointed at this year’s congress.
Even below Xi, the officials appointed to the Politburo (24 men and one woman) and its exclusive seven-member Standing Committee – the party’s principal decision-making bodies – will be running the country, even if they are not given formal governmental roles. This means that, while we won’t see much in the way of explicit policy announcements during the congress, the officials that make it into the Politburo will be central in shaping China’s policy agendas for the next five years and beyond.
These appointments will also offer a rare peek behind the curtain of elite CCP politics. Which officials are snubbed and which are catapulted into unexpected promotions will offer an imperfect glimpse into the internal balance of power and perhaps even begin to answer the question endless op-eds have tried to address in recent months: is Xi Jinping really in trouble?
While Xi’s third term as general secretary looks more or less inevitable – the result of a decade spent personalising and centralising his power – there is still room for manoeuvre in the positions below him. The position of deputy in the Standing Committee, for example – and therefore the office of state premier – is up for grabs, as are sizable chunks of the Politburo, with more than half of its current members potentially slated to retire. It’s on these lower rungs where we will start to see the real test of Xi’s power.
Party congresses are never an open book, but the outcome is particularly hard to predict this time. In a typical year, we would expect to see Xi hand over the reins to a new general secretary after two terms in power, with appointments to other party roles dictated by a set of internal age norms for promotion and retirement.
But, as if the disruption to traditional succession patterns hadn’t made things complicated enough, the past year has also seen Xi’s leadership battered by what appears to the outside eye to be a perfect storm of crises – at precisely the point he’s asking his party to hand over even greater powers. These include:
Zero-Covid policy: There’s no exit strategy in sight for Beijing’s (almost) no-tolerance policy, which puts local-government budgets under unsustainable strain and risks stoking social discontent.
A beleaguered economy: China faces additional strain from a struggling real-estate sector (worth a staggering 29 per cent of GDP), a consumer-tech crackdown that wiped up to $1 trillion off companies’ values and nervous foreign investors who fear Xi’s “common prosperity” agenda might turn too redistributionist for their liking.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Beijing’s official policy of neutrality and its refusal to fully renounce its “friendship” with Moscow seems to have solidified the view of the US and many of its allies that China and Russia, as autocratic regional powers, are two sides of the same coin.
The conventional wisdom is that this must spell trouble for a man who has made himself synonymous with China’s new brand of assertive exceptionalism. As the congress approaches, the rumour mill has kicked into overdrive as commentators scour for evidence of a pushback against Xi’s centralisation of power. Everything from mask-wearing to travel destinations have been taken as proof of a potential rift between Xi and the traditionally more pro-market voices in the top leadership.
But outside observers need to be careful not to see what they want to see. In reality, there’s little chance that Xi won’t secure his third term. The past months have made clear that he retains his ironclad influence over the Chinese propaganda machine, while also manoeuvring allies like Wang Xiaohong into key security positions – historically the area he’s struggled the most to control. A slew of new books on Xi’s philosophy, sweeping new internal party regulations and a recent trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – his first time out of the country in two years – all point to a man who still feels very much in control.
None of this is to say there’s not real discontent behind closed doors, both over policy direction and – just as importantly – Xi’s consolidation of personal power. The problem is that Xi has succeeded in closing off many of the channels used to meaningfully express that discontent. But that’s exactly why it is crucial to look closely at an event on the scale of the party congress: it’s far from perfect, but there’s no better opportunity to gauge the state of internal party unity.
Xi – or indeed anyone looking to secure their influence – will have spent the past months navigating a complex process of institutional bargaining, governed both by formal rules and an even more important set of informal norms. It is these norms and traditions, more than any coherent opposition, that Xi will have to challenge if he is to successfully reshape the system even more to his liking.
An End to Factionalism?
Elite Chinese politics are highly personalised – knowing the right people and building the right networks are key to getting ahead. Personal connections such as shared hometowns or overlapping career experiences often tend to shape progression more than ideology or policy preference. Promising younger officials rely on the patronage of influential party elders to rise through the ranks, often bringing their own trusted associates with them in the process.
“Factionalism”, as this network-building is often referred to, can be a misleading term. From the 1990s onwards, Chinese politics were dominated by two such networks: the “Shanghai Clique” and the “Youth League Faction” with which Jiang and Hu, Xi’s predecessors, were respectively affiliated. But this wasn’t quite as adversarial as it sounds. The two operated on an informal power balance – a publicly acknowledged system of “intra-party democracy” and “collective leadership” – that ultimately tended to work towards the overall stability of the party.
Factionalism also wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all for career progression. Xi himself is a perfect example of how an official could rise through the ranks without a particular close-knit factional affiliation. In fact, Xi was selected as a compromise candidate, valued not just for his political pedigree but also for his lack of overt loyalties. In other words, there was no identifiable “Xi Jinping faction” to speak of.
However, now that he’s in the top job, the connections built up over a four-decade career have become far more prominent, allowing Xi to consolidate his authority. He has successfully (albeit not entirely) sidelined those traditional factions, instead installing close affiliates into key positions. At least 60 per cent of the current 25-member Politburo are known allies – and he will be hoping it’s even more post-congress.
All this means that, a decade into Xi’s rule, we need to be careful about how we talk about factionalism. For Xi, this congress is a chance to ensure that the “collective leadership” model really is a thing of the past, replaced instead by a system that incentivises and rewards loyalty to Xi and his ideals at all levels of the party – even as he runs out of direct associates to appoint to key positions. Despite the rumours, this congress isn’t about seeing whether a coherent opposition force will win out against Xi. It’s about how successful Xi will be in making loyalty to his vision of China the deciding factor for promotion.
Could This Be the End for Retirement Norms?
Factionalism isn’t the only party tradition that’s in doubt this year. Over the past few decades, top-level party appointments have traditionally followed the “seven up, eight down” norm. In other words, any officials aged 67 or under at the time of a party congress can be promoted, while anyone aged 68 or over is expected to retire. While never formally codified, this near-universally respected retirement ceiling was part of a suite of internal measures established in the late 1990s designed to ensure fairer, smoother power transitions.
These reforms also effectively segmented Chinese leaders into “generations” based on who was eligible for promotion – and when. Xi, for example, born in the 1950s, is a fifth-generation leader. If he hadn’t disrupted succession norms to seek his third term, we would expect him to hand the reins over to a sixth-generation leader, born in the 1960s, at the upcoming congress. That’s why it really is no exaggeration to call this congress a once-in-a-generation event.
But it’s long been clear that Xi, who hit the retirement age of 68 this year, intends to make an exception for himself. In late September – just weeks before the congress kicks off – a new set of internal regulations was released, scrapping any mention of age norms and instead stipulating that cadres’ suitability or promotion or demotion be evaluated against 15 largely subjective criteria, four of which focus on loyalty to the party leadership.
This, of course, lays the groundwork for some high-profile exemptions to the conventional retirement age of 68. These exemptions will likely still be selective, giving us an insight into not only Xi’s personal power but also his policy priorities. Liu He, for example, could be kept on not only because of his close personal relationship with Xi, but also for his extensive economic expertise and solid reputation among overseas investors. Similarly, 68-year-old Wang Yi, the current foreign minister, could fill the shoes of Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, to prevent a potential vacuum of foreign-policy expertise.
In other words, as the congress approaches, Xi has clearly swept away many of the obstacles he faced at the beginning of his rule. But it’s not quite as simple as stacking top positions with loyalists: as China faces an increasingly tricky economic landscape, there’s still a balance to be struck between allies and expertise.
While Xi’s third term may be pretty much a dead cert, the prospects for China’s number two are far less clear cut. Unlike the role of president, the role of premier still retains its two-term limit, meaning Li Keqiang, the current second-in-command, will be stepping down from the role early next year. But we won’t have to wait that long to find out his successor. Whoever walks out on stage immediately after Xi during the first plenum, held just after the congress concludes on 23 October, is almost certain to take up that role.
Li Keqiang’s successor will be chosen from an unusually crowded field of candidates. But it is not a case of Xi simply picking his favourite of the bunch; as powerful as he may be, Xi will still have to balance his personal preferences with deeply entrenched institutional norms, residual vested interests and, of course, the need for a government that is competently run.
Traditionally, there are three main boxes for a premier to tick – and no current candidate ticks them all.
Age: A premier should be able to serve two five-year terms before hitting the traditional Politburo retirement age of 68 at a congress. This means that potential candidates should be born after November 1959 (if age norms are observed).
Experience: Every new premier since Li Peng in 1987 has been chosen from the pool of incumbent vice-premiers.
Relationships: Patronage from party elders is key to rising up the ranks and, given Xi’s level of centralised control, we would expect a premier to have a close personal relationship with him.
The premier dilemma
By the usual standards of age and experience, Hu Chunhua is the natural candidate for the premiership. Hu is a current vice-premier and the youngest member of the Politburo at only 59. He also has a strong pedigree – having served as the party secretary of both politically important Inner Mongolia and economically important Guangdong. The problem is that he is not known to be close to Xi and was even nicknamed “Little Hu” for his association with former leader Hu Jintao.
But there’s no easy alternative for Xi either. If he is to overlook Hu, he will have to spend valuable political capital breaking either experience or age norms. Picking 70-year-old economy czar and childhood friend Liu He would mean breaking age norms, while promoting a younger acolyte like Cai Qi, Chen Min’er or Li Qiang would be the first appointment of a premier without previous experience as a vice-premier.
The recent regulations on cadre promotion would suggest that age rather than experience is the norm most likely to be broken, but this opens the door for even more candidates beyond Liu He. Wang Yang, for example, a former vice-premier and a current member of the Standing Committee, is currently young enough to serve only one term according to age norms. Han Zheng, the current first-ranked vice-premier who, at 68, has only just hit the traditional retirement age, is another potential pick.
It’s impossible to speculate with any real confidence in such a crowded field, but some things seem certain. Even if the next premier is not a close Xi ally it’s unlikely to significantly constrain Xi’s power. Hu Chunhua, for example, a protégé of Hu Jintao and Li Keqiang, has been lavishing praise on Xi recently, including a recent People’s Daily article which name-checked Xi more than 50 times. And even if these displays of loyalty are mainly just for show, Xi has progressively undermined the office of premier during Li Keqiang’s tenure to the point that any successor will struggle to use the position to challenge his authority.
It’s not only China’s number one and two who will be confirmed in October; significant chunks of the Politburo and the exclusive Standing Committee will also be reappointed. At least two of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee are slated to retire if age norms are respected – Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng – and it remains unclear whether Li Keqiang will keep his seat on the Standing Committee given that he is due to step down from the premiership.
That means that up to three seats on China’s top decision-making body could be up for grabs (unless, of course, the number of seats is increased or decreased; historically, the Standing Committee has ranged from three to 11 members).
Figure 3 – The current Politburo Standing Committee and top candidates
In the running for these coveted spots are at least ten current Politburo members who won’t have reached retirement age. These range from current provincial party chiefs like Li Qiang, Cai Qi, Chen Min’er and Li Xi, who have proved their administrative skills in important economic hubs, to those like propaganda chief Huang Kunming and Ding Xuexiang, Xi’s political aide, both in powerful central roles. There’s also always the possibility that a promising official could bypass the Politburo and be “helicoptered” from the Central Committee straight to the Standing Committee, just like Xi and Li Keqiang were back in 2007. The composition of the new members – especially the balance between those with real administrative credentials or those simply with the closest ties to Xi – will be among the best indicators of the extent of Xi’s personal influence.
The same is true in the wider Politburo, where eight out of the remaining 18 non-Standing Committee members are also slated to retire. If all retire according to the traditional age limit, there will be some big gaps to fill, including the director of foreign affairs (currently Yang Jiechi) – the top foreign-policy official – and the director of the National Supervisory Commission (currently Yang Xiaodu) – the top disciplinary official. If replaced, the profile and policies of their successors will be scrutinised to assess any changes to China’s policy direction.
Analysts will also rush to figure out the political loyalties of these new appointees. At the last party congress, ten of the 15 appointments had known personal ties to Xi, a signal of how successfully he had consolidated power in the previous five years and, at the same time, setting him up for five years of even greater control. This congress will be no different as China-watchers attempt to get to grips with the credentials and allegiances of a new generation of party leaders – one from which Xi’s successor may eventually be picked.
Current Politburo members by age
All this means that, despite some very real economic concerns and some less real speculation about political rifts, almost all signs from the party itself point towards Xi retaining his position as general secretary, successfully stacking key positions with allies and potentially even an elevation of his trademark “Xi Jinping Thought” to be on par with Mao Zedong’s political ideology.
Such an outcome would promise a doubling down on his ideology-heavy, politics-first brand of governance, characterised by assertive foreign policy, prioritising healthy growth over breakneck growth and an extension of the elements of the zero-Covid policy that lend themselves most to social control.
But even a “bad” outcome for Xi at the party congress – Xi loyalists retiring and a few more pro-market cadres gaining promotion into key positions – would not change the fact that the broad strokes of Xi’s policy agenda still enjoy wide buy-in among the top party leadership. Crafting a stronger national identity, spreading wealth more evenly and boosting self-sufficiency against an apparently hostile West will all likely remain cornerstones of China’s policy over the next five years.
Yes, some party stakeholders might prefer to tone down the most market-rattling elements of Xi’s “common prosperity” agenda, or baulk at a potential return to a Mao-era cult of personality. But ultimately, the party is interested in its own preservation above all else. And Xi, crucially, is not an autocrat in a vacuum. He is very much the product of a party that he has done a huge amount over the past decade to centralise and strengthen the overall political control of. That means that as long as stakeholders believe that his policies – however harmful to the country over the long term – increase the authority of the party, what we might perceive as policy mistakes are unlikely to translate into a fatal challenge to Xi’s legitimacy as leader. On everything from zero-Covid to Beijing’s approach to Taiwan, outside observers need to be careful of their own biases: what is read as a crisis in the West is not necessarily perceived as such in China.
Ultimately, we will have to wait until 23 October to see which cadres win promotion, which cadres are retired, and which norms are twisted, but once again it’s a brave person who would bet against Xi Jinping.
Lead Image: Getty Images