Xi’s Loyalists: A Breakdown of China’s New Leadership

By Rahul Karan Reddy and Omkar Bhole;

The Communist Party of China (CPC) unveiled its new Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and Politburo (PB) on October 23rd, ushering in an important leadership transition at the highest levels. Although it was no surprise that Xi Jinping was reappointed as the General Secretary of the CPC, new appointments to the PSC and PB confirm his dominance in China’s elite politics. The membership and composition of these leadership bodies is certain to condition policy implementation and ideological/political correctness of the Party. Most importantly, the new PSC and PB ensure that Xi’s vision for China remains the singular guiding principle at least for the next five years.

The Politburo Standing Committee, unveiled after the 20th Party Congress, was based on a selective application of the age-limit custom. Only 2 members of the previous PSC retained their seats: Zhao Leji and Wang Huning. Members of the previous PSC like Li Keqiang and Wang Yang were moved out in spite of being eligible to serve one more term. The new entrants share close personal and professional relationships with Xi Jinping: Li Qiang, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi. They have transformed the composition of the PSC, completing the dismantling of the collective leadership system, characterised by a balance between factions at the highest level. No new members of the PSC are from a rival faction and members with affiliations to rival factions like Hu Chunhua were removed from the Politburo as well.

Composition of Politburo Standing Committee

The new PSC is stacked with Xi’s loyalists, members of the Party who have worked with Xi in the past and have a track record of loyalty to him. Interestingly, Li Qiang, the candidate for premier, was a Communist Youth League (CYL) leader in Xincheng district and a cadre in Rui’an County between 1982 and 1984. More importantly, he worked with Xi Jinping in Zhejiang as his chief of staff between 2004 and 2007, and demonstrated loyalty through his implementation of the zero-COVID policy in Shanghai, executing orders from the Party centre and weathering criticism over Shanghai’s response to COVID-19. Expected to take Li Keqiang’s place as Premier in March 2023, Li Qiang owes his political promotion to Xi Jinping, lacks national level leadership credentials and his management of the COVID outbreak in Shanghai puts him firmly under the control of Xi. Although Li Qiang has a record of developing coastal regions through economic openness and reform, his influence on long-term economic policy will be severely limited, further weakening the role of Premier under Xi.

On the other hand, some analysts describe Li Qiang as a pragmatic and business-friendly leader with a record of working closely with business leaders and executives during his time as Party Secretary of Jiangsu and Shanghai. During his time in Shanghai, he established the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s Science and Technology Innovation Board (STAR Market) and oversaw the construction of the Tesla Gigafactory. As governor of Zhejiang in 2015, he oversaw the implementation of the ‘characteristic towns’ (特色小镇) platform by developing the competitive characteristics of towns with an entrepreneurial atmosphere, industrial ecosystem, desirable scenery and liveable environment. Li’s track record offers some hope that China’s next premier is reform minded and supportive of private businesses, foreign capital and integrated development.

PSC appointments of Li Xi and Cai Qi surprised analysts who expected Xi Jinping to maintain some degree of collective leadership by promoting Hu Chunhua or Chen Quanguo, who have CYL connections. Li Xi, promoted to the PSC and appointed head of the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), has strong ties with Xi Jinping and their personal relationship has been well highlighted by state media. He has worked in Shaanxi and as Party Secretary of Yan’an he designated Liangjiahe village as a “model village”, the place where Xi Jinping worked as an agricultural labourer in his youth. Besides his relationship with Xi Jinping, Li Xi has extensive provincial leadership experience and as Party Secretary of Guangdong he has developed experience in economic affairs as well. Similarly, Cai Qi shares a strong relationship with Xi Jinping and like Li Qiang, owes his political rise to Xi Jinping. He worked directly under Xi in Fujian for 15 years and in Zhejiang for 5 years, earning him four promotions in the last four years.

As the Party Secretary of Beijing, Cai Qi is credited with the establishment of Xiong’an special economic zone and was responsible for hosting the Beijing Winter Olympics, high-profile responsibilities that indicate his proximity to Xi Jinping. Ding Xuexiang, the other official promoted to the PSC at the 20th NPC also has a past personal relationship with Xi. He was made Secretary General of the Shanghai municipal Party Committee by Xi Jinping when Xi was Party Secretary of Shanghai. Ding was promoted by Xi Jinping once again in 2013 to the position of Director of the General Office of the Central Committee and has been Xi Jinping’s personal assistant since 2013. Ding Xuexiang, Cai Qi and Li Xi’s promotions reveal the primacy of personal relationships with Xi Jinping over other factors in determining political promotions.

Composition of Politburo

The size of the 20th Politburo has been reduced from 25 to 24 members for the first time. Based on the age restriction of 68 (八下七上), it was expected that 11 Politburo members would be retiring from 19th Politburo. 10 of these members retired with the exception of Zhang Youxia. However, four other members – Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Hu Chunhua and Chen Quanguo, were removed from Politburo despite not reaching the age limit. They were connected with the Communist Youth League, which explains their removal from the Politburo by Xi Jinping. The 20th NPC has almost completely ended the existence of the CYL faction at the highest level of elite politics in China. Amongst CYL members excluded at the 20th NPC, Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua’s removal is quite surprising for many considering his efforts to signal loyalty towards Xi Jinping in recent times.

