Tonhe choreographed The Chinese Communist Party’s five-yearly congress has changed little in recent decades. It started with a bland, often incomprehensible report from the party secretary to the more than 2,300 party delegates present. During the week, the delegates shared their leader’s views and voted for a new Central Committee, made up of some 370 senior officials, military commanders and other important figures. It all culminated in a major revelation by the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top decision-making body. All in all, a pretty tedious affair. Still, this year has seen more drama than usual, including the mysterious departure of a former leader.
On October 23, it is not surprising that Xi Jinping led the seven members of the new Standing Committee to take the lead on the stage. He has made it clear that he intends to break with the recent norm of retirement and stay on as party general secretary and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He’s serving a third five-year term in both positions (he’ll be reconfirmed as state president at next year’s legislature’s annual session, possibly in March). In many ways, the convention showcased Mr. Xi’s power.
Mr. Xi’s status is beyond doubt, and all eyes are on the six people who follow him. In the past, members of the committee had ties to different factions within the party, leading to a collective style of decision-making. Those times are over. Xi Jinping dominated the previous Standing Committee. He almost owns this one.
Start with those who didn’t show up on stage. At 67, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, is just young enough to keep his seat on the Standing Committee. He was long ago seen as a possible candidate for the post Xi now holds. But he and Wang Yang, also 67, who was once seen as Li Keqiang’s successor, were fired. Two other members, Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng, who reached the normal retirement age of 68, were also dismissed. In their place were four people with ties to Mr. Xi.
The most famous of these is Li Qiang, a senior Shanghai party official and a protégé of Xi Jinping. He is expected to be appointed prime minister in March, although he has not served as deputy prime minister – a normal requirement of the job. Residents of Shanghai may view his promotion as an insult. Earlier this year, Mr Lee oversaw a chaotic months-long lockdown in the city to suppress covid-19. Still, Mr Xi has reasons to favor Mr Li: Mr Xi was chief of staff when Mr Xi was party secretary of Zhejiang province in the early 2000s. Mr Xi may also thank Li Keqiang for his firm stance during the coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai. The president has been a staunch supporter of China’s tough “zero coronavirus” policy.
Other newcomers to the Standing Committee are also close to Mr. Xi. One of them is Cai Qi, the party secretary of Beijing, who held a number of key positions in Zhejiang when Mr. Xi was in charge. Another is Li Xi, party chief of the wealthy southern province of Guangdong. His family is said to have decades of ties to Xi’s family. He is now the chief enforcer of party discipline. The third is Ding Xuexiang, Xi Jinping’s chief of staff.
Xi Jinping’s rule is built on the wreckage of the norms that once seemed to govern the party. By re-electing for a third term, he has defied expectations for a party leader to serve up to a decade, as his most recent predecessor, Hu Jintao, did. No new standing committee members have been considered as possible successors. It was also thought that officials over the age of 67 would not be able to hold top leadership positions. This is no longer the case. Xi Jinping is 69, and his new general, Zhang Youxia, is 72.
Changes to the party constitution, announced on the final day of the party congress, also bolstered Mr. Xi’s authority. These include new requirements for party members to protect Xi Jinping’s position at the “core” of the party’s leadership. Now, people describe him in only the grandest terms. According to a resolution passed by the National People’s Congress, Xi Jinping’s assumption of office “puts the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on an irreversible historical process”.
Exports that can be seen all over the world
But the most dramatic moment of the convention came at the closing ceremony, when Hu Jintao, who looked frail, was escorted from the venue. Hu Jintao, who had been sitting next to Mr. Xi, stood up from his chair with the help of two officials, looking confused and unwilling to leave. The other leaders sat impassive as he was ushered towards the exit. Hours later, Chinese state media reported that Mr. Hu, 79, was unwell.
Observers are divided on whether Hu Jintao’s departure has any connection to politics. But even if only related to health, his departure has an unexpected symbolic significance: The National People’s Congress has swept away politicians linked to Mr. Xi’s predecessor (including Hu Chunhua, who lost his seat on the Politburo). Xi Jinping is now surrounded by his own minions. His grip on power has never been tighter.■