Asia Society Policy Institute – Decoding the 20th Party Congress

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Decoding the 20th Party Congress

The 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will determine China S Leadership for the Next Five Years, and be A Defining Moment for Politics, Policy, and the World. This Website decodes the Black Box of Chinese Politics, the Party Congress, and the Domestic and Foreign Policy Impacts through A Ground Breaking Visualization Mapping Chinese Institutions, Key Individuals, Hidden Personal Connections,

Top Leadership


Leadership of the 96 Million Member Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is concentrated in the 25 Member Politburo, within which Real Power rests with the Seven Member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). In Today S China, however, Supreme Power Indisputably lies with CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping.

Following his Appointment as General Secretary at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, and Later Simultaneous Appointments as Chair of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and President of China in Early 2013, Xi has Rapidly Concentrated Power into his Own Hands. He has done so by having First Purged Many of his Internal Factional Rivals through an Early Anti Corruption Campaign and Subsequent “Party RectificationCampaigns, then by Centralizing the Decision Making Structure of the Chinese System away from State Institutions and into A Number of SmallLeading Groups” and Committees, nearly All of Which are Staffed by his Close Supporters and Chaired by himself. Xi has thus been Dubbed the “Chairman of Everything.”

Since his Rise to Power, Xi has had himself Declared China SCore Leader” and has Succeeded in EnshriningXi Jinping Thought” within the Chinese Constitution, Elevating himself to Nearly the Same Level as Mao Zedong within the CCP S Ideology and History. All This has Prompted Accurate Accusations that he has Established A Personality Cult and Effectively Implemented One Man Rule. Most Crucially, in 2018 he Succeeded in having the Two Term Limit for the Presidency Revoked. Originally Chosen to serve Two Five Year Terms, from 2013 – 2023, Xi Now appears Set for Reappointment for at Least One More Term, and Quite Likely Lifetime Rule. Securing this Reappointment is Xi S Overriding Political Goal for the 20th Party Congress of 2022, making it among the Most Consequential in Recent Chinese History.

However, while Xi S Continuation in Power is Nearly Certain, he also has Broader, and More Challenging, Political Objectives that he hopes to achieve. Namely, he wants to Maneuver the Appointment of as Many of his Factional Supporters and Close Protégés into Positions of Power and Influence (Particularly onto the Politburo) as Possible, paving his Way to Safely continue in Office Indefinitely. He may Not be Entirely as Successful as he D prefer, however, as Opposing Factions and Networks continue to wield Influence within the CCP despite Xi S Power. Among these are the “Shanghai Gang” of Former Leader Jiang Zemin and the Faction Associated with Former Leader Hu Jintao and the Communist Youth League (CYL), Currently Led by Premier Li Keqiang (N° 2 Leader on the PBSC). Personnel Selections made at the 20th Party Congress will therefore serve as A Barometer for the Continuing Extent of Xi S Power within the Chinese System, as well as help Foretell the Future Direction of Chinese Politics and Policy.

Inside the Black Box | Predicting the Next Top Leadership

Predicting the Composition of the CCP S 20th Politburo and PBSC is made Especially Challenging by the Uncertainty Surrounding What the Rules and Norms for the Selection of Candidates Actually are in the Xi Jinping Era. In CCP Politics, Rules and Norms have Always been Manipulated for the Purposes of Power, Meaning theRules of the Game have Always been Flexible at Best. But under Xi Adherence to Fixed Norms has been Further Reduced by his Centralization of Power.

For instance, even the Number of Seats on the Politburo and PBSC are Open to Change. the Current Total Number of PBSC Seats could be Enlarged from Seven to Nine, Reduced to Five, or Remain the Same. The Best Predictor is Likely Not Past Precedent, but Xi S Political Calculation regarding How Disruptive he can be and Whether it would be More Advantageous to have More Factional Allies in Positions of Power or Fewer Potential Future Rivals. This Analysis makes A Conscious Assumption that the Size of the PBSC and Politburo Probably will Not Change.

Another Important Norm that has Traditionally been Useful for Determining Composition of the Leadership, but Which is Now Open to Change, is the CCPS S Retirement Age Limit for Politburo Members. the So Called7 Up, 8 Down,” 七上八下, Rule, in which Leaders who are Age 67 or Below at the Time of the Party Congress are Eligible for Reappointment, while those Older than 68 must Retire. Xi is already set to break this rule, in that he is 69 years old, but intends to remain in office. But while this opens the door for him to make other exceptions, fully abandoning the norm would also eliminate a useful tool for Xi to remove older factional rivals and replace them with younger allies. We, therefore, expect this norm to largely be followed, with only a few isolated exceptions. In fact, it is even possible that the age limit could be lowered further.

