October 25, 2022
SINGAPORE – China’s President Xi Jinping on Sunday secured a precedent-breaking third leadership term and introduced a new Politburo Standing Committee stacked with his key allies.
The events over the past week during the Communist Party Congress in Beijing have cemented Mr Xi’s place as China’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong.
Here is a look at six of the key surprises that cropped up during the congress over this weekend.
1. Shanghai party chief Li Qiang gets big promotion
Shanghai party chief Li Qiang was elevated to the Communist Party’s No. 2 position on Sunday, after being named among the seven members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, China’s supreme leadership circle.
Mr Li Qiang, 63, is now all but certain to become China’s next premier after incumbent Mr Li Keqiang, 67, steps down during the National People’s Congress come March.
The elevation of Mr Li Qiang, while not entirely unexpected by pundits, was significant as some China watchers had predicted that Shanghai’s recent chaotic Covid-19 lockdown would affect his promotion prospects.
Mr Li Qiang had imposed a lengthy lockdown on the Chinese financial hub following a severe coronavirus outbreak in March. During the lockdown, the Shanghai government was widely criticised as residents took to social media to voice their grievances over food shortages and difficulty in obtaining healthcare access.
Mr Li Qiang, a staunch ally of President Xi, was his chief aide when Mr Xi was party boss of Zhejiang in the early 2000s. Since Mr Xi took the reins of China’s leadership, Mr Li Qiang has been repeatedly promoted to other top jobs in China’s eastern regions, subsequently becoming Shanghai’s party chief in 2017. The post has traditionally been a stepping stone for the country’s most important political appointments.
Mr Li Qiang would come to the position as China’s next premier without the vice-premiership experience that almost all his predecessors had. China observers say the move shows Mr Xi’s willingness to cast aside party norms in favour of surrounding himself with his closest allies.
2. Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua left out
Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua – one of pundits’ top choices as a key contender for premiership – was dropped in favour of Mr Li Qiang.
Mr Hu, 59, who is not seen to be particularly close to Mr Xi, not only did not make it into the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, he was entirely left out of China’s top decision-making body, the 24-member Politburo. He remained on the Central Committee, however.
Mr Hu – who is a protege of former president Hu Jintao, earning himself the moniker of “Little Hu” – was once considered a rising star within the party, being the youngest member of the previous 25-strong Politburo. He had risen through the ranks of the Communist Youth League that was seen as Mr Hu Jintao’s power base and a springboard for top state leaders. The two Hus are not related.
Until now, every party congress since 1982 had produced a Communist Youth League faction member in the Politburo Standing Committee. The league, however, started to lose political favour around 2016, after Mr Xi halved its annual budget and state media slammed it for elitism.
Mr Hu Chunhua has previously served as party secretary of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region and Guangdong province.
3. Four of seven top leaders hurried into retirement
Four members of the Politburo Standing Committee were dropped from the new line-up of Central Committee members unveiled at the close of the Communist Party Congress on Saturday.
The changes, which meant that the four would not return to the new top leadership circle announced on Sunday, were bigger than some China watchers had expected.
The four members omitted from the line-up were Premier Li Keqiang, 67; National People’s Congress chairman Li Zhanshu, 72; Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference chairman Wang Yang, 67; and Vice-Premier Han Zheng, 68.
Of the four, Mr Li Zhanshu and Mr Han were already expected to retire as they had reached the unofficial retirement age of 68. Mr Li Keqiang, while still a year short of 68, had also been slated to step down after two terms as premier, although he could still have been kept on the Politburo Standing Committee in a different portfolio.
The key surprise for some China hands was the removal of Mr Wang, who had been seen as a favourite to succeed Mr Li Keqiang as premier given his background of experience in economic governance and diplomacy.
Mr Wang, the political advisory chief and a former vice-premier, is known for being a committed economic reformer, as well as for his flexibility in leadership that saw him earn the favour of both Beijing officials and international circles alike.
4. No women in Politburo
For the first time in 25 years, there was no woman appointed to the Politburo, China’s top decision-making body.
Madam Shen Yueyue, 65, whom some analysts had expected to become the sole woman in the Politburo, did not make the list. She is a vice-chairman of China’s Parliament, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, and president of the government-backed NGO, the All-China Women’s Federation.
On Sunday, the size of the Politburo was cut to 24, from 25 previously, and no ethnic minority leader made it to the list either. Most of the 14 new Politburo members were either officials known to be close to Mr Xi or technocrats elevated for their expertise.
The Communist Party’s top leadership circles have traditionally suffered from a gap in gender representation. In the list of 205 members of the new Central Committee unveiled on Saturday, there were just 11 women.
5. Retirement norms waived for others
Although Mr Li Keqiang and Mr Wang were both hurried into retirement ahead of time, the retirement age norm was not adhered to for the President’s close ally, General Zhang Youxia, 72, and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, 69.
Both Gen Zhang and Mr Wang Yi were re-elected to the Central Committee on Saturday.
Gen Zhang, who has combat experience, is now likely to become the first vice-chairman of China’s top military decision-making body, the Central Military Commission. His history with Mr Xi goes a long way back to when their fathers were colleagues, and he has long been a strong advocate of Mr Xi’s integration of military and civilian projects.
Mr Wang Yi, who is also a state councillor, is now set to succeed Mr Yang Jiechi, 72, as China’s next top diplomat. Mr Wang has had extensive experience in recent years handling China’s notoriously difficult and increasingly complex bilateral relationship with the United States.
6. Former leader Hu Jintao’s sudden departure
Former president Hu Jintao caused a stir at the closing of the party congress on Saturday, when he was unexpectedly escorted off the stage at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
A frail-looking Mr Hu had appeared reluctant to leave his seat, exchanging brief words with Mr Xi and other top officials near him before eventually being led out by two men.
The incident sparked heated debate among China observers over whether Mr Hu was unwell and disoriented, or if it had been a public purge of the former leader.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua later provided an explanation for the sudden departure, writing in a tweet late on Saturday night that Mr Hu was “not feeling well during the session”.
“His staff, for his health, accompanied him to a room next to the meeting venue for a rest. Now, he is much better,” Xinhua tweeted, adding that Mr Hu had insisted on attending the ceremony despite his poor health.