The big question in China after President Xi Jinping’s third term at the 20th Party Congress later this year is about the fates of Premier Li Keqiang and five others who, along with Xi, comprise the powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
The seven current members are, apart from Xi, Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, and Han Zheng.
In China it is understood that once the supreme leader has consolidated his position in the party and the military, he has the power to do what he wants and decide who will be closest to him and who will be purged.
True to tradition, Xi has kept a tight control of who will be close to him. He has regularly made changes in the composition of his close circle so that no one gets too comfortable or harbours thoughts of eclipsing him.
Several top Chinese bureaucrats found this out the hard way. For instance, former security chief Zhou Yongkand, politician Bo Xilai, and the head of the Chongqing communist party Sun Zhengcai, were summarily purged from the party’s top ranks by Xi.
The CCP has a central committee. It chooses the 25-member Politburo. Of them, seven members, including the President, form the Politburo Standing Committee, an exclusive, super-powerful body. It comprises Xi and six others.
Xi reshuffled the Standing Committee last in 2017 when five members, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, and Han Zheng, were brought into the Standing Committee.
Who of these seven will make it to the new Standing Committee? There is an age criterion. Those who are 68 at the time of the Party Congress have to retire.
The Diplomat reports: “On that basis, we might expect three people to step down from the PSC at the upcoming Party Congress: Xi Jinping, Li Zhanshu, and Han Zheng. This, however, is not going to happen. In 2018, the PRC’s Constitution was changed to eliminate what had been a two-term restriction on individuals holding the office of president.”
There is no question of Xi retiring when he is becoming President for the third time.
What about Premier Li Keqiang? He will not reach retirement age when the 20th Party Congress convenes. Yet, there is speculation that he may have to go. The very rule that will give Xi a third rule will eliminate another term for Li Keqiang. For, in 2018, the Chinese Constitution was amended to remove the two-term limit for the President and not for the Premier. Li is serving his second term. Secondly, there is no way of promoting him because Xi occupies the top spot. Thirdly, since Li cannot get a third term, he cannot stay on in that post. It is theoretically possible that he may continue to be accommodated in the Standing Committee but he would wield no influence because he would be demoted from the post of Premier.
The tragedy of Li will come full circle if he retires at the Party Congress, Close to former President Hu Jintao, Li was once thought of as his successor until finally Xi Jinping was favoured over him. After Xi became President, he encroached on Li’s turf as he expanded his control over the Chinese economy. Worse still, Li was blamed for the 2015 stock market meltdown.
The Diplomat quotes Joseph Fewsmith, professor of international relations and political science and director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Asia as saying: “Li Keqiang has been a weak premier, mostly because Xi Jinping has relied on Liu He and the Central Commission for the Comprehensive Deepening of Reform, which Xi heads.
Li Zhanshu is the current chairman of the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress and known to be the third most powerful man in China. He is considered close to Xi but he is 71 too.
Wang Yang is another member who is 67 and is the Party secretary of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. However, like Premier Li, Wang is considered to be close to the Hu Jintao faction. Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji, on the other hand, are said to be part of the Xi clique.
Another member, Wang Huning, is “considered the mastermind behind Xi’s massive Belt and Road initiative: and at 66, is the secretary of the Central Secretariat of the CCP. He is called the “intellectual and ideological mastermind behind Xi’s ‘China Dream’ and architect of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, X’s treatise on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics that is now part of the Constitution. How Xi wants to repay Wang is not known.
Zhao Leji heads Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, the euphemism for arresting thousands of party officials and bigwigs on the suspicion of being anti-Xi. He is quite young at 65 and ready for another term. He is part of the Xi clique and served as “party chief in Shaanxi province — Xi’s ancestral home” and the fathers of both Zhao and Xi were close friends.
Han Zheng is 67 and is the Deputy Party Secretary of the State and “the first vice-premier of China”. Though close to Xi he will be past the retirement age that dulls his future prospects.
Three of the current seven members are expected to retire. Of the 25 members of the Politburo, 18 remain after deducting the seven members of the Standing Committee. Of the 18, nine will reach the retirement age by the time the 20th Congress convenes. That leaves nine “potential contenders” who have a chance to make it to the Standing Committee. Going by traditional retirement rules, six of them can serve only a single term and three can serve two terms. Three of these nine may be inducted into the Standing Committee at the Congress.
However, the real question that is being whispered about in China today is: Will Xi appoint his successor to the Politburo Standing Committee?