Decoding the 20th Party Congress
Decoding the 20th Party Congress
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.
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.
Leadership of the 96 million-member Chinese Communist party (CCP) is concentrated in the 25-member Politburo, within which real power rests with the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). In today’s China, however, supreme power indisputably lies with CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping.
Following his appointment as General Secretary at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, and later simultaneous appointments 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 has done so by having first purged many of his internal factional rivals through an early anti-corruption campaign and subsequent “party-rectification” campaigns, then by centralizing 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.”
Since his rise to power, Xi has had himself declared China’s “Core Leader” and has succeeded in enshrining “Xi Jinping Thought” within the Chinese constitution, elevating himself to nearly the same level as Mao Zedong within the CCP’s ideology and history. All this has prompted accurate accusations that he has established a personality cult and effectively implemented one-man rule. Most crucially, in 2018 he succeeded in having the two-term limit for the presidency revoked. Originally chosen to serve two five-year terms, from 2013-2023, Xi now appears set for reappointment for at least one more term – and quite likely lifetime rule. Securing this reappointment is Xi’s overriding political goal for the 20th Party Congress of 2022, making it among the most consequential in recent Chinese history.
However, while Xi’s continuation in power is nearly certain, he also has broader – and more challenging – political objectives that he hopes to achieve. Namely, he wants to maneuver the appointment of as many of his factional supporters and close protégés into positions of power and influence (particularly onto the Politburo) as possible, paving his way to safely continue in office indefinitely. He may not be entirely as successful as he’d prefer, however, as opposing factions and networks continue to wield influence within the CCP despite Xi’s power. Among these are the “Shanghai Gang” of former leader Jiang Zemin and the faction associated with former leader Hu Jintao and the Communist Youth League (CYL), currently led by Premier Li Keqiang (#2 leader on the PBSC). Personnel selections made at the 20th Party Congress will therefore serve as a barometer for the continuing extent of Xi’s power within the Chinese system, as well as help foretell the future direction of Chinese politics and policy.
Inside the Black Box: Predicting the Next Top Leadership
Predicting the composition of the CCP’s 20th Politburo and PBSC is made especially challenging by the uncertainty surrounding what the rules and norms for the selection of candidates actually are in the Xi Jinping era. In CCP politics, rules and norms have always been manipulated for the purposes of power, meaning the “rules of the game” have always been flexible at best. But under Xi adherence to fixed norms has been further reduced by his centralization of power.
For instance, even the number of seats on the Politburo and PBSC are open to change; the current total number of PBSC seats could be enlarged from seven to nine, reduced to five, or remain the same. The best predictor is likely not past precedent, but Xi’s political calculation regarding how disruptive he can be and whether it would be more advantageous to have more factional allies in positions of power or fewer potential future rivals. This analysis makes a conscious assumption that the size of the PBSC and Politburo probably will not change.
Another important norm that has traditionally been useful for determining composition of the leadership, but which is now open to change, is the CCP’s retirement age limit for Politburo members: the so called “7 up, 8 down” (七上八下) rule, in which leaders who are age 67 or below at the time of the Party Congress are eligible for reappointment, while those older than 68 must retire. Xi is already set to break this rule, in that he is 69 years old, but intends to remain in office. But while this opens the door for him to make other exceptions, fully abandoning the norm would also eliminate a useful tool for Xi to remove older factional rivals and replace them with younger allies. We, therefore, expect this norm to largely be followed, with only a few isolated exceptions. In fact, it is even possible that the age limit could be lowered further.
Mostly absent from the selection of Politburo-level leaders is any substantial evaluation of policy or managerial expertise. This is not to say that it is entirely neglected; rather, expertise and merit comes to be mobilized as one of multiple bargaining chips in intense negotiations for positions, not only between but also within political factions. Similarly, disputes over differences in policy may play a role, if primarily for securing political advantage. Among these, policy disputes over China’s slowing economy, Xi’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and China’s increasingly tense foreign relations are the most prominent.
With these limitations in mind, we can nonetheless make several predictions about the composition of the next Politburo.