Moreover, three officials older than 68 have made it to the Politburo, defying the age limit norm. These members are – Xi Jinping (69), Zhang Youxia (72) and Wang Yi (69). While Xi Jinping and Zhang Youxia have retained their positions in the Politburo, Wang Yi, China’s Foreign minister was promoted to the Politburo and is almost certain to replace Yang Jiechi as the Director of Central Foreign Affairs Commission, the highest diplomatic position in China. The appointments indicate that the age limit norm has been selectively applied while making appointments to the Politburo and PSC. From a policy perspective, leadership turnover at the 20th NPC suggests that China’s defence and foreign policy will seek continuity while cultivating the potential to become sharper and more assertive in the coming years. In the case of military policy, the appointment of new CMC Vice-Chairperson He Weidong (also part of Politburo) who has previous experience as Commander of Western (2016-2019) and Eastern Theater Commands (2019-2022), highlights the PLA’s emphasis on Taiwan and India policy. 

Another striking feature of the 20th Politburo is the absence of female representation. Sun Chunlan, China’s Vice-Premier and the only female member of the 19th Politburo was retired at the 20th Congress. Surprisingly, none of the 11 eligible females from the Central Committee replaced her, making the Politburo an ‘all-men’ body for the first time since 1997. This has hollowed out Xi’s claim of promoting gender equality in China, which was made in the work report delivered at the 20th Party Congress. This development at the highest level of the Party is sure to influence policy ideation and implementation in areas like marriage laws, three-child policy, etc. 

Technocrats forms an integral part of Xi’s new team as seven out of 24 members have an education in STEM fields. Even though it is similar to the technocratic representation in 19th Politburo, it signifies that Xi believes in technical experts to carry out China’s policies aimed at achieving self-reliance. Two of these technocrats – Ma Xingrui and Yuan Jiajun, have aerospace expertise whereas Li Ganjie and Chen Jining are environment experts. Other technocrats come from health, manufacturing and trade sectors, implying Xi’s priority areas in the coming years.  

In terms of China’s economic policies, it is clear that the Zero-Covid policy is here to stay and will continue to hamper economic recovery. Moreover, China’s current economy team, consisting of Premier Li Keqiang and four Vice-Premiers, Central bank Governor Yi Gang and banking regulator Guo Shuqing have all been excluded from Politburo membership. Members of the new economy team are certain to demonstrate their commitment to Xi’s economic ideology and can be expected to make policy changes based on Xi’s economic preferences.

Another interesting trend observed in new Politburo is that 11 out of 24 members have previously served as provincial party secretaries. Most of these provinces are located in Eastern China which indicates Xi’s preference for administrators from these well-developed coastal provinces. Very few non-coastal provinces like Shaanxi, Chongqing and Xinjiang have been represented in Politburo through their Party secretaries. Of these appointments, Liu Guozhong (Shaanxi Secretary) and Ma Xingrui (Xinjiang Secretary) are technocrats and thus, are likely to have earned their Politburo seat whereas Chen Min’er (Chongqing Secretary) has always been in Xi’s close circle since Zhejiang. These appointments underline the importance of the provincial party secretary position in Chinese politics as a channel for political mobility. The trend will help to predict future changes in Xi’s team based on party secretary appointments in these provinces.

Overall, Xi’s new leadership team underlines the importance of having a personal or professional relationship with Xi Jinping in the past. It significantly enhances prospects for promotion and assures the top leader of loyalty, reliability and competence. Although Xi Jinping runs the risk of surrounding himself with yes-men, the new leadership team also confirms Xi’s complete control over the Party and the diminished influence of rival factions who no longer enjoy representation at the highest levels of the CPC. This will have far-reaching implications on China’s policymaking in the coming years.

Rahul Karan Reddy is an international relations analyst with a Masters degree from O.P Jindal Global University in Diplomacy, Law and Business. He is the author of ‘Islands on the Rocks’, a monograph detailing the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan. His research focus is China and East Asia. He was a research analyst at the Chennai Center for China Studies (C3S) and an intern at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), writing articles and reports on China’s foreign policy and domestic politics. His blog, Asian Drama, follows the rise of India and China as they navigate the Asian Century.

Omkar Bhole is a Research Associate at Organization for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). He is a Chinese language student and completed Masters in China Studies from Somaiya University, Mumbai. He has completed the HSK 4 level of Chinese language proficiency and works as a Chinese language instructor. His research interests are China’s foreign policy in Asia, China’s economic transformation and China’s domestic politics. He has previously done an internship at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS). He has also presented a paper at the 1st All India Conference of East Asian Studies. He can be reached @bhole_omkar on Twitter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *