China’s Xi Jinping walks out of Communist Party Congress with dominance
Updated October 23, 2022 6:06 a.m. ET
BEIJING — Chinese leader Xi Jinping emerged from a two-decade Communist Party congress stronger than ever after securing a third term as party leader and pushing all but his staunchest allies out of the picture.
On Sunday, Xi smiled as he led the group of newly selected men at China’s pinnacle of power – the Politburo Standing Committee – on a stage for the media. Xi was long expected to cling to power, but congress cemented his dominance with breathtaking clarity.
Xi Jinping surrounds himself with allies, a sign of his power
The other six men on the Politburo Standing Committee are all considered close associates of Xi. They worked with him in different parts of the bureaucracy and proved their loyalty.
Analysts say the lopsided composition upends a long-standing practice of balancing factions within the Communist Party’s political elite – and highlights Xi’s pure political muscle.
Four members of the former Standing Committee have retired to make room for new blood. Two had reached or passed the traditional retirement age of 68. But two did not have – and their release this weekend was a surprise.
Premier Li Keqiang, who was number two in the party hierarchy, and Vice Premier Wang Yang were expelled. Both are 67 and could have stayed under the party’s previous informal rules.
Party ideology Tsar Wang Huning, also 67, retained his membership in the Standing Committee. Wang is a trusted aide to Xi and is credited with helping to formulate Xi’s ruling philosophy. (Wang Huning and Wang Yang are not related.)
Another key promotion went to Li Qiang, who took the No. 2 spot on the Standing Committee. As Shanghai’s party leader, many believed Li’s chances of promotion had been shattered by the poorly planned and deeply unpopular COVID lockdown in April and May of China’s most cosmopolitan city. But the state media had rallied behind it, as a sign of support from above.
Li is set to become prime minister when parliament convenes in March.
“If Li Qiang becomes prime minister, which now seems certain, it clearly means loyalty is more important than performance,” said Tony Saich, an expert on China politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
“It is a testament…to the extraordinary dominance that Xi Jinping exercised over all congress proceedings,” Saich said.
Finally, Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, a two-time Politburo member once seen as a shoo-in for the Standing Committee, and possibly even a successor to Xi, was demoted. Hu rose through the political ranks in part through a patronage network — the Communist Youth League — which Xi largely neutralized. Hu was not re-elected to the Politburo.
The party charter has been amended
Amendments to the wording of the Communist Party charter have also boosted Xi’s strength.
The party congress added two obscure but important political ideas to the party constitution: the “two establishes” and the “two guarantees”.
The “established two” call on party members to recognize Xi as the “core” of the party and to regard his governing philosophy as a key tenet of party governance. The “two guarantees” require party members to protect Xi’s core status and preserve the party’s prominent role in China’s politics.
The congress also enshrined opposition and deterrence to anyone seeking “Taiwan independence”.
Taiwan has been self-governing since 1949, when Nationalist Party troops fled there after the Communist Party came to power. Beijing sees it as a part of China to be “reunited” with the mainland, by force if necessary.
“Reunification” is seen as a key part of Xi’s broad agenda to “rejuvenate” China into a strong nation. The inclusion of Taiwan in the party constitution underscores its importance.
Xi kicked the road in terms of succession
When Xi’s recent predecessors were in charge, party conventions were an opportunity to nurture young leaders to prepare themselves as eventual successors. Xi himself has taken this route to the top.
But he avoided the practice. In 2017, he failed to anoint a successor, and yet at this party congress Xi, 69, left few clues about his plans for eventual succession. None of the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee is young enough to be considered a true successor to Xi in five or ten years.
“Even a cursory glance at the Politburo…obviously doesn’t seem to indicate a person who is there to be a successor,” Saich said. “So it’s clear that Xi intends to rule. He intends to rule as a key figure. And that pushes any questions of succession into the unpredictable future. And for me, that can be destabilizing.”