Decoding the 20th Party Congress
Decoding the 20th Party Congress
Security*To be updated soon*
President Xi Jinping appears to be on the cusp of finally cementing his personal control over the one key Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “system” (系统, xitong) of the regime’s control bureaucracy—the security and intelligence apparatus—that arguably has eluded his grasp in his first decade in power. Having long since established his grip over the other two major “systems” Mao Zedong famously described as “the gun” (the military) and “the pen” (propaganda), Xi has turned his attention deep in his second term to wresting control of “the knife” (the security apparatus). China’s vast security services are primarily made up of the country’s uniformed police force, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS); the civilian intelligence arm, the Ministry of State Security (MSS); and also the legal apparatus and the court system, as manifested in the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP), China’s top prosecutorial body, and the country’s high court, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC). The CCP maintains its supervision and control over these nominally state-directed agencies through its Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLAC).
Xi’s path to bringing this xitong under his personal control has seemed to be a somewhat tortured one. Early in Xi’s tenure after assuming power in 2012, almost all of the leading posts within the security and legal apparatus were under the control of officials associated with the network of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and his longtime lieutenant and former Vice President Zeng Qinghong: the CPLAC was led by Jiang crony Meng Jianzhu; the MPS by Zeng associate Guo Shengkun; the MSS by the Jiang-friendly Geng Huichang; and the SPP by Jiang loyalist Cao Jianming. The SPC, separately, was headed by Zhou Qiang, an associate of former President Hu Jintao. It seemed the best that Xi could muster at the time was to secure the downgrading of soon-to-be purged security czar Zhou Yongkang’s portfolio from a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee — China’s top decision-making body — to the full Politburo under Meng Jianzhu’s stewardship with the contraction of the Standing Committee from the previous nine members to seven at the 18th Party Congress that elected Xi as top leader. Even so, as the rising leader at the time, this probably was a consensus decision, even if one that suited Xi’s interests by cauterizing the immediate potential challenge to his smooth accession to top leader. Moreover, Xi faced equally daunting challenges down the ranks within the MPS and MSS, where most of the key vice ministers also were not his acolytes. Although Xi’s motives for not taking a more aggressive posture early on toward bringing these powerful coercive agencies under his personal control probably are unknowable, his decisive action to cement his grip on the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), at this time likely suggests that he viewed that effort as the more pressing objective within the scope of his ability to effect significant change as China’s newly-minted top leader.
Indeed, Xi’s initial forays in taking on the security bureaucracy seemed fairly cautious and deliberately rooted in justifiable causes beyond a transparently naked power grab to make the security services his personal instruments. For example, an MSS vice minister allegedly was removed from office in 2012 after a counterintelligence investigation suggested that his personal assistant had been spying for the United States. Similarly, Liang Ke, then the head of the Beijing State Security Bureau — the crown jewel in the network of local provincial and municipal bureaus under the MSS — was removed in 2014 for his alleged ties to Zhou Yongkang, as was MPS Vice Minister Li Dongsheng two years later. Even MSS Vice Minister Ma Jian, the ministry’s long-serving counterintelligence chief, was ousted in early 2015 for his alleged ties to fugitive Chinese businessman Guo Wengui. Still, Xi remained fairly cautious in purging other senior security officials, relying mostly on retirements and transfers of senior police officials to remove the deadwood associated with his predecessors.
Xi also appeared to adopt organizational solutions as an interim method for bringing the sprawling security apparatus more directly under his control while he focused his energies regarding personnel purges on the PLA in his first five years in office. The announcement of plans to establish what is now called the CCP Central National Security Commission (CNSC) at the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee in 2013, for example, was consistent with the broader pattern Xi has demonstrated of creating new senior CCP bodies, all of them chaired by him, that serve to at least short-circuit, if not completely rewire, established lines of authority and policymaking processes across the regime. Although many observers at first expected the CNSC might serve as China’s analogue to the US National Security Council, it quickly emerged that the new body had more of a domestic focus than a foreign one.
