...anything is possible given China’s political system and the absolute power exercised by the top political leaders. It would not be a surprise if some more tigers and flies fall from grace before the 20th National Congress. Moreover, since Xi Jinping is highly unconventional and has made no secret of his disdain for conventions in the Party, there could be many surprises!

At the close of the secretive Beidaihe meeting, Xi Jinping headed to the Liaoshen Campaign Memorial in Jinzhou on 16 August. Xi also had a meeting with the representatives of veteran soldiers and relatives of revolutionary martyrs and expressed his sincere solicitude to them. Xi’s visit must be viewed in context of the historic importance of the Liaoshen Campaign, which turned the tide of the Civil War (1946-1949) in favour of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and marked the beginning of the Kuomintang’s (KMT) ultimate downfall in mainland China. Xi Jinping spoke about the sacrifices of the people of the northeast in the Chinese revolution and emphasized that “we will never allow the country to change its colour” (我们决不允许江山变色). Besides, Xi also emphasized his staple topics of common prosperity, self-reliance and the Chinese dream. 

In an interesting move that went largely under-reported and under-connected, on the same day as Xi’s Liaoshen visit, Premier Li Keqiang headed to Shenzhen, the cradle of China’s reform and opening up, and paid tribute to Deng Xiaoping. Li Keqiang emphatically declared about reforms that “Yangtze and Yellow rivers will not flow backward”(长江黄河不会倒流). Such parallel visits by Xi and Li to memorials representing opposing focuses and historic instances has not only once again put both the leaders poles apart as far as debate over the future direction China will take is concerned, but also has given rise to speculations that “Li is likely to be promoted and Xi will not step down” (李上习不下). 

Such a deduction argues that after the 20th National Congress of the CPC, Li Keqiang could take over the post of general secretary and be in charge of the Party and the government, while Xi Jinping will still hold the positions of President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. A maneuver of this kind has precedence, as it would replicate the decision of the First Plenary Session of the Eighth CPC Central Committee, where Mao Zedong was elected as chairman of the Central Committee and Deng Xiaoping as general secretary. However, given Xi Jinping’s clout over the Party and the PLA, it remains wishful thinking. 

Nonetheless, such chatter does reveal the differences as regards to the Party’s “general line” (总路线) and the criticism Xi must have faced for economic misgovernance and the lingering dynamic Covid zero policy. The history of the CPC stands witness to the political struggles that resulted from differing perceptions on the “general line” of the Party – be it the Wang Ming-Mao Zedong showoff or that between Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping. 

In this backdrop, the third-term for Xi Jinping is very certain. However, it appears that there would be two-three changes in the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau if the age-limit convention, excluding for Xi (69), is followed. According to the rule of “seven up eight down” (七上八下) initiated since the 15th Party Congress, Li Zhanshu (72), and Han Zheng (68) should be stepping down at the 20th Party Congress. Li Keqiang (67), Wang Yang (67), Wang Huning (67), Zhao Leji (65) should continue.  

However, it is better to note that these are customs and conventions; there is no age limit written down in any official Party document, therefore, it would be the prerogative of the “core leader” on whom to retain and whom to exclude. According to this proposition, only two positions are falling vacant. The likely contenders are Hu Chunhua (59) and Ding Xuexiang (59).  In this scenario, Li Keqiang could be delegated to lead the National People’s Congress (NPC) or the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). His position is likely to be filled by Wang Yang or Hu Chunhua; however, from a two-term perspective for a premier, chances of Hu Chunhua look more promising. 

The above arrangement will still strike a balance between Xi Jinping’s faction and the Communist Youth League (CYL). Or, will Li Keqiang take retirement, as was revealed during the “Two Sessions” early this year? Will Xi Jinping agree to this kind of balance between his own grouping and the CYL? Or will he incorporate more of his loyalists like Chen Miner (62), CPC secretary of Chongqing, Li Qiang (63), Shanghai Communist Party chief, Cai Qi (67), CPC secretary of Beijing, and Li Xi (66), CPC secretary of Guangdong? 

Here again, Chen Miner and Li Qiang could be catapulted to the standing committee, if more than three positions are vacated, which appears to be a remote possibility. Therefore, from a futuristic scenario, only Hu Chunhua and Ding Xuexiang could be prepared for taking the mantle of the government and Party in the future. In case the standing committee is enlarged to nine members, Xi Jinping will have a better choice to incorporate his own loyalists from the Zhejiang-Fujian faction. 

As regards the government, it is perhaps too early to speculate. Liu He’s job could be delegated to He Lifeng (67), current Minister in charge of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). The void created by Yang Jiechi (72) could be filled by the seasoned Wang Yi (68) if the rule book is not followed, but the latter’s replacement is still anyone’s guess. Former Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng (59) was once considered as a strong contender; however, his pro Russia credentials have perhaps become problematic, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and hence was shifted to the National Radio and Television Administration. Nonetheless, he could be recalled to take up the mantle; if not, others in the line such as Liu Haixing (59), Liu Jianchao (58), Liu Jieyi (64) or even Qin Gang (56) could be called to shoulder the responsibility. It is largely believed that Ying Yong could be asked to lead the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the highest national agency responsible for legal prosecution and investigation.

Finally, anything is possible given China’s political system and the absolute power exercised by the top political leaders. It would not be a surprise if some more tigers and flies fall from grace before the 20th National Congress. Moreover, since Xi Jinping is highly unconventional and has made no secret of his disdain for conventions in the Party, there could be many surprises! As regards to what “banner” to hold and what “line” to follow, in all probability it will be along the resolution of the 6th plenum passed in November 2021. 


B. R. Deepak is Professor and Chair at the Centre for Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He was trained in Chinese history and India-China relations at the Peking University and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and University of Edinburgh, UK. He has been the Nehru and Asia Fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing. Dr. Deepak‘s publications include India’s China dilemma: The lost equilibrium and widening asymmetries (2021), India and China: Beyond the binary of friendship and enmity (2020), China’s Global Rebalancing and the New Silk Road (2018), My Tryst with China (2017), India and China 1904-2004: A Century of Peace and Conflict (2005), India-China Relations in the first half of Twentieth Century (2001), India-China Relations: Future Perspectives (co ed. 2012), India-China Relations: Civilizational Perspective (co ed. 2012) China: Agriculture, Countryside and Peasants (2010). Some of his translations from Chinese to Hindi and English include: China and India: Dialogues of Civilisations (2021) Parva (2020), Ji Xianlin: A Critical Biography (2019) The Four Books (2018); Core Values of Chinese Civilization (2018), The Analects of Confucius (2016), Mencius (2017), My Life with Kotnis (2010) Chinese Poetry: 1100 BC to 1400 AD (2011), a translation of 85 selected classical poems for which he was awarded the 2011 “Special Book Prize of China.” He writes “Eye on China” column for Sunday Guardian https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/user/b-r-deepak

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