BEIJING (Reuters) – China wrapped up its twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle on Sunday, with Xi Jinping securing a third term as general secretary of the ruling Communist Party and packing the new Politburo Standing Committee with allies.
The precedent-breaking third term for Xi secures his place as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China.
Here are key takeaways from the 20th party congress:
Xi’s men in
The new seven-man Politburo Standing Committee is made up entirely of Xi loyalists, including Shanghai party chief Li Qiang, who is on track to replace Li Keqiang as premier in March.
Breaking with a tradition of factional checks and balances stretching back to Mao’s death in 1976, Xi installed a leadership configuration of loyalists at the extreme end of predictions. Some analysts had expected — or hoped for — the inclusion of a token member not allied with Xi.
Three of the four new Standing Committee members owe their political rise to Xi, and the fourth is believed to be closely aligned with him.
All but Guangdong party chief Li Xi worked under Xi in the 2000s, either in affluent Zhejiang province or in Shanghai. They were promoted during or after their time with Xi, a clear sign that they had earned his trust and benefited from his patronage.
“It’s truly remarkable in the sense that it’s almost like a break from the past 40 plus years. Xi is the Chinese leader who really got to pick his own team,” said Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
“We see victory of (the) ‘Zhejiang army’ – persons close to Xi Jinping who shared career paths with him in that province – and the elimination of what little may have remained of other factions,” said Bates Gill, executive director of the Center for China Analysis at the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York.
More power, more accountability
Having packed his leadership team with allies, and with the party constitution amended to enshrine Xi’s authority and ideas as its “core”, Xi has an entirely free hand to make and implement policy, for better or worse.
That means that if things backfire, it is harder to shift blame, analysts say. It also risks creating an echo chamber of group-think, where alternative voices aren’t heard and critical feedback is withheld.
Yang Zhang, assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University, said Xi’s “autocracy may provoke stronger international pushback from the U.S.-led Western countries. All of these scenarios will make his third and likely fourth terms not as easy as expected.”
Xi opened the congress with a speech indicating continuity in policy direction even as he rebranded his vision for the path ahead as “Chinese-style modernisation” and emphasised security in an increasingly dangerous world.
Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at National University Of Singapore, said the outcome of the party congress likely means more Chinese assertiveness in foreign policy and security.
“So, probably more direct party-state direction of the economy,” Chong said.
Alvin Tan, head of Asia FX Strategy at RBC Capital Markets in Singapore, predicted Xi’s harsh zero-COVID eradication strategy would like become “more entrenched”.
Xi’s appointment to a third term was not his only breaking of the norms that long guided China’s elite politics.
By excluding Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, both 67, from the party Central Committee and Standing Committee, Xi broke with the “seven-up/eight-down” rule that those aged 67 or under would remain for another five years.
He also without explanation shrank the Politburo to 24 from 25 people – the odd number meant that there could be a tie-breaker on close votes.
“With Xi practising ‘one-man-politics’, there’s no longer any need for a tie-breaker, everyone will vote according to what Xi wants,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
There is also no woman on the Politburo for the first time in 20 years. No woman has ever made it onto the Standing Committee.
No successor in sight
When Xi joined the Standing Committee in 2007, it was clear from his age and from the makeup of the committee that he was on track to replace Hu Jintao, who held China’s top post of party general secretary, once Hu’s second term ended in 2012.
There has been no heir-apparent since Xi assumed power, and he kept it that way on Sunday.
None of the Standing Committee newcomers are young enough to take over in 2027 and serve two terms after that under the norms of Chinese politics. The youngest is Ding Xuexiang, who is 60.
The absence of a clear successor indicates that Xi may want to remain beyond three terms, increasing policy risk and unpredictability the longer he is in power, analysts say.
The lack of a successor creates key-man risk — Xi is 69 — and undermines the orderly leadership transition norms that were put in place after the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution to avoid a repeat of Mao’s struggles to hold power indefinitely.
The run-up to the party congress was hardly smooth, with China facing sharp economic slowdown, frustration over zero-COVID and worsening relations with the West.
There was also drama during the congress.
At Saturday’s closing ceremony, former President Hu Jintao was escorted from the stage, where he had been seated next to Xi. Hu, who is 79 and had appeared somewhat unsteady when he was assisted onto the same stage a week ago, appeared to resist leaving as stewards escorted him out.
On the day the congress opened last Sunday, a protester was seen dragged onto Chinese consulate grounds in the British city of Manchester and assaulted in an incident that police are investigating.
Days before the congress began, Beijing authorities removed extremely rare banners of political protest from an overpass in the Chinese capital. The slogans included a call for Xi’s ouster and an end to strict COVID policies.
(Reporting by Tony Munroe, Yew Lun Tian, Eduardo Baptista and Martin Quin Pollard; Editing by William Mallard)