China Power | Politics | East Asia

China Looks Ahead to 20th Party Congress in 2022

China’s elite politics begins the run toward the personnel changes of October 2022’s 20th Party Congress.

Tristan Kenderdine
China Looks Ahead to 20th Party Congress in 2022

New members of the Politburo Standing Committee, from left, Han Zheng, Wang Huning, Li Zhanshu, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, and Zhao Leji stand together at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

The 19th Party Congress Fifth Plenum is completed; the 14th Five-Year Plan is in draft. Now China’s elite politics begins its run toward the quinquennial personnel changes of October 2022.

In 2022, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will hold its 20th National Party Congress, shaking up the top echelon of Chinese politics. There are two extreme scenarios for the institutional transition of supreme leadership in 2022: either Xi Jinping stays for a third term, unprecedented in recent history, or he is dismissed by internal CCP factions and his political power neutered before October 2022. Whichever of these transpires, there is a huge interlocking institutional framework of lower-level cadres vying for various stages of political career promotion.

This is the first in a series of institutional profiles of potential Politburo leaders for 2022. The 25-member Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China is the third most powerful organ in China’s politics, after the pseudo-institution of the supreme leadership and the Politburo Standing Committee. In the current political climate, the Politburo is the highest organ of power that is likely to remain institutionally stable through the end of Xi Jinping’s second five-year term.

This series will examine the lesser known cast of characters in the pantomime: The political acolytes and economic policy magistrates that make up the wider fabric of political stability and constancy in China’s political system. Examining some key personnel in this political term as they make their careers in the subnational tournaments of political progress can help policymakers to imagine more multiplicitous and nuanced scenarios for China’s political, social, economic, foreign, and geoeconomic policy in the coming 2022-2027 period and beyond.

The backdrop of China’s leadership transition is a world in geoeconomic flux. The narrative of China’s convergence into the global economy has been shattered, and globalization has been shaken in the theories of both neoliberal transnational capital and development economics. However, China’s model is an inversion of the Japanese Listian system of national economic development and German Wilhelmine industro-nationalism. While a novel application, this is a political grafting of theoretical models with known path-dependent faults.

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China’s future institutional path-dependencies center on the interplay between this national system of economic development and the CCP cadre system. The cadre system is the most stable political institution in contemporary China. At the level of Politburo contention, these are people who have waited entire lifetimes for their final political appointments, and who have served different factions and politically survived through decades of differing policy and institutional structures.

The consolidation of power under Xi Jinping has weakened the explanatory power of institutionalist analyses of CCP cadre movements; however, the chairs within that Party structure are still stable dependent variables. The chairs that form the institutions of power may change slightly, but they are in very stable orbits. The reality of the coming decade of China’s 2022-2032 political history will play out in the shadow of this institutionalized system.

However, the tides of political fortune can swing very quickly at the top of elite Chinese politics. I do not think that Xi Jinping will be the general secretary of the CCP in October 2022. Consider that Xi was very nearly removed from power in March 2020, and that his own rise to power was on the back of a failed coup.

If Xi Jinping will no longer be the leader of the CCP in November 2022 it will not be because of institutional grey rules that would require the chairman of the Party to serve only two five-year terms, or age restrictions but more because his position had become untenable to the factions within the Party who are capable of changing history. Wang Qishan is the obvious power-broking defensive pivot to watch, being a paternal figure to many in the CCP hierarchy.

Horizon views of scenarios and personnel appointments for an October 2022 leadership transition.

To begin the scenario-testing, we entertain a variety of scenarios for the 2022 Politburo Standing Committee. The scenarios seen here are long-view horizon shots. The multiple pathways depicted here must obviously coalesce into a single functional reality the closer the time horizon reaches to October 2022, but in the meantime China’s elite politics has a huge array of political machinations in constant play.

The first two are New Left conservative scenarios, both in the “Xi continues” narrative. The first introduces more progressive change, signalling that Xi would have more open choice in promotions. The second is a very conservative scenario where most personnel stay and only change position; this is the scenario where only Xi staying on is the greatest variable. In none of the scenarios is Wang Huning elevated, as a third Xi term would likely weaken state positions and strengthen party positions, meaning Wang staying as central secretariat secretary would likely become a stronger position that State Council premier due to this institutional shift

“Change without hope,” though, is a left radical scenario that considers a wholesale change of personnel but does not alter policy course. This scenario sees the exit of Xi Jinping but the continuation of the policy course set by the 2012-2022 administration. It promotes Wang Huning to top position, places Chen Min’er as deputy, and would presume that Xi Jinping controls policy and political direction from a third office, essentially a Medvedev scenario.

The fourth is a left radical scenario that abandons most institutional conventions and essentially sets up a war cabinet. Wang Yi, currently a state councilor and so normally not eligible, comes in despite also passing the age limitation. Liu He stays with the same reasoning, and CCP and ideology stalwarts stack the state positions. This “Wilhelmine sun” scenario is a drastic descent into Schmittian worlds of expansionism.

The fifth is a radical reset to a right conservative scenario. For either of these to take shape there would have to be serious elite political change and a drastic change in policy direction back toward the politicians and politics of reform and opening. The difficulty in constructing scenarios for a swing back to the right demonstrates how effectively eviscerated the right has been under Xi. “Right” in China is also much farther left than in any contemporary Western democracy; as such, any future rightists will be ones so left to have politically survived this long. In this scenario Zhao Kezhi is “promoted” in order to nullify his influence and some conciliatory consolidations of market liberal jurisdictions in Shanghai and Guangdong re-empowered.

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The consolidation of power under Xi has weakened the explanatory power of institutional analysis of CCP cadre changes. However the legitimacy of the party rests upon this internal party institution. Closer to the time of the actual Congress, it will be possible to refine this cadre calculus and see more clearly the profiles of the personnel likely to ascend. Such analysis remains valuable to observers of the political acumen of future Chinese leaders as they come up into view. And without inside knowledge of the cliques and factions possibly poised within the Party, institutional public administration analysis can give us a clearer view of possible political futures. Predicting Standing Committee scenarios lets us then move on to predicting Politburo seats, a more complicated but potentially more rewarding endeavor.

This scenario-testing and risk analysis of future Politburo and Standing Committee membership is an analytical exercise from a historical institutionalist perspective that can help to explain the complexity of institutional change within the Chinese Communist Party. By October 2022 we will be witnessing a new chapter in political history. A continuation of Xi Jinping’s rule is likely to pursue the inevitable path-dependencies of an industrial power’s rise into externalized nationalism, but any new leadership structure would be faced with a near impossible problem of reintegrating China’s institutions into the global economy.