Mostly absent from the selection of Politburo-level leaders is any substantial evaluation of policy or managerial expertise. This is not to say that it is entirely neglected; rather, expertise and merit comes to be mobilized as one of multiple bargaining chips in intense negotiations for positions, not only between but also within political factions. Similarly, disputes over differences in policy may play a role, if primarily for securing political advantage. Among these, policy disputes over China’s slowing economy, Xi’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and China’s increasingly tense foreign relations are the most prominent.

With these limitations in mind, we can nonetheless make several predictions about the composition of the next Politburo.

The Politburo Standing Committee Scenarios

At the Top Level of the Politburo, should the norm of age limits hold, two members of the Seven Member PBSC (Other than Xi Jinping) are set to step down: Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng. Li is a longtime friend and ally of Xi, but at 72 he appears certain to depart. Han, on the other hand, is a member of Jiang Zemin’s faction, so Xi would likely be glad to see him go. However, because this leaves four seats filled by members that Xi may prefer to see replaced with younger allies, there is A chance that the age limit could also be refined down rather than up, and some of those members of the “1955 Generation” (Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, and Wang Huning on the PBSC) also pushed to retire.

Regardless, One of Xi Jinping S Political Priorities is Quite Clear. Replacing Premier Li Keqiang with his Own Protege. The Replacement of Li as Next Premier is Now the Lynchpin of Xi S Gambit to Redistribute Power to his Advantage at the 20th Party Congress, making the Question of Who that will be the Most Pivotal Item to Watch.

In this Regard, we foresee Five Plausible Scenarios for the PBSC

Scenario (1)

Xi S Protégé takes the Premiership

In this scenario, Xi’s protégé Li Qiang, Current Shanghai Party Secretary and Politburo Member) or a similarly loyal dark horse ally wins the day. Li seems to be Xi’s first preference for Premier (leader of the State Council). However, Li’s competitiveness has been undermined by Shanghai’s serious and embarrassing difficulties in containing outbreaks of COVID-19 earlier this year. Should Li nonetheless take the position, it would therefore indicate that Xi remains in a very powerful political position. This could however increase the likelihood that Li Keqiang stays within the PBSC in the position of NPC Chairman, while Politburo member Hu Chunhua (who is part of Li’s CYL faction) might replace Han Zheng as Executive Vice Premier (#2 at the State Council), as something of a factional compromise. However, the CYL faction might not be powerful enough to maintain both Li and Hu in critical PBSC positions. Either way, one or two current PBSC members among Wang Yang, Wang Huning, and Zhao Leji would likely remain (possibly shuffling positions). There is also a fair chance, however, that an additional one or more of them might also retire and a Xi-loyalist like Ding Xuexiang, Huang Kunming, Li Xi, or Chen Min’er be handed Zhao Leji’s current position as head of the CCP’s feared internal anti-corruption force, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).

Scenario (2)

Wang Yang becomes Premier

In this compromise scenario Wang Yang (also connected to the CYL faction, if more loosely) becomes Premier. This would almost certainly squeeze Li Keqiang out of the PBSC and into retirement entirely. Younger CYL contender Hu Chunhua would also be kept out of the PBSC (as Xi would hardly allow two CYL members to dominate the State Council, unless he is far weaker than conventionally expected). In this scenario Li Qiang would likely take Han Zheng’s position as Executive Vice Premier, while one of Xi’s other protégés such as Ding Xuexiang, Chen Min’er, Li Xi, or Cai Qi would take over from Zhao Leji as head of CCDI. Zhao Leji and Wang Huning would each become head of one of China’s legislative bodies (the NPC and CPPCC), while another close Xi ally (probably Huang Kunming) would take over ideology tsar Wang Huning’s position as head of the Central Secretariat.

Scenario (3)

Han Zheng becomes Premier

In this less likely scenario, in which the age limit norm is abandoned, and Xi’s influence is revealed to be significantly more circumscribed, Han Zheng would remain on the PBSC and take the position of Premier, while Li Keqiang would also remain but become Chair of the NPC. Wang Yang would then likely also remain as Chair of the CPPCC, meaning two CYL faction members would make it onto the PBSC alongside Jiang Zemin’s man Han Zheng. Wang Huning would likely retire, and Zhao Leji would take his position. In this case, Xi’s protégé Li Qiang might still then become Executive Vice Premier, while other protégés like Chen Min’er, Ding Xuexiang, Li Xi, Cai Qi, or Huang Kunming would battle for the seat of CCDI head.

