THE QUINQUENNIAL CONGRESS of the Chinese Communist Party has, by recent convention, set the course of the Party’s future leadership. The 19th, just concluded, is no exception. The future leadership of the Party is for the foreseeable future, general secretary Xi Jinping.
Two signs of Xi’s sway are, first, that his ‘Thought’ has been written into the Party’s constitution by name. That not only elevates him to the level of Mao Zedong but makes any challenge to his authority a challenge to the Party as a whole. Second, he has been able to avoid installing a Politburo Standing Committee — the seven men (and it is all men, as seen above) at the apex of Chinese affairs — that contains any obvious successor.
That may be his most important achievement of all at the Congress. It avoids him being seen as a lame duck during the second of his two five-year terms as president, and leaves him the most flexibility in putting in place whatever arrangements he wishes for when that five years are up.
His options then are:
- to hand over the presidency to a loyalist who would perform the role as a ceremonial head of state (like a queen in a constitutional monarchy) while he exercises executive power from a post such as Party general secretary or head of the military commission (as Jiang Zemin did);
- to ensure that a hand-picked successor takes over the presidency and general secretary positions while he exercises control for behind the scenes as ‘core leader’ (as Deng Xiaoping did as ‘paramount leader’). That successor would be promoted from the Politburo without the customary five-year preparation period of being on the standing committee, though, as that is meant to be a time for the successor to establish his authority, that would not be needed as the authority would stay with Xi anyway;
- or he could baldly amend the national constitution to allow himself to continue as President for a third term.
In the meantime, Xi will embark on his second term with a Politburo standing committee that contains some allies but no fierce opponents, and all of an age at which they can have no expectation of taking the top job before they retire.
Five of the seven members of the previous standing committee have retired, leaving Xi and prime minister Li Keqiang as the only two carryovers. Among the newcomers, the two most important factions within the Party, Jiang’s Shanghai faction and the Communist Youth League of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, have got places at that highest of high tables, notably Han Zheng for the Shanghai group and Wang Yang for the Youth League, which can also count Li. But both factions have been considerably weakened by Xi’s anti-corruption-cum-political-purge campaign.
To say that Xi has established his own faction may be over egging the pudding. If he is at the centre of one it is the amorphous group known as princelings, which has many cross-overs with other groupings.
However, jockeying for power is part of the warp and weft of China’s elite politics. Xi now has two firm allies. One is his former chief of staff and long-standing associate, Li Zhanshu, who will head the rubberstamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, in which role he would be critical if Xi did want to amend the natonal constitution to permit a third term as president. The other is the former head of the Party’s Organisation Department, Zhao Leji, who will head the Central Discipline Inspection Commission in succession to Wang Qishan, who led the anti-corruption operations that were instrumental in consolidating Xi’s power.
Yet, apart from supporting Xi, the overriding characteristics of the new standing committee, however, is experience and competence. These are people who know how to run a large operations as well as operate at the highest levels of the Party.
Xi also knows the importance of snuffing out factional struggles. In Hu’s last term, Xi and Hu spared over how quickly the outgoing president would successively yield his Party, state and military offices as he attempted to cement his legacy and power behind the throne.
Below the standing committee, the 25-member Politburo is broadly pro-Xi. The same can be said for the 200-member Central Committee beneath them.
Perhaps most critically, Xi loyalists now control all the key provinces and provincial-level municipalities that matter — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Chongqing and Tianjin, for example, and those where the could be unrest, notably Xinjiang. The mountains may be high and the emperor far away, as the old proverb has it, but Xi has his loyalists in place to ensure there is no repeat of city bosses like the disgraced Bo Xilai and his recently purged successor Sun Zhengcai getting uppity.
Our man in Davos sent word of how he remembered seeing a somewhat hesitant Xi being unveiled to the world at a World Economic Forum meeting a decade or so back and contrasted that with the assured, commanding figure that was seen at the 19th Party Congress. This Bystander also remembers some words penned here about Xi back in 2012 just ahead of the 18th Party Congress that would bring him to power:
Cunning, calculating and ambitious Xi plays politics like a chameleon playing poker.
He has played a winning hand, and still holds most of the aces.