The CNSC remains one of the most shadowy organizations in an admittedly opaque CCP enterprise, with its official size, staffing, powers, and policy remit remaining unclear, at least in the public domain. Xi chairs the group, and his chief of staff, Politburo member and CCP General Office Director Ding Xuexiang, is rumored to be the head of the group’s general office, the CNSC’s administrative nerve center. Of note, MSS Minister Chen Wenqing serves as Ding’s deputy “in charge of daily work,” but still is clearly subordinate to Ding. Although that arrangement is natural given Ding’s seniority to Chen, it serves to highlight how Xi has used the NSC to bring the previously fairly autonomous security services under the more direct supervision of the top political leadership. Liu Haixing has also played a key role as another deputy director of the CNSC’s general office over the last five years but appears to be a possible next Foreign Minister, so may soon depart.
Indeed, it is possible, and perhaps likely, that Xi may have sought the downgrading of the CPLAC chairman from membership on the Politburo Standing Committee(PBSC) to the full Politburo with the intent of launching the CNSC, just a year later, already in mind. Moreover, given the dramatic changes to the PLA’s command structure also announced at the 2013 Third Plenum, and those reforms’ central role in facilitating Xi’s efforts to disrupt entrenched political networks in the PLA high command, it is logical that the announcement of the setup of the CNSC at the same meeting may also have been designed to play an analogous role in the security and intelligence services at some future point.
Whatever the exact machinations involved with the standup of the CNSC, with the PLA firmly in hand by the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi seemed energized to shift his campaign to bring the security bureaucracy to heel into high gear with a similar anticorruption pogrom there. The first salvo was the arrest of another MPS vice minister and concurrent chief of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, in October 2018. But the campaign really took off with the launch in July 2020 of a Mao-style “education and rectification” campaign within the CPLAC.
Official media accounts from the campaign’s launch compared it with the CCP’s Yan’an Rectification Movement (1942–45), which witnessed Mao’s sweeping purges of the party ranks to establish his unquestioned position as party leader. For such a sensitive and major effort, it is striking that the lead actor has not been Guo Shengkun, who rose to the Politburo and CPLAC chairman in 2017. Instead, the campaign is being managed by Guo’s technical subordinate, Xi lieutenant and enforcer Chen Yixin, who already appears to be in day-to-day operational control of the CPLAC despite only serving formally as its secretary-general.
The campaign has proceeded swiftly, taking down then head of the Shanghai police, Gong Daoan, only a month after its inception. By the end of 2021, Gong and several others already had stood trial for their offenses, a breakneck pace for corruption cases to make it through the full judicial process in the Chinese system.
Saving the best for last, in July 2022, the party finally put on trial former Vice Minister of Public Security Sun Lijun and former Justice Minister Fu Zhenghua. In an ironic twist, Fu in better days supervised the investigation into Zhou Yongkang. Fu and Sun were charged with colluding with each other in antiparty activities, among other crimes, though Sun’s case seemed the more serious. His bribe taking dwarfed that of Fu, and Chen Yixin told law enforcement and judicial officials in early July that the investigation to weed out Sun’s influence “was not over.”
The common thread in the cases of Sun, Fu, Gong, and others seemed to be their overlapping connections with Meng Jianzhu, suggesting that Xi may want to bring the rectification effort to a crescendo by cashiering Meng from retirement in the manner of Zhou Yongkang — or he at least wants Jiang Zemin to know that he could. Similarly, the surprise late July detention of Minister of Industry and Information Technology Xiao Yaqing (see Technology analysis) may bode poorly for Guo Shengkun, who has ties to Xiao through their mutual service in China’s non-ferrous metals industry earlier in their respective careers.
Turning to some of the likely outcomes of the 20th Party Congress that will affect the security and intelligence system going forward, Xi Jinping already is demonstrating that he is poised for a major win. After an almost uncomfortably long period as MPS CCP secretary and minister-in-waiting, Xi ally Wang Xiaohong was formally made China’s top cop in late June 2022. Several former associates of Wang also recently have been transferred to important posts within the MPS and its network of provincial and municipal public security bureaus. Wang could move to a more senior post after the party congress reshuffle, but it is more likely that he will remain at MPS and also replace his predecessor, Zhao Kezhi, in the traditionally concomitant post of state councilor when the leadership turnover in the state government agencies is completed in March 2023.
In the MSS, Chen Wenqing is young enough to serve a second stint as minister, as has been the case for several of his predecessors, and he is said to have forged close ties with members of Xi’s patronage network in Fujian Province while serving there as head of the provincial CCP disciplinary agency from 2006-2012. In early September, another Xi ally, Ying Yong, was confirmed in a new position as China’s number two prosecutor within the SPP. Ying’s appointment came as something of a surprise given his move just a few months before to what traditionally has been a sinecure post in China’s national legislature. Ying is likely to be promoted to procurator-general in the spring, succeeding Zhang Jun. Zhang may, in turn, move to become China’s top judge. Although he does not have direct patronage ties to Xi, Zhang’s track record in a series of legal and judicial appointments has confirmed him to be much more in line with Xi’s emphasis on subordinating the courts to CCP control than current SPC President Zhou Qiang.
Within the CPLAC, the prospects of Xi hatchet man Chen Yixin also look bright. He has a strong chance to succeed Guo Shengkun as CPLAC chairman, but he could also be in line to replace Ding Xuexiang at the CCP General Office should the latter win promotion to the PBSC at the party congress. In addition to his current duties overseeing the “education and rectification” effort within the security and intelligence system, Chen previously was dispatched by Xi to Wuhan at the height of the original COVID-19 outbreak there to ride herd on local officials who had failed to gain control of the crisis, proving that Chen has Xi’s complete confidence. Xi also is placing his lieutenants further down the rank structure of the CPLAC — in May 2022, Lin Rui, a Xi associate from Fujian who also has ties to Wang Xiaohong, was appointed deputy-secretary general of the CPLAC, leaving him poised to potentially succeed Chen Yixin if Chen moves up or is promoted elsewhere.
Xi’s expected success in putting the security, intelligence, and legal affairs apparatus firmly under his control at the party congress is likely to continue the broad pattern of the “securitization” of the regime during his tenure. Under the banner of his concept of comprehensive national security, the definition of “national security” in China has been dramatically expanded to include at least 16 forms of security: military, territorial, technological, ecological, societal, polar, cyber, space, cultural, political, economic, biological, deep sea, resource, nuclear, and overseas interests. Xi also has sought to weave a seamlessly integrated fabric of mutually reinforcing security, legal, and disciplinary frameworks under his comprehensive national security umbrella.
In fact, one notable feature of Xi’s new, much broader definition of national security is the more regular transfer of officials within and between the various corners of the regime’s control bureaucracy. Of particular note has been the phenomenon of officials with experience in the CCP’s disciplinary apparatus, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), moving into security roles and vice versa. Once much more rigidly stove-piped and isolated bureaucracies, the move toward greater cross-fertilization between these critical control agencies arguably increases the efficiency and effectiveness of the CCP’s security enterprise. The steady expansion during Xi’s tenure of the CCDI’s remit beyond just fighting corruption and toward also serving as the guarantor of tight adherence to regime policy orthodoxy — including on economic and other policy issues as mentioned above — also serves to enhance the natural affinity between it and its more traditional security agency brethren.
As part of that process, Xi’s enhanced control may also lead to a further articulation of the roles and responsibilities of the CNSC as an integrative “supra-body” going forward. Consequently, a security, intelligence, and legal apparatus under the unquestioned control of Xi’s lieutenants is likely to see the further tightening of all forms of social control—whether in the physical or the digital realm—as well as the further promotion of the culture of a China besieged by spies, saboteurs, and “hostile foreign forces” seeking to overthrow the CCP regime through a “color revolution.” That, combined with Xi’s harping on an ever-expanding list of “risks” confronting the regime from “changes unseen in a century” in both the domestic and external arenas, portends a more paranoid and sharper CCP regime under Xi’s third term and beyond.
