Significance of the 20th NPC

The 20th Party Congress is about institutions as much as it is about one individual. The composition of the 20th Central Committee will determine the character of China’s highest decision-making bodies, revealing the balance of power between factions, organisations and ideologies within the Party that will influence China’s most important institution and its decisions. The 20th Party Congress is likely to further tip the balance in favour of Xi and his allies within the Party, making it relatively easier to devise and execute policies that align with Xi’s vision for China’s future. This could also mean the distinction between functions of the state and party are blurred further, eroding the authority of state agencies in favour of Party organs.

The importance of the 20th Party Congress cannot be understated given the generational transition set to occur within the Party. The high replacement rate of personnel will open up leadership positions to a younger generation of CCP members. Party members born in the 1960s, who constitute 40% of the current Alternate CC are likely to become a significant part of the Full CC, which is currently dominated by members born in the 1950s (74%). Crucially, appointments made at the Party Congress will reveal the readiness of the Party Center to strike a balance between introducing new blood into the Party and retaining senior personnel at the highest level. 

Another factor that lends importance to this Party Congress is the dent to the trend of institutionalisation, particularly in the succession process that governed leadership transitions in China over the last four decades. The informal succession process initiated by Deng Xiaoping to formalise leadership transitions at the highest level was brought into question as a result of Xi Jinping’s decision not to declare a successor in 2017 (“No Heir Declared”). The absence of an appointed successor has thrown into question the stability derived from having an established and acknowledged process to guide the Party and cadres through a leadership transition. 

This Party Congress will also continue to make departures from its initial composition and stated representativeness. Since Jiang Zemin’s announcement in 2001 to accept private businessmen into the Party, party organs like the Central Committee have gradually reflected the importance of businessmen and capitalists with experience in the private sector and capital markets. The new Central Committee will continue to include party members with experience in private businesses and international trade, along with personnel with expertise in certain key sectors like aerospace and financial markets. 

Least Likely Outcomes of NPC

1.  Expansion/Contraction of the PSC

The size of the PSC is an indication of Xi Jinping’s power within the Party, hinting at the degree of centralisation. The highest decision-making body has ranged from 5 to 9 members and is currently composed of 7 members. There is the possibility that the PSC expands or contracts. A larger PSC of nine members is relatively more prone to fractures and reflects a weaker leadership constrained by multiple competing interests and factions. However, some scholars argue that it would allow Xi to incorporate more loyalists into the PSC. The PSC was expanded from 7 to 9 members in 2002 by Jiang Zemin, apparently to stack the body with his allies and exercise influence over Hu Jintao’s authority and ability to make policy. On the other hand, a smaller PSC of 5 members reveals a greater centralisation of authority, unhindered by competing factions or dissenting voices. If the PSC contracts at the 20th NPC, it is a clear signal that Xi Jinping has been successful in consolidating power and will face fewer checks on his power and ability to make policy until 2027. However, it is most likely that the PSC retains its current composition of 7 members.

2.  Change in Xi Jinping’s Titles

Speculation and rumours surrounding Xi Jinping’s future as General Secretary suggest that Xi could restore the title of Chairman of the Communist Party Central Committee, the highest authority in the party, state and military. The title was held by Mao Zedong for three decades from 1945 to 1976 and passed on to Hua Guofeng and Hu Yaobang, until it was abolished by Deng Xiaoping in 1982. Reviving the position of Chairman, which has no fixed term limits, would require amending the Party Constitution and reignite concerns about the cult of personality that characterised Mao Zedong’s rule. This move seems unlikely given that Xi Jinping can continue to wield power without altering the status quo and without risking controversy that would arise with the revival of the Chairman position.

Another possibility, based on speculation and rumour, is that Xi holds on to the CMC chairmanship position and installs an ally as General Secretary, although this is highly unlikely given the absence of a candidate suitable for the position of General Secretary. Some voices in Chinese social media and academia predict that Li Keqiang might become the General Secretary while Xi remains President and CMC Chair. Although this seems unlikely given Xi Jinping’s power in the Party, Li Keqiang’s appointment as General Secretary and Xi’s recession from power would reveal opposition to Xi’s personalistic style of rule from within the Party.

3.  Appointment of a Successor

Most analysts are silent on the possibility of a successor to Xi Jinping. Following past practice, Xi should have designated a successor in 2017 who would be groomed for the top position over the next 5 years. It is unlikely that Xi Jinping appoints a successor to the PSC in 2022, though it is a remote possibility. Any appointments to the PSC in 2022 could be considered potential successors depending on their leadership credentials and age. If the newly appointed members to the PSC are limited in their leadership qualifications, they are unlikely to be considered successors to Xi Jinping. The potential successor would also have to be around 10 years younger than the age limit of 68, young enough to serve one term on the PSC and two terms as General Secretary. Declaring a successor would make Xi Jinping less influential and threaten his position in the Party, which is why he is unlikely to declare one at the 20th Party Congress. Also, it would expose the successor apparent to intense scrutiny and political manoeuvring over the coming years.

4.  Li Keqiang Moved out of PSC

A telling sign of Xi Jinping’s power within the Party is if Li Keqiang is forced into retirement at the 20th Party Congress. Li Keqiang is young enough to serve another term on the PSC even though he will retire in March 2023. It is likely that Xi Jinping replaces Li Keqiang on the PSC with an ally, taking the number of vacancies in the PSC from two to three. Moreover, if Xi Jinping appoints Hu Chunhua to the PSC, it could come at the cost of Li Keqiang’s place as Xi would like to have either Li or Hu on the PSC knowing that Hu Chunhua is a Hu Jintao protegee, just like Li Keqiang.

5.  Wang Yi Moved into Politburo

Yang Jiechi is set to leave the Politburo and his replacement could be Wang Yi, who is 68 and expected to retire from the Central Committee. However, it is possible that Wang Yi is promoted to the Politburo if Xi Jinping decides to make an exception to the retirement age norm. Such a move could be driven by the challenges facing China on the foreign policy front: war in Europe and tensions over Taiwan. Wang Yi’s experience and contacts could be considered invaluable at a time when cross-strait relations become prominent.

6.  Factional Balance

The gradual consolidation of Xi Jinping’s power within the Party since his appointment in 2013 has resulted in a shift from the collective leadership model to the core leader model. As core leader, Xi has diminished the power of rivals and factions within the Party by appointing his allies and clients to the PSC and Politburo. The current PSC is slightly balanced in Xi’s favour and nearly 60% of members in the current Politburo have direct ties to Xi. Xi is likely to install more allies to the Politburo and even bring in allies from outside the Alternate Central Committee or even from outside the Central Committee, like he did at the 19th Party Congress with Cai Qi and Yang Xiaodu. Given the presence of several Xi allies in the Politburo and their inevitable appointment to the PSC, it is likely to firmly establish the core leadership model.

7.  Inclusion of Women and Ethnic Minorities

No woman has ever served on the PSC and the current Politburo has only one female candidate, Sun Chunlan, who is past the retirement age and expected to retire at this party congress. There is only one female candidate that appears eligible to join the Politburo, Chen Yiqin, Party Secretary of Guizhou. There are nine female Full members of the Central Committee and according to Cheng Li, all of them are past the retirement age or have been moved into ceremonial roles already. The prospects for women and ethnic minorities are not promising at this Party Congress. However, it is likely that at least one female candidate is appointed to the Politburo.

8.  Retention of Senior Leaders

The retention of senior leaders appears unlikely at this Party Congress. At the previous Party Congress in 2017, it was expected that Xi’s close ally, Wang Qishan, would be given another term on PSC in spite of being older than 68 at the time. However, Wang Qishan was moved out of the PSC and made Vice-President of the PRC, without violating the custom of age-limits. Although the Party has indicated that age will not be the only consideration for the appointment of officials at the 20th Party Congress, it is not likely that any exceptions would be made apart from Xi Jinping. Members of the PSC like Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng, who are older than 68 are not likely to receive an extension. Similarly, Xi closest allies on the Politburo, like Liu He, are also likely to be retired at the 20th Party Congress.

Predicting Personnel Appointments

The following section is an assessment of the candidates eligible for retirement and promotion in the PSC and Politburo. There are multiple possibilities for each available spot on the PSC and Politburo and the subsequent section will detail the justification for the promotion of potential candidates on the basis of the methodology outlined above.

PSC Retirements

There are 2 candidates, based on age, scheduled and highly likely to retire in October at the Party Congress: Li Zhanshu (71) and Han Zheng (68). Also, as assessed above, there remains a remote possibility that Li Keqiang is replaced on the PSC.

Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng are both expected to move out of the PSC due to their age, opening up two seats in the PSC. Li Zhanshu is the Chairman of China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress, and will likely compete with Liu He for the post of Vice-President of PRC. Han Zheng is the first ranked Vice Premier and heads the Central Leading Group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs. He is likely to retire due to his age. Both PSC members are close associates of Xi Jinping and in charge of important positions in the Party. Han Zheng, for example, backed Xi Jinping to succeed Chen Liangyu as Party chief of Shanghai in 2006 when Han was mayor. Similarly, Li Zhanshu was director of the General Office of the Central Committee, playing an important role in the anti-corruption campaign.

Promotions to PSC

There are four candidates that seem likely to receive promotions into the Politburo Standing Committee: Hu Chunhua, Ding Xuexiang, Li Qiang and Chen Min’er.

Hu Chunhua

Hu Chunhua is third ranked vice-premier and is one of two eligible candidates (other candidate is Wang Yang) to succeed Li Keqiang as Premier, having served one term as Vice-Premier. Popularly known as “Little Hu”, indicating his proximity to Hu Jintao, Hu Chunhua is from the CYL faction and has worked with Hu Jintao when Hu Jintao was Party Secretary of Tibet. However, Hu Chunhua has recently signalled his political loyalty to Xi Jinping, indicating his ambitions for higher office. In an op-ed on agriculture and rural issues, Hu mentions Xi’s name 50 times, a signal of his political loyalty to the Party core. He is a promising candidate due to his administrative and leadership record, given his experience as Party Secretary of Guangdong and Inner Mongolia and his role in the CCP Leading Small Group for Rural Work. As Vice-Premier and one of Li Keqiang’s four deputies, he is in charge of the Agriculture, Water, Culture and Tourism portfolios. Crucially, Hu is in charge of poverty alleviation efforts, one of ‘three critical battles’ that Xi Jinping has outlined. More recently, Hu Chunhua has spoken on issues related to the economy, finance, free trade and foreign investment, perhaps an indication that he is being prepared for the office of Premier.

As Li Keqiang’s deputy since 2017, Hu is considered Li Keqiang’s first choice for PSC promotion and Premier. It is also likely that Hu Chunhua’s promotion has Xi Jinping’s approval given the extensive exposure given to Hu Chunhua by state media. Xi’s decision to appoint Hu Chunhua would be welcomed by the Party given Hu’s qualifications and it would retain the semblance of factional balance given that Hu is from a competing faction. Moreover, the gradual weakening of the position of Premier would ensure that Hu Chunhua does not pose a significant threat to Xi after being elevated to higher office.

Expected Outcome: Appointed to PSC to replace Han Zheng and becomes Premier when Li Keqiang retires in March 2023.

Alternate Outcome (Less likely): Li Keqiang is moved out of PSC and is replaced by Hu Chunhua, who takes over as Premier in March 2023. 

