Who would have imagined street stalls could grab so much attention in China? Premier Li Keqiang’s comments about expanding street stalls to promote employment and the apparent pushback by Xi Jinping’s allies against his proposal have also revealed something that has become an afterthought in the Xi era: the power and importance of the country’s premier.
Li’s days as premier are limited – in fact, a little less than 1,000. When the National People’s Congress (NPC) amended China’s constitution in 2018 to remove term limits for the positions of president and vice president, it left the two-term limit for the premier unchanged. Li will have to either retire a bit early (he will be 67 at the 20th Party Congress in 2022, an age at which Politburo-level Chinese politicians usually receive a new five-year term) or move to a different position, for example chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC or the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, similar to what Li Peng did in 1998. Because of the focus on what Xi will do in 2022, an important question has been ignored: Who will take Li Keqiang’s place?
Normally, it should have been clear who will be China’s next premier: the current first-ranked vice premier, who is also a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). But when the PSC omitted any successor for Xi as party leader at the 2017 Party Congress, it also omitted a successor for Li. Han Zheng, the current first-ranked vice premier, will be 68 years old in 2022, which is exactly the traditional retirement age. As Han is not a close ally of Xi, it’s unlikely that he would be promoted after this age. This muddies the waters, but also increases Xi’s possibilities.
Some might be tempted to say that the identity of China’s next premier is irrelevant, because they will be nothing more than a figurehead. The premier might have limited influence when it comes to formulating the general policy framework, but plays an important role in implementing policies. The debate about street stalls should make it clear that the premier still wields important power and who holds the post matters. If Li was Xi’s loyal ally, this debate and the associated tensions, like other episodes before, would have never happened.
And, most importantly, the next premier will also probably be the second most powerful politician in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), so in case something unexpected happens to Xi, assuming he remains in charge for the next five or 10 years, this person will be best positioned to take control of the party. Whether they will be able to keep power will depend entirely on their political skills, network, and unforeseeable power plays, but it should be clear that whoever becomes China’s next premier will be catapulted in the limelight if something happens to the general secretary. This is why loyalty to Xi will probably be an important criterion for the next premier.
All Chinese premiers in the reform and opening-up era have previously served, even for a few months, as vice premiers. Indeed, there is even a precedent for a vice premier who wasn’t a PSC member to become premier: Wen Jiabao in 2002-2003. Familiarity with how the State Council operates is a logical prerequisite. If this precedent is to be followed, then there are only five possible candidates: Wang Yang, Han Zheng, Sun Chunlan, Hu Chunhua, and Liu He (Wang Qishan, vice premier between 2008 and 2013 and current vice president, will be 74 at the next party congress, so it’s highly unlikely he would be considered for any other position). If one adds to this the precedent of the 68 retirement age, then only two options remain: Wang Yang and Hu Chunhua. This seriously limits the range of options, so while it’s possible that one of these two might end up China’s next premier, it’s very likely that Xi and his allies are looking at a broader list of names.
Almost certainly, unless Xi will take a totally unprecedented (and quite reckless) decision, the next premier should be somebody from the current Politburo.
The normal, traditional option for China’s next premier would be Hu Chunhua, now the third-ranked vice premier. Hu is part of the sixth generation of leadership and will be only 59 years old at the 2022 party congress, so he will be able to serve two terms, regardless of whether the retirement age tradition remains unchanged or not. But Hu isn’t a close Xi ally – on the contrary, he is closer to former president and party leader Hu Jintao, and also to Li Keqiang, all part of the so-called Tuanpai (Youth League) faction. Hu has shown loyalty to Xi and could probably do a good job at implementing his vision, but it’s unlikely that the two have any special synergy or that Xi would trust Hu to protect his associates and promote his vision if he becomes unable to fulfill his duties or dies while in office.
This leads to two more attractive (and more likely) possibilities for Xi: keeping and promoting Liu He (who will be 70 in 2022) or promoting the other sixth generation leader, Chen Min’er, currently the party chief of Chongqing.