Scenario (4)

Xi Unbound

In this scenario, Xi S influence proves to be unconstrained and he takes full advantage to set up his ideal PBSC. Li Keqiang, Han Zheng, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, and Li Zhanshu are all replaced by younger, absolutely loyal Xi allies. Ding Xuexiang, Li Qiang, Chen Min’er, Huang Kunming, and Li Xi are all potential candidates here. Xi may also demonstrate some magnanimity under this scenario by promoting someone from another interest group, such as Hu Chunhua, to the PBSC. This scenario appears to remain relatively unlikely, but it is hardly impossible.

Scenario (5)

Packing the PBSC

In this wildcard scenario, the PBSC is enlarged from seven to nine seats. This seems most likely to occur if Xi is out-maneuvered and a non-Xi factionalist is set to become Premier, in which case Xi might push to expand the PBSC to compensate by creating new room for more factional appointments. Alternatively, Xi could receive intense pressure (including from his own allies) to set up a next generation of leadership by appointing a greater number of younger leaders to PBSC positions. In this case, Xi might choose to expand the PBSC rather than attempt to oust additional older members, making a strategic move to reward and temporarily satisfy his political base.

Competition for the Politburo

Below the PBSC, a total of nine Politburo members appear set for retirement if age limit norms are followed. Among these are several key policy figures who would need to be replaced, including Xi’s close advisor and “economy tsar” Liu He (see Economy and Trade analysis for more details), China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi (see Foreign Affairs analysis), security chief Guo Shengkun (see Security analysis), and both Vice Chairs of the Central Military Commission, Xu Qiliang and Zhang Youxia (see Military analysis). Among those who are not yet at the age ceiling, one or two (such as Chen Quanguo) might nonetheless also be pushed to retire.

Among those up and coming leaders within the Chinese system who will compete intensely to replace these individuals on the Politburo, three are particularly strong competitors

He Lifeng (born February 1955): Currently Vice Chairman of the CPPCC and Director of the National Development and Reforms Commission (NDRC), He Lifeng is the most likely candidate to replace Liu He as Vice Premier in charge of economic and financial affairs. With a degree in economics from Xiamen University, he began his relationship with Xi early in his career when they worked together in Fujian province. In the past five years he has been among the leaders who has notably accompanied Xi during nearly all of his domestic and overseas trips.

Miao Hua (born November 1955): Currently a member of the CMC and the head of the CMC Political Work Department, Miao is the most likely candidate to take the second-ranking position on the next CMC (after Xi himself) as the Vice Chairman in charge of political affairs, thereby joining the Politburo. He has long-running connections with Xi since they overlapped in Fujian early in their careers. Moreover, Miao served as Political Commissar of the PLA Navy before moving to his current position, and there is some evidence from recent promotions within the military to indicate a growing influence of the Navy within the PLA staff – further boosting Miao’s chances.

Ma Xingrui (born October 1959): The current Party Secretary of Xinjiang, Ma is an aerospace engineer who has previously served as party chief of Shenzhen and Governor of Guangdong. His experience increases his credibility in local governance. His hometown of Yuncheng, Shandong, is also the birthplace of Peng Liyuan, Xi’s wife, which might win him some extra credit.

Other Hopefuls Include

Yang Zhenwu, born May 1955. Currently Secretary General of the NPC Standing Committee, Yang may join the next Politburo as the #2 of the national legislature, succeeding Wang Chen as Xi’s top watchdog in the NPC leadership. Yang S Career is very similar to Wang’s (both are from the party-state media, and both served as publisher of the People’s Daily). Also like Wang, Yang’s relationship to Xi can be traced back to their early years, when Xi and Yang worked together in Hebei province. The NPC is not an insignificant body. There is a reason that Li Zhanshu, widely regarded as one of Xi’s closest political allies, was positioned to run it. Xi is now likely to prioritize an ally at the head of the NPC even over checking Li Keqiang’s power. As it is very possible that the next NPC Chairman is not a close ally of Xi’s, he will need to secure his own deputy there to run the NPC S daily operations; Yang is one of the best available choices in this regard.

Wang Xiaohong, born July 1957. Currently Party Secretary and Minister of Public Security, Wang recently gained concurrent appointment as Deputy Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Commission (CPLAC), the organization overseeing China’s entire legal-enforcement system, including the courts, the procuratorate, and the intelligence system. Wang is said to be among those most trusted by Xi, as their relationship can also be traced back to the local politics of Xiamen in the 1980s. Xi has made huge efforts since coming to power to tightly control the so-called “knife” of the party (the legal enforcement system), and Wang has been promoted quickly over the past ten years as a part of that push.