Ding Xuexiang

Ding Xuexiang is the Director of the CCP General Office and the Director of the PRC Office of the President, earning him the title of gatekeeper (danei zongguan). He is also part of important committees like the CCP National Security Commission and Secretary of the CCP Central Party and State Organs Working Committee. Ding turns 60 in September and is young enough to serve 2 terms on the PSC. He has previously worked closely with Xi Jinping as his chief secretary when Xi Jinping was Party Secretary of Shanghai. And, as Director of the CCP General Office and Office of the PRC President, Ding is likely to have a great understanding of the inner workings of the Party and State. He also accompanies Xi Jinping to almost all political and international engagements. Ding is one of the four candidates that was promoted from the Alternate Central Committee to the Politburo, an indication of his political prospects. Ding’s political loyalty is unlikely to be in question, given his past connection to Xi and his working relationship with Xi Jinping for nearly 10 years. Ding holds a degree in mechanical engineering and has worked extensively in the materials field. One factor limiting his chances of promotion is his lack of provincial administrative experience. However, leaders like Wang Huning and Wen Jiabao were appointed to the PSC without having any provincial administrative credentials. Ding Xuexiang is also young enough to be considered a successor to Xi Jinping after one term on the PSC.

Expected Outcome: Promoted to PSC as a straight swap for Li Zhanshu and is made NPCSC chairman.

Alternate Outcome (Less likely): Wang Huning is retired and Ding Xuexiang replaces him as manager of day-to-day functions of Politburo and PSC.

Other Candidates in Consideration for PSC Promotion

Li Qiang

Li Qiang is Party Secretary of Shanghai who is 63 and can serve one term on the PSC. Prospects for Li Qiang’s promotion to the PSC are mainly driven by historical precedent: every Party Secretary of Shanghai since 1987 has won promotion to the PSC. And, Li Qiang’s close relationship with Xi could explain why he was parachuted into the Politburo from the Alternate Committee like in the case of Ding Xuexiang. Li was Xi Jinping’s chief secretary and member of the provincial standing committee when Xi was Party Secretary of Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007. Li Qiang is a trusted ally of Xi Jinping and was transferred to Jiangsu and made Party Secretary to crack down on the corruption in the province. And, Li Qiang and Xi Jinping share a common outlook on the role of the private sector in China’s economy and the anti-corruption campaign. However, Li Qiang’s prospects may have diminished after the management of the Covid-19 outbreak in Shanghai. Nonetheless, he was reappointed as Party Secretary of the city in 2022.

Chen Min’er

Chen Min’er is Party Secretary of Chongqing and was slated to be Xi Jinping’s successor at one point. Chen turns 62 in September and is eligible to serve 2 terms on the PSC. Chen is considered one of Xi’s closest allies, having worked as Xi Jinping’s speechwriter and provincial propaganda chief when Xi was Party Secretary of Zhejiang. Chen was previously Guizhou Party Secretary and worked in the province to tackle poverty, overseeing poverty alleviation schemes that have won the appreciation of Xi Jinping. Chen has a strong credentials as a provincial administrator and has worked with key Xi allies in Zhejiang and Guizhou. As Party Secretary of Chongqing, historical precedent does not favour Chen: both previous Party Secretaries of Chongqing, Bo Xilai and Sun Zhengcai, were purged and jailed. Although appointments to the PSC might already be decided, Chen’s management of the COVID-19 crisis, wildfires and electricity shortage in the key region might influence his prospects at the Party Congress.


Retirements from Politburo

Based on age limits, there are nine candidates out of 18 that are likely to retire at the 20th Party Congress (Reddy). These personnel are posted in key positions like the head of the Organisation Department, CCP Political and Legal Affairs Commission, Vice Chair of the CMC, CCP Central Foreign Affairs Commission and two Vice-Premiers. Appointments to the Politburo will zealously implement ideology and policy as decided by Xi Jinping. The following Politburo members are likely to be retired because they are older than 68 or will turn 68 by October and are not eligible for promotion to the PSC:

1. Zhang Youxia

2. Yang Jiechi

3. Xu Qiliang

4. Sun Chunlan

5. Wang Chen

6. Liu He

7. Yang Xiaodu

8. Chen Xi

9. Guo Shengkun

Promotions to Politburo