Military*To be updated soon*
China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), has a storied political tradition in the development and maintenance of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule over the regime’s one-hundred-year history. At critical watersheds for the party’s future direction, or even its survival — such as the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976 and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown — the PLA played a decisive role in helping top leaders navigate the crisis. In those moments, the PLA underscored its status as the armed wing of the CCP (as opposed to the national military of China), whose principal function is to serve as the ultimate guarantor of CCP rule. The PLA high command also extracted a fairly hefty political price for its loyalty in those earlier periods. For example, in the Politburos elected at the 11th Party Congress in 1977 and the 12th Party Congress in 1982, military leaders made up at least half of the full membership and one-third of the respective seats on the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body. This was partly due to generational factors, in that many of the CCP’s senior leaders at that time were revolutionary-credentialed individuals with at least some military background. Nevertheless, even paramount leader Deng Xiaoping struggled at the time to reduce the political influence of his uniformed peers, requiring the convocation of an extraordinary “National Conference of Delegates” in September 1985 to finally push most of them off the Politburo.
When Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012, he clearly sensed that the CCP was potentially facing yet another moment of crisis, but this time the PLA high command was seen as a major cause of it rather than the probable solution. Serving initially as understudy to President Hu Jintao, including a two-year stint (2010-12) as vice chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission (CMC) — China’s top military policy-setting body — Xi witnessed a military that, although ultimately subordinate to party control, took advantage of its particular monopolies, mainly on expertise and the control of information flow, to establish vast operational gray areas within which its leaders were able to exert substantial autonomy and therefore outsize policy influence. Illustrative examples included China’s 2007 antisatellite test and its 2011 test flight of the PLA’s prototype J-20 stealth fighter during a visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, where it seemed that Hu had little control over, and perhaps even little awareness of, what his military was doing.
Moreover, and far more worrisome to Xi than these subtleties of civil-military relations, was the perception that the PLA’s senior officer corps had become so corrupt that the civilian leadership could not be assured that the military would respond swiftly in a crisis. These concerns no doubt were amplified as the Politburo watched the Egyptian military stand idly by as former president Hosni Mubarak was deposed without a shot fired in early 2011. Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou — then members of the Politburo, the top two uniformed officers on the CMC, and in charge of the PLA’s operational forces and its personnel system, respectively — were, through the selling of office and military rank, effectively creating a private army loyal to them within the PLA. As the party history resolution passed at the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee in November 2021 flatly stated, “For a period of time, the party’s leadership over the military was obviously lacking. If this problem had not been completely solved, it would not only have diminished the military’s combat capacity, but also undermined the key political principle that the party commands the gun.” Guo and Xu also served as the instruments for former President Jiang Zemin to retain a strong hand in military affairs well beyond his official retirement, encumbering Hu Jintao’s ability to consolidate power and leaving Xi concerned their remnant protégés in the high command might similarly handicap him.
Xi’s response to these looming challenges was swift. In what can best be described as “political shock and awe,” he has used the twin weapons of a withering anticorruption purge of the high command and a major retooling of the PLA’s command structure to disrupt and neutralize major PLA organizational and personal networks:
At the November 2013 Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee, Xi decided to include in the public “Decision” document the fact that the PLA would undergo a substantial structural reorganization, a prelude to the sweeping changes to the PLA’s command system that have since been realized. Xi’s predecessors had tried to initiate such reforms before but were always thwarted by the political power of the PLA. Indeed, the establishment of a separate PLA Army headquarters equal to the military’s other service commands highlighted Xi’s breakdown of the political power of the long-dominant PLA ground forces.
Xi then conducted an artful piece of political stagecraft in November 2014 by taking advantage of the 85th anniversary of the 1929 Gutian Conference to convene an important meeting regarding the PLA’s status as the party’s army. The resolution of the original Gutian Conference established the principle of the PLA’s subordination to the party and stated that the purpose of the military was “chiefly for the service of political ends.”
In his speech at the 2014 conference, Xi described the misdeeds of Xu Caihou in detail, making clear that most of the senior generals in attendance were at least indirectly complicit in the pay-for-promotion schemes that Xu, Guo, and other generals were running. The result was to put the entire high command on notice that no one was safe from the unfolding anticorruption campaign and that Xi intended to firmly establish his personal control over the PLA in the same manner that Mao had before him. It is no accident, therefore, that PLA representation from the 18th to the 19th CCP Central Committees witnessed a massive (85 percent) turnover as Xi ripped out the remnant followers of Guo and Xu root and branch.
The powerful combination of highly-disruptive force restructuring and the threat of imprisonment for corruption paved the way for Xi to launch further initiatives to bring the military properly to heel. These included the advent of the “CMC Chairman Responsibility System,” which emphasized the top civilian leader’s grip over the military compared with the “CMC Vice-Chairman Responsibility System” under Jiang and Hu, in which their uniformed notional subordinates had de facto control. With the sudden purge of two more senior generals for corruption on the eve of the 19th Party Congress, Xi capped his victory by shrinking the CMC’s membership from the unwieldy 11 members it had for more than a decade to seven, further concentrating his influence.
Against this backdrop, Xi can be credited with “depoliticizing” the PLA in the sense of the presence of contending political interest groups of officers loyal to a particular member of the high command or to an individual senior civilian leader other than Xi. This has been no mean feat; such networks existed throughout the respective rules of Deng and Jiang, and, to a lesser extent, even under Hu. There are no credible indications that a non-Xi-aligned interest group of senior officers exists at present, however. Of course, personal networks (guanxi) are a deeply-engrained feature of Chinese culture, suggesting that it is not impossible that such a group could form over time. That said, the dismembering and downgrading of the PLA’s once formidable “General Departments” under Xi’s command restructuring have substantially reduced the potential for powerful independent fiefdoms to exist that could even hamstring Xi’s military policy agenda, to say nothing of posing a direct threat to his grip on power.
Consequently, the reshuffle of the PLA representation in the Central Committee and its more senior bodies that is sure to accompany the 20th Party Congress is likely to lack substantial political implications. Four of the six uniformed members of the current CMC, including both of its vice chairmen, probably will retire due to age, creating several vacancies for rising generals. The two current members who can theoretically remain by established age criteria—Director of the CMC Political Work Department Admiral Miao Hua and Secretary of the CMC Discipline Inspection Commission General Zhang Shengmin — both are from the PLA’s political commissariat, making it likely that only one of them could be promoted to one of the two presumed vice chairman slots on the CMC and one of the uniformed seats on the Politburo. Miao may have the edge given his already more direct standing as the PLA’s top political minder, whereas Zhang has a more niche background as the PLA’s chief disciplinarian. Miao also served in the former 31st Group Army (now the 73rd under the PLA restructuring) in Fujian Province when Xi was the governor there. Still, Zhang was Xi’s choice to replace the last senior protege of Guo and Xu, General Du Jincai, in 2017, strongly suggesting he has Xi’s trust. Regardless, however, a vice chairmanship for either Miao or Zhang would mark the formal return of a career political officer to one of the two top uniformed positions following the purge of Xu Caihou, the last commissar to hold that post. It also would highlight the PLA’s trendline toward stronger jointness following the command retooling as Miao is from the Chinese Navy and Zhang served in the PLA Rocket Force earlier in his career.
As to the other CMC vice chairman slot, it is likely to go to a career ground forces officer given the PLA’s strong historical tradition of promoting Army officers. The two most likely candidates for that post appear to be current commander of the PLA Ground Force General Liu Zhenli and PLA Eastern Theater Command Commander General Lin Xiangyang. Liu and Lin seem almost equally matched to rise to the post of CMC vice chairman. Liu is one of the few senior officers in the PLA with combat experience, having served in a unit that participated in the Sino-Vietnamese border clashes in the mid-1980s. He also has important experience in roles related to the PLA’s domestic security function, having commanded its 38th Group Army, the traditional anti-coup force outside Beijing, as well as serving as chief of staff of the People’s Armed Police, the regime’s rapid-reaction paramilitary police force designed to quickly suppress potential civil unrest. For Lin’s part, he has strong career ties to Fujian, including serving as the deputy commander of the 31st Group Army. Since 2016, he has been rapidly promoted and transferred through a series of group army and theater commands that certainly give the impression he is on the fast track for higher office. His direction of the recent military exercises around Taiwan in the wake of U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island also would enhance his stature going into the 20th Party Congress. The consolation prize for whoever loses the race for a CMC vice chairmanship probably will be to succeed General Li Zuocheng as chief of the CMC Joint Staff Department, which would entitle the new chief to a seat on the CMC as a regular member.
The most likely contenders for the other available seats on the CMC are harder to determine, and, as noted above, also may not matter much in terms of the PLA’s political role. One key factor will be whether the revamped CMC structure from the 19th Party Congress will remain the same coming out of the 20th Congress. The current configuration has something of a hasty or slapdash feel to it, which may have resulted, in part, from the last-minute purge of two top generals—chief of the CMC Joint Staff Department Fang Fenghui and Director of the CMC Political Work Department Zhang Yang—just ahead of the convening of the 19th Congress in 2017. Both men looked on track to rise to vice chairman of the CMC, so their hasty removal suggested that Xi saw something he did not like that prompted their ouster. With the political situation in the military seemingly far more in hand going into the 20th Congress, it is possible Xi will want to make additional structural changes to the CMC’s membership to underscore his control of the PLA.
With the factional battles of old within the PLA largely being a thing of the past, and the greater professionalization of the force through Xi’s command restructuring efforts and a military modernization campaign now spanning more than a quarter century, the battles inside the high command going forward are more likely to mirror the budgetary fights and inter-service rivalries more common among the world’s other advanced foreign militaries. Indeed, as China’s leaders clearly signal an intent to shift toward a lower growth economic model to meet other pressing priorities, the rapid increases in the official PLA defense budget of the last two-plus decades that sustained modernization and expansion across the force may come under increasing pressure in the coming years. Xi also has set ambitious targets for the PLA’s modernization and the advancement of its forces’ operational art by the time of its centenary in 2027.
Although those benchmarks do not, as commonly suggested, represent an expedited timeline for the PLA’s modernization goals nor for a prospective invasion of Taiwan, it does suggest that Xi will be looking to kick those efforts into high gear to achieve the new military standards he described in his political work report to the 19th Party Congress in 2017. These include ensuring that China will “basically complete national defense and military modernization” by 2035, and that its military will have been “fully transformed into a world-class military” by 2050, coinciding with the 100th anniversary celebration of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049. While it is unlikely that Xi will seek to further truncate those timelines in the work report he will deliver at the 20th Party Congress, set against the backdrop of heightened U.S.-China tensions over Taiwan in the wake of the Pelosi visit, that section of Xi’s report will merit close scrutiny. Moreover, with the PLA clearly signaling in the wake of its August 2022 military exercises that it will adopt a “new normal” of military posturing aimed at promoting the operational exhaustion of Taiwan’s military and increased uncertainty among the island’s political leadership and those of Taipei’s partners as to Chinese intentions, Xi’s strong political control over the PLA will serve to facilitate the attainment of those objectives while also maintaining strict adherence to clear rules of engagement designed to ensure that escalation control remains firmly in his hands.
Top Leadership – And the New Factions of the Xi Era
Supreme power in China today indisputably lies with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping, who succeeded in “running the table” at the 20th Party Congress. He packed the CCP’s top leadership with his most loyal allies, evicted all remnants of factional opposition, and established complete control over the party and the country.
This outcome has revealed that, after a decade in office, Xi has achieved an even more overwhelmingly powerful and secure position than even many dedicated China watchers had predicted. Xi paid zero regard to previous norms around retirement “age limits.” Instead, he retained or forced out personnel seemingly entirely on the basis of their personal loyalty to him – while making none of the factional compromises that many observers had predicted would still be necessary. He has, in effect, displayed total dominance within the CCP system.
This fact was amply demonstrated by the selection of the new lineup of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) at the 20th Party Congress. The PBSC – which presides over the now 24-member Politburo (Xi now having notably reduced its size by one), itself the top leadership body of the 96 million-member CCP – saw four out of seven of its members replaced with Xi loyalists. Premier (#2 leader) Li Keqiang, who was widely seen as the chief remaining dissenter to Xi within the system, was forced into retirement, as was Li’s factional ally Wang Yang, whom many observers had expected would become Premier. Hu Chunhua, Li’s key ally previously considered likely to make it onto the PBSC, was also not only excluded but was forced off the Politburo entirely. Han Zheng, considered a factional ally of former leader Jiang Zemin, was also ousted.
Instead, Li Qiang, Shanghai Party Secretary and Xi’s chosen protégé, has very likely taken the Premiership (leader of the State Council). Li Qiang’s candidacy had previously appeared in doubt due to widespread outcry over his handling of COVID-19 outbreaks in Shanghai earlier in 2022, but in the end this proved irrelevant – indeed Li’s selection serves to signal to other cadres that nothing is more valued than doggedly following Xi’s instructions, no matter the cost.
Three other devoted Xi loyalists – Xi’s “Chief of Staff” Ding Xuexiang, Beijing Party Secretary Cai Qi, and Guangdong Party Secretary Li Xi – were also elevated into the body. Cai and Li have become Head of the Central Secretariat and Head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), respectively, while Ding is expected to become Executive Vice Premier. The retirement of the 72-year-old Li Zhangshu, a close friend and ally of Xi’s, has therefore more than been made up for. Meanwhile, the two members of the PBSC (other than Xi himself) who retained their seats, former CCDI head Zhao Leji and ideology tsar Wang Huning, are also closely aligned with Xi (they are expected to change positions to become Chairmen of the National People’s Congress and consultative legislative body, respectively). The political survival of Wang Huning is a further slap in the face to Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, given that, at 67, they are all the same age.
In sum, the new PBSC lineup indicates that Xi has succeeded in effectively eradicating all remaining traces of factional opposition within the party, making continued talk of traditional factional groupings largely meaningless. The days of when there existed a coherent Jiang-centric “Shanghai Gang” or Hu Jintao-connected “Communist Youth League Faction” are now well and truly past – a point symbolized dramatically during the 20th Party Congress itself when, as a deliberate statement or not, the allegedly ill Hu was firmly escorted out of the proceedings just before Xi’s new Politburo was revealed.
With the clearing away of the Jiang and Hu factions, an interesting new factional dynamic has clearly emerged within the confines of the broader “Xi faction” (now essentially the whole of the top leadership), however: four factional groupings appear to have been established based on the different regional power bases Xi developed over the course of his career. This is reflected in the PBSC composition: Li Qiang represents Xi’s Zhejiang power base; Cai Qi: Fujian; Ding Xuexiang: Shanghai; Li Xi: Shaanxi and the Xi family’s hometown roots. Additionally, a large “Military-Industry Gang” with roots in the military-technology-oriented state sector has also clearly established a presence on the Politburo (see more below), rounding out the number of operative factional groups in the New Era to five.
Finally, and most important of all for Xi, he succeeded in being appointed to a third term in office, breaking the two-term limit for top leaders established by Deng Xiaoping (which Xi formally overturned in 2018). And, with no clear successor appointed at the 20th Party Congress, Xi has cleared the way to rule through to 2035, if not for life. Since the moment he was appointed as General Secretary at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012 – and later simultaneously as Chair of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and President of China in early 2013 – Xi has rapidly concentrated power into his own hands. He first purged many of his internal factional rivals through an early anti-corruption campaign and subsequent “party-rectification” campaigns, then centralized the decision-making structure of the Chinese system away from state institutions and into a number of small “leading groups” and committees, nearly all of which are staffed by his close supporters and chaired by himself. Xi has thus been dubbed the “Chairman of Everything.” Moreover, he has had himself declared China’s “Core Leader” and succeeded in enshrining his eponymous ideological thought in the Party and State constitutions, elevating himself to nearly the same level as Mao Zedong. The results of the 20th Party Congress are therefore the culmination of a decade of momentum toward the establishment of one-man rule in China by Xi Jinping.
The personnel selections for the broader Politburo, which also proved a Xi Jinping sweep, help offer particular clues as to the impact of the 20th Party Congress on Chinese domestic and foreign policy moving forward.
The most distinct trend to emerge out of the Congress is a clear prioritization of security concerns over all other issues. Chen Wenqing, whose elevation to the Politburo means he may run the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLAC), China’s top internal-focused security body, would be the first person with a background in China’s foreign intelligence service, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), to ever take that position. Additionally, below the Politburo level, two others with extensive security backgrounds – MSS Minister Wang Xiaohong, and deputy head of the CCDI Liu Jinguo (who rose through the Ministry of Public Security) – are also set to now occupy positions within the Party’s Central Secretariat. Three security officials in the Secretariat would represent a clear trend.
Many of the more market-reform-oriented members of the Party’s top economic experts have, meanwhile, retired or been shuffled off, including Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier and “economy tsar” Liu He, as well as central bank head Yi Gang, banking regulator Guo Shuqing, and Minister of Finance Liu Kun. Likely incoming Premier Li Qiang has limited economic experience. This could leave He Lifeng, the expected new Vice Premier in charge of the economy, with an outsized role. Notably, He is a strong advocate for Xi’s preferred course of economic nationalism, including his security-focused “self-reliance” policies as well as the “Common Prosperity” campaign to reduce inequality and foster cultural unity by cracking down on elements of the private sector. Wang Huning’s retention also points to continued emphasis on Common Prosperity and self-reliance, given his key ideological role in crafting these policies. Meanwhile, although a connection between the striking decision – for the first time in two decades – not to include even one woman on the Politburo and Xi’s campaign to “toughen up” China’s culture is by no means certain, it is at least conceivable.
Moreover, the Politburo has been stacked with a notable number of people with backgrounds in the defense industry (including Ma Xingrui, Zhang Guoqing, and Yuan Jiajun) or military-adjacent science and technology state firms or agencies (including Chen Jining and Li Ganjie, as well as PBSC member Ding Xuexiang). This means a significant portion of the Politburo is now composed of dedicated techno-nationalists, further indicating Xi’s commitment to pursuing technological and economic self-reliance and the decoupling of China’s supply chains in strategic areas.
The retention of 72-year-old Zhang Youxia (one of the few Chinese generals with real combat experience, plus considerable experience in the military technology space as well) along with the appointment of experienced general He Weidong (with experience both on the border with India and the Taiwan-focused Eastern Theater Command) to be vice chairs of the CMC, as well as the elevation of long-serving Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the Politburo, also signal Xi’s abiding concerns about a more hostile foreign strategic environment and pressing desire to maintain security and stability.
Overall, the clear picture to emerge from the 20th Party Congress is of a CCP and Chinese state fully aligned behind Xi’s vision of “comprehensive national security” and a “fortress economy,” with the focus firmly on preparation for geopolitical confrontation and competition for the foreseeable future.