Xi Must Finally Show Hand on What Third Term Will Look Like

  • Leader’s return to Central Committee to confirm plans to stay
  • Body’s composition will provide clues on how Xi plans to rule

Xi Jinping has already rewritten China’s rules of political succession. The end of the Communist Party’s congress will show how far he intends to go.

The twice-a-decade gathering is expected to culminate around noon Saturday with the announcement of a new Central Committee, about 200 of the nation’s most powerful ministers, executives and generals. Xi’s presence on the list will provide the first official confirmation that the 69-year-old leader intends to ignore the party’s unofficial retirement age of 68. It also basically guarantees his return for a third term when top leadership posts are unveiled, likely Sunday.

The changes to the Central Committee will reveal much about Xi’s intentions as he opens the door to indefinite rule. Will he keep aging allies like legislative chief Li Zhanshu, 72, indicating a broader rejection of the retirement norms? Will younger officials like Premier Li Keqiang, 67, and top political adviser Wang Yang, 67, exit early, suggesting a willingness to enforce rules for those other than the “core” leader?

The removal of figures like Li Keqiang and Wang — the party’s No. 2 and No. 4 officials — would set the stage for a sweeping overhaul of the Politburo’s supreme Standing Committee. Their absence would clear spots for Xi to promote allies like current chief of staff Ding Xuexiang and Shanghai party chief Li Qiang to top jobs, deepening China’s shift to personalized rule. Their presence would signal that the status quo has held.

“Xi’s people will get a big win,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy who once covered Xi as a state media journalist. “Xi feels comfortable with these folks, and they will support Xi’s policies and even Xi’s fourth term. It will strengthen one-man rule. China’s relationship with the West will become worse. Xi is in an echo chamber.”

The Standing Committee lineup will be announced after the new Central Committee meets to ratify the decision formally. That meeting is expected to come Sunday, if the party sticks to the schedule it followed at its last congress five years ago.

The congress is also expected to amend the party’s charter, potentially giving Xi’s governing philosophy a sleeker name — “Xi Jinping Thought” — and putting it on par with the teachings of Mao Zedong. The charter could also formally affirm Xi’s status as its “core” leader and his doctrines as the party’s guiding theory. Those changes would make plain that any challenge to him is tantamount to opposing the party.

The Central Committee that emerges from the gathering will represent the culmination of Xi’s efforts to consolidate power since rising to the top a decade ago. Its makeup will also illustrate his willingness to break the rules to ensure Chinese politics revolve around him for the foreseeable future.

Xi would be first of the almost 1,000 officials who have sat on the Central Committee over the past 20 years to exceed the retirement age, according to a Bloomberg analysis of government data. During his tenure, he has overseen an unprecedented purge of the body, including early retirements and expulsions for corruption. Some 65% of the body was replaced five years ago.

The individuals named to Central Committee will run China’s government agencies, state companies, universities, media outlets and military commands over the next five years. In his address to open the congress last Sunday, Xi touted China’s rise as a global power while warning of “dangerous storms” ahead amid a slowing economy and an increasingly fraught rivalry with the US.

The Central Committee’s makeup should shed light on the team that’ll steer the world’s second-largest economy into this period of increasing global turbulence. One question is whether People’s Bank of China Governor Yi Gang, 64, and party chief Guo Shuqing, 66, who are both around official retirement ages for their ranks, will retire or remain in their posts.

Earlier this week, China delayed publishing gross domestic product data, an unprecedented move that analysts attributed to the high-stakes political conclave. The data was expected to show a muted recovery in the third quarter, from almost zero year-on-year growth in the prior three months.

With Xi expected to hang onto power for much of this decade, the new Central Committee might provide clues about a possible successor. Members of the “Luckiest Generation” — cadres born in the 1970s, who missed the worst of the Mao era and enjoyed the best of the ensuing boom years — are expected to make up about 10% of the next Central Committee, mostly as alternates, according to Cheng Li, a scholar at the John L. Thornton China Center at The Brookings Institution.

More than 100 of the ‘70s generation already occupy senior positions across provinces and ministries. They’ll likely rise to China’s top leadership ranks during a period in which the country could finally overtake the US as the world’s largest economy, even as growth slows and population decline takes hold.

“The election of this body is the most important outcome of the congress because it essentially decides on the top echelon of the party for the next five years,” said Adam Ni, publisher of the China Neican newsletter on Chinese politics. “One of the things that people will look at is how ‘Xi-ist’ is the Central Committee,” Ni said, adding that the body “will be more densely networked or connected with Xi than in the past.”

Source: Bloomberg

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