Chen Yixin, born September 1959, Currently Secretary-General of the CPLAC, and a close ally of Xi who worked alongside him in Zhejiang province (making him part of Xi’s “New Zhijiang Army” factional subgroup), Chen has like Wang Xiaohong (above) achieved rapid promotion under Xi’s push to control the security system. He is a very strong candidate to become head of CPLAC, with Chen and Wang potentially alternatives to each other as contenders for the Politburo seat. However, if Xi is powerful enough to send both into the Politburo then Chen might be transferred to another post outside the CPLAC system.

Xiao Jie, born June 1957, Currently State Councilor and Secretary-General of the State Council, Xiao is a former Minister of Finance with a close working relationship with Li Keqiang and career connections to the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao administrations. However, he shares an educational background with Liu He. Thus, he could emerge on the Politburo functioning as a factional compromise between Xi and Li, probably in the capacity of a Vice Premier.

Gong Zheng, (born March 1960, Mayor of Shanghai, Gong is rumored to be a brother-in-law of Liu He. Shanghai party secretary Li Qiang will almost certainly move to Beijing. Gong then has a very high possibility of becoming Shanghai’s next Party Secretary and thereby joining the Politburo.

Zhang Qingwei (born November 1961): Party Secretary of Hunan, Zhang is the most senior incumbent provincial leader nationwide, and a leading figure among those politicians with a military-industrial background – a group that has emerged as highly influential in the Xi era. However, the fact that Zhang’s major career advancements took place under Jiang Zemin may limit his trustworthiness, while other candidates represent more important localities. Ma Xingrui (above) and Lou Yangsheng (below) are probably more likely candidates for any seat he might take.

Lou Yangsheng (born October 1959): Party Secretary of Henan, with a background in Zhejiang working under Xi, Lou is the second most senior among the incumbent provincial party secretaries nationwide after Zhang Qingwei. His experience as party chief of two provinces (Shanxi before Henan) is unparalleled by his peers (other than Zhang Qingwei) and will give him a boost in reaching the Politburo.

Shen Yiqin (born December 1959) or Shen Yueyue (born January 1957): Traditionally, the Politburo has included only a single token female member, and this norm is likely to continue. Currently that member is Sun Chunlan, who will almost certainly retire. As there are very few female leaders at the top levels of China’s intensely patriarchal politics, there are very few candidates who could replace her. The most likely is one of the “Two Shens.” Shen Yueyue is the more senior, and worked in Xi’s powerbase of Zhejiang, but has a CYL background. This may make Shen Yiqin, the only female provincial party chief as Party Secretary of Guizhou, the stronger candidate. Shen Yiqin also has the advantage of having worked with Li Zhanshu in Guizhou, as well as being an ethnic minority (Bai), given that the almost entirely Han CCP also prefers to include token representatives of ethnic minorities in the Politburo. She lacks experience in national-level governance, however.

Liu Guozhong, born July 1962. Party Secretary of Shaanxi, and A Political Protégé of Li Zhanshu.

Zhang Guoqing, born August 1964. Party Secretary of Liaoning, former Mayor of Tianjin, and former Mayor of Chongqing. Based on a recent high-profile visit by Xi to Liaoning, he seems to have a higher than average chance to join the Politburo.

Hao Peng, born July 1960. Current head of the State owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, and former Governor of Qinghai, the power base of Zhao Leji.

Yin Li, born August 1962. Party Secretary of Fujian province, who has some connections through Xi S wife Peng Liyuan.

Dark Horse Candidates include

Jing Junhai, born December 1960 and Xu Lingyi, born April 1958. If Xi Jinping’s predominance during the selection process is exceptional, one or both of these candidates could be elevated to the Politburo. Jing is Party Secretary of Jilin province, while Xu is a Deputy Secretary of the Central Disciplinary Inspection Committee (CDIC). Jing is from Shaanxi, where he won favor with Xi by building a lavish tomb for Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping’s father. Xu, meanwhile, is one of Xi’s long-time subordinates in Zhejiang, and, due to his connection with Xi, has gained a reputation as a formidable discipline inspector.

Chen Jining,born February 1964 and Li Shulei, born January 1964 Chen is Mayor of Beijing and Close to Xi Jinping S Ally Chen Xi, while Li is Deputy Head of the CCP Central Public Relations Department and Rumored to have Once been Xi S Private Secretary. Both Young Rising Stars, their Inclusion on the Politburo would be A Long Shot, but is Possible if Xi decides to make Generational Change A Key Goal of reorganizing the Body.

Policy Implications

When it comes to Top Level Decision Making on Policy, including Choices on Strategy and Overall Direction, the Selection of the New Politburo will have A Relatively Limited Effect. At this Level, Xi Jinping will retain Final Say over Every Major Decision. However, More Fine Grained Decision Making on Policy Details and Implementation will be Directly Impacted by the Selection of Leadership Personnel.

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