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Who Will Make It Onto China’s Top Leadership Body?

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Who Will Make It Onto China’s Top Leadership Body?

Answering that requires first answering another question: How much sway will previous norms hold in Chinese politics in 2022?

Who Will Make It Onto China’s Top Leadership Body?
Credit: VOA/ Dong Fang

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is expected to hold its 20th Party Congress later this year. At that event, the promotions and retirements of a significant number of Chinese officials will be revealed, and if “personnel is policy,” we will get some inkling of China’s political future.

One of the most important organizational entities in China is the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).  Currently, the PSC has seven members: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, and Han Zheng. What might the PSC look like after this year’s Party Congress?

Over the past few decades, some institutional norms have developed in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which have been helpful in understanding personnel changes stemming from party congresses.  At the same time, conventional wisdom sees Xi Jinping as an individual who has moved quickly and successfully to consolidate his position and as a person comfortable breaking with tradition if necessary.  What does this mean for the Politburo Standing Committee?

As far as the PSC goes, one norm has to do with retirement age. Generally speaking, those 68 and older at the time of a Party Congress have had to retire. On that basis, we might expect three people to step down from the PSC at the upcoming Party Congress: Xi Jinping, Li Zhanshu, and Han Zheng.

This, however, is not going to happen. In 2018, the PRC’s Constitution was changed to eliminate what had been a two-term restriction on individuals holding the office of president. The move was not uncontroversial. Notably, one Chinese commentator (Cai Xia, a former professor at the CCP’s Central Party School) has said that forcing people to swallow the constitutional revision was akin to “stuffing dogshit down their throats.” Precisely because of such feelings, it beggars belief that Xi will not extend his term, given the effort that was likely needed to make it possible.

How many will leave the PSC this year, then? According to Cheng Li, it might just be one (Li Zhanshu).  I, however, continue think there will be three departures, with Xi Jinping staying and Li Keqiang leaving along with Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng.

Why Li Keqiang? By age, he could actually stay on for another term. However, when the constitution was changed in 2018 to remove the two-term limit for the country’s president, no similar change was made for the country’s premier. Currently ranked second in the CCP, Li can’t move up (the top spot is occupied, and the incumbent seems set to continue on), and with Li having served two full terms as premier, he can’t stay where he is. Li Keqiang is not part of Xi’s clique, and if the choice is between retirement or some kind of unusual change (that would effectively be a demotion) to stay on the PSC, retirement seems more likely.

If three people will be leaving the PSC, how many new faces are likely to join? Assuming the size and structure of the PSC stays the same (not everyone does – see for example, Alice Miller’s comments about the possibility of significant structural change), we should expect to see three new faces joining the PSC. Who might those individuals be?

A second norm for Politburo Standing Committee membership is that it is rare for a person to ascend to the PSC without having first served on the Politburo (helicoptering onto the PSC happens, but is rare).  Currently, the Politburo has 25 members. Subtract out the seven who already sit on the PSC and that leaves 18 individuals. Of those 18, if we subtract those that will have reached retirement age by the time of the upcoming Party Congress, that leaves nine potential contenders. Six of them are sufficiently old that, by traditional retirement norms, they are only in a position to serve a single term: Chen Quanguo (born 1955), Cai Qi (b. 1955), Li Hongzhong (b. 1956), Li Xi (b. 1956), Huang Kunming (b. 1956), and Li Qiang (b. 1959). Three are in a position to serve two terms: Chen Min’er (b. 1960), Ding Xuexiang (b. 1962), and Hu Chunhua (b. 1963).

Of these nine, which three seem most likely to reach the PSC at the 20th Party Congress?

By seniority, Hu Chunhua should be one of the three.  Hu joined the Politburo in 2012; the other eight didn’t reach the Politburo until 2017.

As far as the other eight are concerned, from my perspective, norms alone are insufficient to choose between them, and other factors need to be considered. Five of the contenders are currently party secretaries of provinces or provincial-level cities in the PRC (Cai Qi, Beijing; Li Hongzhong, Tianjin; Li Qiang, Shanghai; Chen Min’er, Chongqing; Li Xi, Guangdong). Ding Xuexiang is director of the General Office of the CCP. Huang Kunming is head of the CCP’s Propaganda Department. Chen Quanguo was Xinjiang party secretary up until Christmas last year.

Hu Chunhua is generally more associated with Hu Jintao than Xi Jinping. As such, if Hu Chunhua is going to be on the PSC, it seems Xi Jinping will want one of his close allies to occupy a similar structural position (i.e. ascend to the PSC with the ability to serve more than one term). If so, there appear to be two possibilities: Ding Xuexiang or Chen Min’er. Of the two, Chen Min’er is more senior (not only is he two years older, he was also made a full member of the CCP Central Committee in 2012, whereas Ding Xuexiang did not become a full member until 2017). Thus, by the end of the year, we should expect to see Chen Min’er as a new face on the PSC.

And the last spot?

If Li Hongzhong is more associated with Jiang Zemin and Chen Quanguo is more associated with Hu Jintao, then perhaps not them. With Huang Kunming having already functioned as head of the Propaganda Department as a Politburo member, it may be that he is where he needs to be. One might make similar arguments for Cai Qi (already nearby and available for consultation as Beijing’s party secretary, who helps keep things smooth in the city) and Li Qiang (somebody has to keep an eye on Shanghai).

So what about Li Xi and Ding Xuexiang?

As current Guangdong party secretary, Li Xi might do well as a successor to Han Zheng as executive vice premier. In that role, he would then be well positioned to someday become premier. Unfortunately for Li, due to age, he is only in a position to serve one term on the PSC, and so, the full trajectory seems unlikely. In contrast, Ding Xuexiang appears well positioned to take over Wang Huning’s role as first secretary of the CCP’s Central Secretariat, and his elevation would create a natural momentum for changes in the composition of the PSC over the next decade.

With three current PSC members expected to leave this fall (Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, and Han Zheng), three current members expected to leave in 2027 (Wang Yang, Wang Huning, and Zhao Leji), and the possibility of three new PSC members – all with the potential to serve two terms – coming on board this year (Hu Chunhua, Chen Min’er, and Ding Xuexiang), a relatively smooth set of positional transitions over the next decade seems possible.

In particular, it’s possible that seniority among those continuing on as members of the PSC could be preserved at the 20th Party Congress by having Wang Yang become premier, Wang Huning become chairman of the National People’s Congress, and Zhao Leji become chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). This would then free up space for, say, Ding Xuexiang to become first secretary of the Central Secretariat of the CCP, Chen Min’er to become secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), and Hu Chunhua to become executive vice premier.  It would also help ensure a combination of experience and new blood on the PSC in 2027, when one could envision Wang Yang, Wang Huning, and Zhao Leji stepping down, and Hu Chunhua, Chen Min’er, and Ding Xuexiang taking over their roles.

Of course, offering up predictions can be a hazardous affair. After the 19th Party Congress in 2017, I suggested that Xi might decide against a third term – only to see the country’s constitution changed in 2018 to remove presidential term limits. Structurally, the size of the PSC could change, and it is always possible someone who is not currently a member of the Politburo could helicopter onto the PSC. Also, the track record of predicting PSC roles on the basis of fit is not tremendously strong, and ultimately, there are many views on the subject of Chinese politics.

Still, there seems to be merit in putting forward an institutionally-driven base case that includes a plausible slate of individuals whom one could imagine being part of the PSC going forward – not necessarily because things will play out exactly as suggested, but because by putting forward a benchmark, it may be possible to see how far actual results deviate from a view of the world where norms matter.