BEIJING – Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday unveiled the new lineup of the ruling Communist Party highest body, whose members will rule alongside him as he embarks on a second five-year term as party leader with an agenda to spread prosperity and expand the global influence of the world’s second largest economy.
As expected, Xi was given a renewed mandate following the first meeting Wednesday of the new Central Committee that was elected at the party’s twice-a-decade national congress.
The party had already elevated Xi’s status on Tuesday at its closing session by inserting his name and dogma into the party’s constitution alongside past leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, cementing his status as the most powerful man to head the country in decades.
That move effectively makes any act of opposing him tantamount to an attack on the party itself, largely insulating him from competition among the party’s rival factions.
Xi said his return as general secretary constituted “not just approval of my work but also encouragement that will spur me on.”
“In this new context, we must get a new look and more importantly, make new accomplishments,” he said in comments to reporters at a brief ceremony at the Great Hall of the People to introduce the new seven-strong Politburo Standing Committee, five of whose members were newly appointed on Wednesday.
Striking a Balance
The only other returning member was Premier Li Keqiang, the party’s second-ranking official primarily responsible for overseeing the economy and leading the Cabinet. Li’s authority was widely viewed as having been undercut by Xi’s accumulation of power over all sectors of government, although his continuing presence on the committee appears to speak to the high-regard in which he is held within the party.
The makeup of the committee reflects Xi’s efforts to foster party unity by striking a balance between different interest groups in the 89-million member organization as he seeks to better position a reinvigorated party to dominate China’s affairs at home and abroad.
They will assume responsibility for running the rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress and its advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and assume a range of portfolios, including those responsible for propaganda, party discipline, ethnic and Taiwan affairs and science and technology.
The other members are, in order of seniority: Li Zhanshu, director of the party’s General Office who serves as Xi’s chief of staff; Vice Premier Wang Yang; Wang Huning, director of the party’s Central Policy Research Office; Zhao Leji, head of the Central Organization Department responsible for job assignments; and Shanghai party leader Han Zheng, a veteran manager of the country’s financial hub.
Zhao is expected to head the much-feared corruption watchdog body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
Xi has made his wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign the hallmark of his first five years in office. While popular among ordinary Chinese, it is seen as part of a drive to purge his rivals and political opponents and boost supervision over the party at all levels.
Alongside the campaign, Xi has overseen one of the harshest crackdowns on civil society aimed at squelching dissent and activism among lawyers and rights advocates.
The new leaders will face challenges that include reining burgeoning levels of debt seen as the biggest threat to economic stability and managing trade tensions with Washington and Europe over China’s excess production of steel and other goods.
They will also have to tackle the risk of war over neighboring ally North Korea’s nuclear program, manage the crucial relationship with the U.S. and navigate delicate ties with Southeast Asian nations wary of Beijing’s expansion in the disputed South China Sea.
Xi has outlined his vision of strengthening the party’s role in Chinese life and shepherding China’s rise to prominence at a time when the United States and others in the West are seen to be in retreat.
Xi, the son of a Communist elder, has described his political ideology as central to setting China on the path to becoming a “great modern socialist country” by midcentury. This vision has at its core a ruling party that serves as the vanguard for everything from defending national security to providing moral guidance to ordinary Chinese.
“No one doubts Xi bestrides the landscape like a colossus. Organized or even unorganized resistance is inconceivable,” said Jeremy Paltiel, a China expert at Canada’s Carleton University.
The inclusion of politicians from factions associated with Xi’s predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin in the Politburo Standing Committee pointed to the party’s efforts to assuage concerns that Xi has been centralizing too much authority under him alone, analysts said.
“It signals balance and offers some relief to those who thought Xi will seek to place just his own loyal followers in key positions,” said Dali Yang, a China politics expert at the University of Chicago. “Instead this suggests that the different factions are united in facing the future.”
Among the five new members, only Zhao and Li Zhanshu are seen to be Xi’s proteges.
“What this shows is that these are not all the president’s men,” said Cheng Li, an expert in elite Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution. “This group is more like a team of rivals.”
“It will be well-received by the political establishment because it’s a sign that the members come from various representations,” Li said.
At the same time, observers note, none of the new members of the top ruling body appeared to be suitable successors to Xi as party leader. In contrast, before Xi took power in 2012, he had been in the Standing Committee for five years and Xi’s predecessor Hu had a seat on the body for 10 years before becoming party leader.
Joseph Fewsmith, an expert on Chinese politics at Boston University, said the absence of an obvious successor pointed to Xi’s longer-term ambitions.
“It suggests that Xi will likely serve a third term, and that he is likely to name his own successor. We have not seen that for two decades,” Fewsmith said.
Under recent party precedent, party leaders have served just two five-year terms.
Some analysts speculated that Xi had successfully avoided being undermined by an anointed successor — and possibly paved the way for him to extend his rule as party leader beyond his second term.
“A successor in the shadow of a powerful leader can be a dangerous position to be in,” said Chicago’s Yang. “With the current setup, it doesn’t rule out Xi’s retirement in five years, though it does provide more room for him to continue.”
Others saw the absence of a successor as a compromise made by Xi, who has been seen as favouring Chongqing party secretary Chen Min’er — an official who would have had to break party norms on promotions in order to gain a place on the Standing Committee.
“Chen Min’er is such a clear protege of Xi Jinping,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London. “This shows that what remains of the resistance (to Xi) is still able to exercise some element of horse-trading constraint on Xi Jinping.”
And despite his unrivaled dominion over the party, Xi will likely struggle to continue making it relevant to a Chinese society that has grown “bigger, more diverse and more autonomous,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“The civil society per se is under stricter control but so much is happening in China. Basically, the society, particularly the youth are turning their back from the party and politics. They enjoy life and don’t care about the congress or Xi,” Cabestan said.
The Associated Press