Geopolitics & Security

Friends in High Places: What We Know - and What We Don't - After Xi's Clean Sweep

Commentary11th November 2022

As the dust settles from China’s 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping has emerged triumphant. It’s not just a third term as General Secretary he’s secured, but a Politburo stacked with more loyalists than almost anyone expected. It was a show of strength that may have rattled markets, but also one that put those rumours of coups and rebellions firmly to bed.  

So what comes next for China? For now, Xi's focus seems to be continuity and consolidation. But as pressures at home and abroad continue to mount, the risk is that Xi’s clean sweep is setting the party up for trouble down the line. 

Loyalty, not convention, dictates who emerges on top 

Xi and his allies couldn’t have asked for a stronger showing. The unexpected retirements of Wang Yang and outgoing premier Li Keqiang, both associated with Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, mean all but one of the exclusive seven-man Standing Committee are now close Xi acolytes. And the only other – Wang Huning – has more than proved his credentials as China’s ideological architect-in-chief 

The same is true in the broader 24-member Politburo, where there was no hint of compromise in the 13 new members – mainly a mix of Xi’s direct associates and technocrats in areas that he sees as vital to China’s success in coming years. Just as striking were the absences: despite recent articles lavishing praise on Xi’s leadership, Hu Chunhua – nicknamed “little Hu” for his connection to Hu Jintao - was demoted from the Politburo. Even just days before the Congress, analysts still considered Hu, a competent and qualified administrator, a front runner for premier. 

Of these new top leadership picks, however, none is a clearer symbol of Xi’s power than the new premier-in-waiting Li Qiang, a true-blue loyalist whose ties with Xi stretch back two decades. This time last year, Li’s lack of vice premier experience – a role almost all of his predecessors have held - still would’ve made him a hard sell as premier. His role overseeing Shanghai’s botched lockdown earlier this year, so the conventional thinking went, should only have made him an even unlikelier choice.  

That means that Li’s appointment is a testament to Xi’s personal influence – and a sign of the new rules of the game. To an outside eye, Li’s lacklustre performance as Shanghai Party Secretary should have put him firmly out of the running to be China’s number two. To Xi, however, it proved his ability to follow the instructions of the centre, whatever the cost.  

But it wasn’t just Li Qiang that Xi was able to twist the norms for. This congress marked a definitive end to the inter-factional “collective leadership” model of Xi’s predecessors, Hu and Jiang, and paves the way for Xi’s type of people to succeed well beyond this Congress. The typical norms of Chinese elite politics – think retirement ceilings, power sharing, and experience requirements – aren't gone entirely, but they will take a firm back seat to a more nebulous system designed to reward duty and compliance. Going forward, expect loyalty - not convention – to be the primary criteria for success. 

A new type of technocrat is entering the spotlight  

In the rush to figure out friendships and fallouts between new appointees, it’s easy to forget the bigger picture: Xi still has a country to run. Yes, Xi has twisted the norms for his closest allies – making for an unexpectedly underqualified Standing Committee - but important exceptions have also been made in the rungs below that show there’s still a central role for technocracy and expertise. 

On the diplomatic front, for example, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who at 69 would usually have been expected to step down, looks set to instead take up the role of China’s top diplomat. Wang may not be a close Xi ally, but his promotion provides much-needed continuity – one of a number of signs that Beijing is likely to continue on a diplomatic path that is increasingly assertive to the global north, but increasingly engaging to the global south.  

Other key appointments hit the sweet spot of technical expertise and personal connection to Xi. Xi’s closest military confidante Zhang Youxia, for example, has been kept on as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission – despite being four years past the usual retirement age.  

But ultimately the pool of Xi’s direct allies is, of course, finite. As he enters his third-term, it’s those appointees without that personal connection who reveal the most about Xi’s priorities for China’s future.  

For all the talk of China’s consumer tech crackdown, for example, Xi is carving out a clear space for tech and scientific expertise in top leadership. Xi’s laser focus on building China’s critical tech capability is reflected in the line-up of his new Politburo. New recruits include an environmental engineer and two aerospace experts, part of a so-called “Cosmos Club”. 

But there’s more to these picks than their ability to deliver on China's technical priorities. Many rising political stars have been plucked from technical or military backgrounds outside a party apparatus traditionally rife with factionalism. For Xi, it’s not just their expertise that makes them valuable, it’s the fact they can better adapt to the values he is trying to instill across the party.  

It’s in this new generation of leaders where we can begin to see a new ideal for top officials taking shape: someone ideologically obedient, technically competent and - crucially – as divorced as possible from the messy system of conflicting loyalties and competing factions that Xi inherited from his predecessors.  

We know who came out on top, but not what will happen next 

The big question then is what Xi will do with his expanded influence. As always, it’s important to be careful about what we think we know – the fact that so few expected such a resounding success for Xi is a useful reminder of how much remains unknown in the black-box of elite Chinese politics.  

But it’s still worth exploring some of the biggest known unknowns. There are few bigger question marks than who comes after Xi – and this Congress provided very few hints. Xi’s pursuit of a third-term and centralisation of power have disrupted usual succession timelines. We’d usually have expected to see an heir apparent at the 2017 Party Congress, with power handed over this year. But instead, none of Xi's picks for the Standing Committee are young enough to be a credible successor, suggesting Xi is likely to aim to stay on for at least another decade. That means it’s likely from the generation below, where the field remains extremely crowded, that a successor will eventually be plucked from.  

Just as difficult to tell is where the so-called “Xi clique” go next. Xi’s clean sweep shows that he’s more or less seen off the influence of traditional factionalism but, as with anywhere, elite politics inevitably involves big egos. And Xi’s allies are by no means a cohesive group – these are relationships built up throughout various stages of his career, personal life and education. As this disparate group continues to climb the ranks in a system that thrives on patronage and personal connection, new groupings and centres of influence could start to emerge along these lines – or along new ones entirely.  

But by far the biggest unknown is how this new generation of leadership will grapple with the unenviable spread of challenges facing China. There are the headline issues, like a struggling real estate sector, a crackdown on big tech and - most pressingly of all – the apparent lack of exit strategy from Beijing’s zero-Covid policy. But there’s also things bubbling quietly under the surface, like soaring youth unemployment and growing local government debt, that will complicate things even further.  

It’s important, of course, not to underestimate the resilience of China’s top leadership. Time and time again, the party centre has proved remarkably adept at navigating challenges that external pundits have confidently predicted must spell disaster for CCP rule. But, facing mounting pressure on so many fronts, it’s hard to avoid the impression that at least something will have to give.  

This congress may have made clear that Xi faces no individual challengers to his authority, but circumstance – not specific opponents – may still force compromise on the finer details of his policy agenda. On zero-Covid in particular, Xi may soon feel the squeeze between spooked markets and, more pressingly, overburdened local governments struggling to finance the demands of mass testing and stringent lockdowns.  

Make no mistake, this Congress was a tour de force for Xi and a clear sign that, when it came down to it, what outside observers might see as bad for China is not necessarily bad for Xi himself – Xi's authority remains very much intact. But the next five years will see China enter unchartered waters, both across society as a whole and within the party itself. It’s not a stretch to think, without bold action from Xi, the next congress may well not be quite as seamless.  

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