Names to watch as Xi prepares for leadership change

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

Nicolas Asfouri | Afp | Getty Images

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

The ruling Communist Party of China is expected to begin its 20th National Congress, which is held 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 that Xi and his associates have and the president’s support for ideas, such as preferences for greater state control of the economy.

Xi, who is 69, is expected to further consolidate his power after serving as party chief for 10 years. Congress this month is expected to clear the way for him to stay on for an unprecedented third five-year term.

Chinese politics has always been opaque, but it seems as if no light escapes from 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.

“Chinese politics has always been opaque, but it seems as if no light is escaping from this black box,” said Scott Kennedy, senior adviser and chairman of the China Economic and Business Council at the Center for Strategic Studies and United States Internationals. .

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

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

Here’s what’s known publicly, and some of the names analysts are seeing in the upcoming shakeup:

Political structure

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

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

This committee then determines the core leadership: the Politburo and its standing committee.

The current Politburo, or politburo, has 25 members, including Liu He. Liu was in charge of trade negotiations with the US in 2020 and 2021. In China, he heads the central government’s financial stability committee.

However, Liu is not a member of the standing committee of the Politburo, 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 Chinese Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and President of China.

He is expected to retain the top two titles at this year’s party congress. State positions 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 observed changes in the political reshaping is the future of Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who turned 67 this year.

Although top-level economic policy in China is largely defined by members of the Politburo, Li has been an official face and leader of implementation in his role as prime minister and head of the State Council, the highest executive body of China.

He told him in March that this year is his last as prime minister, a post he has held since 2013. However, he could remain a member of the standing committee, JPMorgan analysts said, pointing to a precedent in the 15th congress of the party

The economic legacy of the Chinese Communist Party explained

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

All but the first premier of modern China previously served as vice premiers, JPMorgan analysts said.

The current vice premiers are Han Zheng, Hu Chunhua, Liu He and Sun Chunlan, the only woman in the Politburo.

“Who becomes prime minister actually sends a signal about Xi Jinping’s primary need, or his political and policy consideration,” Brookings senior fellow Cheng Li said Tuesday at a talk hosted by the think tank.

He named four Politburo people who could join or remain in the standing committee and have a chance to replace Li Keqiang as premier.

  • Han Zheng — Han is a member of the standing committee Becoming prime minister would reflect “the continuity of politics,” Brookings’ Li said.
  • Hu Chunhua — Hu has close ties to Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Promoting him would mean “unity of leadership” with Xi appointing people from outside his faction, Li said.
  • Liu He — Liu studied at the Harvard Kennedy School in the 1990s. Most recently, he led the Chinese delegation in trade talks with the US and has spoken several times with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. If Liu were to become prime minister, it would be because of his “international popularity,” according to Li.
  • Wang Yang: Wang is a member of the standing committee and was vice premier from 2013 to 2018. He is known to be market-oriented, and selecting him as premier would reflect a “drastic political shift,” Li said.

Among Xi’s loyalists…

Analysts at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s China Analysis Center posited another scenario in which Xi protégé Li Qiang, Shanghai Party secretary and Politburo member, could become prime minister .

Other loyal Xi allies that analysts named include:

  • Ding Xuexiang: Politburo member and “essentially Xi’s chief of staff as well as responsible for his personal security, meaning he is among Xi’s most trusted circle,” the Asia Society report said.
  • Chen Min’er: Politburo member and party secretary of Chongqing Municipality, a job he got with Xi’s “abrupt dismissal” of the previous secretary, the Asia Society noted.
  • Huang Kunming: Politburo member and head of China’s propaganda department, who worked closely with Xi in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, according to the report.

Foreign Policy: China-US Relations

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Liu Jieyi “seems more likely to succeed Yang” as director of foreign affairs, 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. That experience “would suggest that Beijing will improve its diplomatic approach to global governance reform and deter ‘Taiwan independence,'” Thomas said.

At 64, Liu is “the most senior diplomat not to retire,” the Eurasia Group said in its report, although it noted “rumors” that Foreign Minister Wang Yi could succeed to Yang.

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

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

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

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

All eyes on Xi’s successor

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

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

The threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s power, he said, “will be succession battles as a result of Xi’s personalist rule.”

In the “best case scenario”, China will be able to remain stable under Xi’s rule until 2035, he said.

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

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