The Politburo Standing Committee: Scenarios
At the top level of the Politburo, should the norm of age limits hold, two members of the seven-member PBSC (other than Xi Jinping) are set to step down: Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng. Li is a longtime friend and ally of Xi, but at 72 he appears certain to depart. Han, on the other hand, is a member of Jiang Zemin’s faction, so Xi would likely be glad to see him go. However, because this leaves four seats filled by members that Xi may prefer to see replaced with younger allies, there is a chance that the age limit could also be refined down rather than up, and some of those members of the “1955 Generation” (Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, and Wang Huning on the PBSC) also pushed to retire.
Regardless, one of Xi Jinping’s political priorities is quite clear: replacing Premier Li Keqiang with his own protege. The replacement of Li as next Premier is now the lynchpin of Xi’s gambit to redistribute power to his advantage at the 20th Party Congress, making the question of who that will be the most pivotal item to watch.
In this regard, we foresee five plausible scenarios for the PBSC:
Scenario 1: Xi’s protégé takes the Premiership – In this scenario, Xi’s protégé Li Qiang (current Shanghai Party Secretary and Politburo member) or a similarly loyal dark horse ally wins the day. Li seems to be Xi’s first preference for Premier (leader of the State Council). However, Li’s competitiveness has been undermined by Shanghai’s serious and embarrassing difficulties in containing outbreaks of COVID-19 earlier this year. Should Li nonetheless take the position, it would therefore indicate that Xi remains in a very powerful political position. This could however increase the likelihood that Li Keqiang stays within the PBSC in the position of NPC Chairman, while Politburo member Hu Chunhua (who is part of Li’s CYL faction) might replace Han Zheng as Executive Vice Premier (#2 at the State Council), as something of a factional compromise. However, the CYL faction might not be powerful enough to maintain both Li and Hu in critical PBSC positions. Either way, one or two current PBSC members among Wang Yang, Wang Huning, and Zhao Leji would likely remain (possibly shuffling positions). There is also a fair chance, however, that an additional one or more of them might also retire and a Xi-loyalist like Ding Xuexiang, Huang Kunming, Li Xi, or Chen Min’er be handed Zhao Leji’s current position as head of the CCP’s feared internal anti-corruption force, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).
Scenario 2: Wang Yang becomes Premier – In this compromise scenario Wang Yang (also connected to the CYL faction, if more loosely) becomes Premier. This would almost certainly squeeze Li Keqiang out of the PBSC and into retirement entirely. Younger CYL contender Hu Chunhua would also be kept out of the PBSC (as Xi would hardly allow two CYL members to dominate the State Council, unless he is far weaker than conventionally expected). In this scenario Li Qiang would likely take Han Zheng’s position as Executive Vice Premier, while one of Xi’s other protégés such as Ding Xuexiang, Chen Min’er, Li Xi, or Cai Qi would take over from Zhao Leji as head of CCDI. Zhao Leji and Wang Huning would each become head of one of China’s legislative bodies (the NPC and CPPCC), while another close Xi ally (probably Huang Kunming) would take over ideology tsar Wang Huning’s position as head of the Central Secretariat.
Scenario 3: Han Zheng becomes Premier – In this less likely scenario, in which the age limit norm is abandoned, and Xi’s influence is revealed to be significantly more circumscribed, Han Zheng would remain on the PBSC and take the position of Premier, while Li Keqiang would also remain but become Chair of the NPC. Wang Yang would then likely also remain as Chair of the CPPCC, meaning two CYL faction members would make it onto the PBSC alongside Jiang Zemin’s man Han Zheng. Wang Huning would likely retire, and Zhao Leji would take his position. In this case, Xi’s protégé Li Qiang might still then become Executive Vice Premier, while other protégés like Chen Min’er, Ding Xuexiang, Li Xi, Cai Qi, or Huang Kunming would battle for the seat of CCDI head.
Scenario 4: Xi unbound – In this scenario, Xi’s influence proves to be unconstrained and he takes full advantage to set up his ideal PBSC. Li Keqiang, Han Zheng, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, and Li Zhanshu are all replaced by younger, absolutely loyal Xi allies. Ding Xuexiang, Li Qiang, Chen Min’er, Huang Kunming, and Li Xi are all potential candidates here. Xi may also demonstrate some magnanimity under this scenario by promoting someone from another interest group, such as Hu Chunhua, to the PBSC. This scenario appears to remain relatively unlikely, but it is hardly impossible.
Scenario 5: Packing the PBSC – In this wildcard scenario, the PBSC is enlarged from seven to nine seats. This seems most likely to occur if Xi is out-maneuvered and a non-Xi factionalist is set to become Premier, in which case Xi might push to expand the PBSC to compensate by creating new room for more factional appointments. Alternatively, Xi could receive intense pressure (including from his own allies) to set up a next generation of leadership by appointing a greater number of younger leaders to PBSC positions. In this case, Xi might choose to expand the PBSC rather than attempt to oust additional older members, making a strategic move to reward and temporarily satisfy his political base.
Competition for the Politburo
Below the PBSC, a total of nine Politburo members appear set for retirement if age limit norms are followed. Among these are several key policy figures who would need to be replaced, including Xi’s close advisor and “economy tsar” Liu He (see Economy and Trade analysis for more details), China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi (see Foreign Affairs analysis), security chief Guo Shengkun (see Security analysis), and both Vice Chairs of the Central Military Commission, Xu Qiliang and Zhang Youxia (see Military analysis). Among those who are not yet at the age ceiling, one or two (such as Chen Quanguo) might nonetheless also be pushed to retire.
Among those up-and-coming leaders within the Chinese system who will compete intensely to replace these individuals on the Politburo, three are particularly strong competitors:
He Lifeng (born February 1955): Currently Vice Chairman of the CPPCC and Director of the National Development and Reforms Commission (NDRC), He Lifeng is the most likely candidate to replace Liu He as Vice Premier in charge of economic and financial affairs. With a degree in economics from Xiamen University, he began his relationship with Xi early in his career when they worked together in Fujian province. In the past five years he has been among the leaders who has notably accompanied Xi during nearly all of his domestic and overseas trips.
Miao Hua (born November 1955): Currently a member of the CMC and the head of the CMC Political Work Department, Miao is the most likely candidate to take the second-ranking position on the next CMC (after Xi himself) as the Vice Chairman in charge of political affairs, thereby joining the Politburo. He has long-running connections with Xi since they overlapped in Fujian early in their careers. Moreover, Miao served as Political Commissar of the PLA Navy before moving to his current position, and there is some evidence from recent promotions within the military to indicate a growing influence of the Navy within the PLA staff – further boosting Miao’s chances.
Ma Xingrui (born October 1959): The current Party Secretary of Xinjiang, Ma is an aerospace engineer who has previously served as party chief of Shenzhen and Governor of Guangdong. His experience increases his credibility in local governance. His hometown of Yuncheng, Shandong, is also the birthplace of Peng Liyuan, Xi’s wife, which might win him some extra credit.
Other hopefuls include:
Yang Zhenwu (born May 1955): Currently Secretary-General of the NPC Standing Committee, Yang may join the next Politburo as the #2 of the national legislature, succeeding Wang Chen as Xi’s top watchdog in the NPC leadership. Yang’s career is very similar to Wang’s (both are from the party-state media, and both served as publisher of the People’s Daily). Also like Wang, Yang’s relationship to Xi can be traced back to their early years, when Xi and Yang worked together in Hebei province. The NPC is not an insignificant body. There is a reason that Li Zhanshu, widely regarded as one of Xi’s closest political allies, was positioned to run it. Xi is now likely to prioritize an ally at the head of the NPC even over checking Li Keqiang’s power. As it is very possible that the next NPC Chairman is not a close ally of Xi’s, he will need to secure his own deputy there to run the NPC’s daily operations; Yang is one of the best available choices in this regard.
Wang Xiaohong (born July 1957): Currently Party Secretary and Minister of Public Security, Wang recently gained concurrent appointment as Deputy Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Commission (CPLAC), the organization overseeing China’s entire legal-enforcement system, including the courts, the procuratorate, and the intelligence system. Wang is said to be among those most trusted by Xi, as their relationship can also be traced back to the local politics of Xiamen in the 1980s. Xi has made huge efforts since coming to power to tightly control the so-called “knife” of the party (the legal enforcement system), and Wang has been promoted quickly over the past ten years as a part of that push.
Chen Yixin (born September 1959): Currently Secretary-General of the CPLAC, and a close ally of Xi who worked alongside him in Zhejiang province (making him part of Xi’s “New Zhijiang Army” factional subgroup), Chen has like Wang Xiaohong (above) achieved rapid promotion under Xi’s push to control the security system. He is a very strong candidate to become head of CPLAC, with Chen and Wang potentially alternatives to each other as contenders for the Politburo seat. However, if Xi is powerful enough to send both into the Politburo then Chen might be transferred to another post outside the CPLAC system.
Xiao Jie (born June 1957): Currently State Councilor and Secretary-General of the State Council, Xiao is a former Minister of Finance with a close working relationship with Li Keqiang and career connections to the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao administrations. However, he shares an educational background with Liu He. Thus, he could emerge on the Politburo functioning as a factional compromise between Xi and Li, probably in the capacity of a Vice Premier.
Gong Zheng (born March 1960): Mayor of Shanghai, Gong is rumored to be a brother-in-law of Liu He. Shanghai party secretary Li Qiang will almost certainly move to Beijing. Gong then has a very high possibility of becoming Shanghai’s next Party Secretary and thereby joining the Politburo.
Zhang Qingwei (born November 1961): Party Secretary of Hunan, Zhang is the most senior incumbent provincial leader nationwide, and a leading figure among those politicians with a military-industrial background – a group that has emerged as highly influential in the Xi era. However, the fact that Zhang’s major career advancements took place under Jiang Zemin may limit his trustworthiness, while other candidates represent more important localities. Ma Xingrui (above) and Lou Yangsheng (below) are probably more likely candidates for any seat he might take.
Lou Yangsheng (born October 1959): Party Secretary of Henan, with a background in Zhejiang working under Xi, Lou is the second most senior among the incumbent provincial party secretaries nationwide after Zhang Qingwei. His experience as party chief of two provinces (Shanxi before Henan) is unparalleled by his peers (other than Zhang Qingwei) and will give him a boost in reaching the Politburo.
Shen Yiqin (born December 1959) or Shen Yueyue (born January 1957): Traditionally, the Politburo has included only a single token female member, and this norm is likely to continue. Currently that member is Sun Chunlan, who will almost certainly retire. As there are very few female leaders at the top levels of China’s intensely patriarchal politics, there are very few candidates who could replace her. The most likely is one of the “Two Shens.” Shen Yueyue is the more senior, and worked in Xi’s powerbase of Zhejiang, but has a CYL background. This may make Shen Yiqin, the only female provincial party chief as Party Secretary of Guizhou, the stronger candidate. Shen Yiqin also has the advantage of having worked with Li Zhanshu in Guizhou, as well as being an ethnic minority (Bai), given that the almost entirely Han CCP also prefers to include token representatives of ethnic minorities in the Politburo. She lacks experience in national-level governance, however.
Liu Guozhong (born July 1962): Party Secretary of Shaanxi, and a political protégé of Li Zhanshu.
Zhang Guoqing (born August 1964): Party Secretary of Liaoning, former Mayor of Tianjin, and former Mayor of Chongqing. Based on a recent high-profile visit by Xi to Liaoning, he seems to have a higher than average chance to join the Politburo.
Hao Peng (born July 1960): Current head of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, and former Governor of Qinghai, the power base of Zhao Leji.
Yin Li (born August 1962): Party Secretary of Fujian province, who has some connections through Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan.
Dark horse candidates include:
Jing Junhai (born December 1960) and Xu Lingyi (born April 1958): If Xi Jinping’s predominance during the selection process is exceptional, one or both of these candidates could be elevated to the Politburo. Jing is Party Secretary of Jilin province, while Xu is a Deputy Secretary of the Central Disciplinary Inspection Committee (CDIC). Jing is from Shaanxi, where he won favor with Xi by building a lavish tomb for Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping’s father. Xu, meanwhile, is one of Xi’s long-time subordinates in Zhejiang, and, due to his connection with Xi, has gained a reputation as a formidable discipline inspector.
Chen Jining (born February 1964) and Li Shulei (born January 1964): Chen is Mayor of Beijing (and close to Xi Jinping’s ally Chen Xi), while Li is deputy head of the CCP Central Public Relations Department (and rumored to have once been Xi’s private secretary). Both young rising stars, their inclusion on the Politburo would be a long-shot, but is possible if Xi decides to make generational change a key goal of reorganizing the body.
When it comes to top-level decision-making on policy, including choices on strategy and overall direction, the selection of the new Politburo will have a relatively limited effect. At this level, Xi Jinping will retain final say over every major decision. However, more fine-grained decision-making on policy details and implementation will be directly impacted by the selection of leadership personnel.
Visit each policy area in the visualization above for more analysis on how personnel changes are likely to influence policy moving forward.