President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in decades, increased his dominance when he was named Sunday to another term as head of the ruling Communist Party in a break with tradition and promoted allies who support his vision of tighter control over society and the struggling economy.
Xi, who took power in 2012, was awarded a third five-year term as general secretary, discarding a party custom under which his predecessor left after 10 years. The 69-year-old leader is expected by some to try to stay in power for life.
On Saturday, Xi’s predecessor, 79-year-old Hu Jintao, abruptly left a meeting of the party Central Committee with an aide holding his arm.
That prompted questions about whether Xi was flexing his powers by expelling other leaders. The official Xinhua News Agency later reported Hu was in poor health and needed to rest.
The party also named a seven-member Standing Committee, its inner circle of power, dominated by Xi allies after Premier Li Keqiang, the No. 2 leader and an advocate of market-style reform and private enterprise, was dropped from the leadership Saturday. That was despite Li being a year younger than the party’s informal retirement age of 68.
Xi and other Standing Committee members appeared for the first time as a group before reporters Sunday in the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China’s ceremonial legislature in central Beijing.
The No. 2 leader was Li Qiang, a former Shanghai party secretary who is no relation to Li Keqiang. The holder of that post has since the 1990s served as premier, the top economic official. Zhao Leji, a member of the previous committee, was promoted to No. 3, which puts him in line to head the legislature. Those government posts are to be assigned when the legislature meets next year.
No sign of end to zero-COVID strategy
Leadership changes were announced as the party wrapped up a twice-a-decade congress that was closely watched for signs of initiatives to reverse an economic slump or changes in a severe “zero-COVID” strategy that has shut down cities and disrupted business. Officials disappointed investors and the Chinese public by announcing no changes.
The lineup appeared to reflect what some commentators called “Maximum Xi,” valuing loyalty over ability. Some new leaders lack national-level experience as vice-premier or cabinet minister that typically is seen as a requirement for the post.
Li Qiang’s promotion appeared to support that analysis because it puts him in line to be premier with no background in national government. Li Qiang is seen as close to Xi after the two worked together in Zhejiang province in the southeast in the early 2000s.
Li Keqiang was sidelined over the past decade by Xi, who put himself in charge of policymaking bodies. Li Keqiang was excluded Saturday from the list of the party’s new 205-member Central Committee, from which the Standing Committee is picked.
Another leader who left the Standing Committee was Wang Yang, a reform advocate suggested by some as a possible premier. Wang, 67, is below retirement age.
Other new Standing Committee members include Cai Qi, the Beijing party secretary, and Ding Xuexiang, a career party manager who is regarded as Xi’s “alter ego” or chief of staff. Wang Huning, the party’s chief of ideology, stayed on the committee. The No. 7 member is Li Xi, the party secretary since 2017 of Guangdong province in the southeast, the centre of China’s export-oriented manufacturing industry.
No women or ethnic minorities
None of the members is a woman or ethnic minority. The Central Committee includes 11 women, or about five per cent of the total.
Party plans call for creating a prosperous society by mid-century and restoring China to its historic role as a political, economic and cultural leader.
Those ambitions face challenges from security-related curbs on access to Western technology, an aging workforce and tension with Washington, Europe and Asian neighbours over trade, security, human rights and territorial disputes.
Xi has called for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and a revival of the party’s “original mission” as social, economic and culture leader in a throwback to what he sees as a golden age after it took power in 1949.
During the congress, Xi called for faster military development, more technology self-reliance and defence of China’s interests abroad, which raises the likelihood of further conflict.
The party has tightened control over entrepreneurs who generate jobs and wealth, prompting warnings that rolling back market-oriented reforms will weigh on economic growth that sank to 2.2 per cent in the first half of this year, less than half the official 5.5 per cent target.
Under a revived 1950s propaganda slogan, “common prosperity,” Xi is pressing entrepreneurs to help narrow China’s wealth gap by raising wages and paying for rural job creation and other initiatives.
Xi, in a report to the congress, called last week for “regulating the mechanism of wealth accumulation,” suggesting entrepreneurs might face still more political pressure, but gave no details.
“I would worry if I were a very wealthy individual in China,” said economist Alicia Garcia Herrero of Natixis.