Liu would be a radical, but logical, option. It would break past precedent as Liu is older than Xi and would be older than Wang Qishan was when he was named vice president – and Wang abandoned all important party positions, from the PSC to Central Committee membership (Liu He could also become premier without party titles, but that’s very unlikely). However, Liu is very close to Xi, is a highly regarded and competent economist, and has experience as vice premier, making a promotion natural in that regard.
Chen Min’er is a possible choice given his age and his closeness to Xi. He would be a loyal ally and could serve two terms as premier. If something happens to Xi, Chen could easily step in as his successor and, theoretically, win the support of Xi’s allies. But Chen has zero experience with the State Council and relatively little experience with the economy. He is more a party man, with more propaganda experience. He would be a more logical choice for general secretary than for premier. This should diminish the chances he will be the pick to lead the State Council.
Before looking at the Politburo, Xi also has three more (unusual) options on the current PSC: Wang Yang (67 in 2022), Wang Huning (66 or 67 in 2022), and Zhao Leji (65 in 2022). Wang Yang has been a Politburo member since 2007 and he is also the only one of the three with State Council experience (he was vice premier between 2013 and 2018). His choice would make sense, until we account for the fact that he is not a Xi ally and there have been very few people with the honor of being Politburo members for four terms. Also, if Li Keqiang retires at 67, Wang Yang should normally follow the same path. So, while Wang is a rational choice for China, he’s unlikely to be the country’s next premier.
Wang Huning and Zhao Leji are both considered Xi allies, but they lack experience with the State Council. Wang Huning hasn’t even led a provincial government, while Zhao was party chief in Qinghai (a province with around 5 million inhabitants) and Shaanxi (a province with around 37 million inhabitants). The question isn’t whether they would be capable of leading China’s government, but whether Xi would take this risk. If he does, it’s a sign his options were limited (being unable to promote Liu He or to parachute somebody else in from the broader Politburo) and didn’t want to pick somebody he doesn’t fully trust.
Finally, there are quite a few possibilities in the broader Politburo, where Hu Chunhua and Chen Min’er are themselves to be found. Cai Qi (party secretary of Beijing), Li Qiang (party secretary of Shanghai), Li Xi (party secretary of Guangdong), or even Ding Xuexiang (director of the party’s General Office) and Huang Kunming (head of the party’s Propaganda Department) could be considered. They are all Xi allies, but with the exception of Ding, none could serve two terms if the retirement age of 68 remains unchanged. Ding and Huang also lack experience leading even a province. But one of the two Lis, the leaders of Shanghai and Guangdong, might be acceptable choices for Xi and the other party leaders.
Anticipating who will lead the State Council after 2023, especially with so much time to go, is, of course, impossible, but there is value in analyzing the options, because the final outcome will say something about the internal dynamics of the Chinese leadership. If Xi remains in power for a third term, but names Hu Chunhua as premier, this will show that there are still limits to his power, or at least that he wants to preserve the image of a leadership that isn’t completely dominated by him, but still incorporates people from other party factions. On the other hand, if Xi names Liu He as premier and his second-in-command in the party (or if Xi unexpectedly abandons the position of premier altogether, establishing a purely presidential system), this indicates that Xi is in complete control and has abandoned any attempt to keep appearances alive. Promoting somebody from the PSC, like Wang Huning or Zhao Leji, would also show there are limits to Xi’s power, as he couldn’t promote better suited allies from the broader Politburo.
The choice of the next premier is also important for China, not just because of that person’s skills and capacity to govern the country, but through the symbolism of the choice itself. If Liu He will be announced as China’s next premier, this will signal more interest in continuing economic reforms and will be well-received by Chinese entrepreneurs, foreign investors, and financial markets. But if Wang Huning somehow ends up promoted as premier, it will have the opposite effect.
Whoever will become China’s next premier in 2023 will have a difficult mission ahead, leading the country through a challenging period when reforms will have to accelerate and inequality will have to be addressed, while economic growth will slow down, debt problems will continue to haunt the economy, the external environment will become harsher, and, most importantly, the public and elite backlash to 10 years of increasing CCP control will intensify. What was once a predictable outcome, the identity of the next premier, has now become a complete guessing game in the “new era.” In this uncertain political environment, China’s next premier could become a simple rubber-stamping secretary, or might end up with China’s destiny in their hands.
Andrei Lungu is president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP).