A picture is worth a thousand words. And if there is one image that the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China which concluded in Beijing on October 22 leaving General Secretary Xi Jinping in complete control of Chinese politics, is likely be remembered by, it will be that of one leader being removed from the stage just as another was being coronated.
At the closing session of the congress, one of the few open to the media, journalists entered the cavernous Great Hall of the People to the surprising sight of Hu Jintao, the man who led China for a decade until 2012, being shepherded out of the room just as key resolutions, such as an amendment to the party constitution, were being put to a voice vote. Xi and Li Keqiang, the outgoing premier–once Hu’s protégé–barely made eye contact with Hu, as a young security aide, with a firm grip on the elder leader’s arm, walked him out.
Hu’s unceremonious exit remains a mystery. The official media attributed it to health reasons. Videos show that the exit followed a minor kerfuffle, and some confusion, over his insistence on opening a red folder of documents placed in front of every official. After failing to dissuade him, Xi called in the aide, who then removed Hu, who is known to be in deteriorating health. Whether Hu was confused and disoriented, as he appeared to be, or whether he was displeased by the party congress outcomes will remain a matter of conjecture given the black box that is Chinese politics.
Close to Xi
What is not a mystery is the outcome of the 20th National Congress, which leaves Hu’s successor in complete command ahead of a precedent-defying third term, unbound by the term limits and rules of succession that his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, followed. It ended with a clean sweep for Xi as his allies assumed the six other spots on the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) that he heads. This is a first in Chinese politics—even Mao Zedong had to share power with other revolutionary leaders—and marks the end of the era of factional arrangements. There is only one faction now, and that is Xi’s.
Xi, 69, has introduced four of his close allies, all of whom share long and personal connections with him, as the newest members of the PSC. They will join two other Xi allies, Wang Huning and Zhao Leji, who will continue to be on the PSC for another term.
Their biographies underline how proximity to Xi has become the most important factor determining personnel appointments in a system that likes to stress the importance of meritocracy. Zhao Leji, 65, who was Xi’s anti-corruption czar, has roots in Shaanxi province, like Xi does, while Wang Huning, 67, a former professor, served as Xi’s ideology czar and the intellectual force behind many of his major campaigns. Cai Qi, 67, the Beijing party chief who has joined the PSC now, served as director of Xi’s office when he was the provincial secretary in Fujian, while Ding Xuexiang, 60, the youngest member of the new PSC, was an important aide of Xi when he served as director of the General Office of the party Central Committee, its key nodal body. Finally, Li Xi, 66, who takes over from Zhao as the new anti-corruption chief, has family ties with Xi.
Ranked second in the new PSC, Li Qiang, 63, will take over from the outgoing Li Keqiang as premier. Li Keqiang has been forced into early retirement along with vice premier Wang Yang, both allies of Hu Jintao. Li Qiang served as Xi’s chief of staff in Zhejiang province where he was the party chief two decades ago.
“Proximity to Xi has become the most important factor determining personnel appointments in a system that likes to stress the importance of meritocracy.”
His appointment was perhaps the biggest surprise of the congress, given the widespread criticism of his disastrous handling of Shanghai’s two-month-long lockdown, when many of its residents, confined to their homes, ran out of food and medicines. His appointment has been seen as underlining what the official news agency, Xinhua, noted as the most important criterion for officials—“loyalty” to Xi—as well as a continuation of the “zero-COVID” policy.
The new military leadership bears Xi’s stamp too. Breaking the retirement age rule—Xi has little patience for norms and precedent when it comes to political appointments—General Zhang Youxia (72), a childhood friend of Xi, has been retained as Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which Xi will continue to head for another five-year term.
Of relevance to India is the appointment of General He Weidong (65), who had a tenure in Fujian overlapping with Xi’s time there and received an unprecedented double promotion to become the second Vice Chairman of the CMC although he has never served in the top military body. General He formerly headed the ground forces (army) of the Western Theater Command (WTC) and later headed the Eastern Theater Command (ETC), which is responsible for Taiwan. He is one of the three generals of the People’s Liberation Army who was involved in border tensions in Doklam in 2017 and along the Line of Actual Control in 2020. He received promotions, with the current WTC head Wang Haijiang (59), and his predecessor Xu Qiling (60), both appointed to the party’s Central Committee.
China’s diplomatic appointments at the congress also bear Xi’s imprint. Foreign Minister Wang Yi (69), who has over the past three years travelled the world in Xi’s stead (the Chinese leader did not leave the country throughout the pandemic, making his first trip abroad since January 2020 to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in September 2022), has been promoted to the 24-member Politburo despite being above the retirement age of 68. He will head the party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission. Qin Gang (56), the current Chinese envoy in Washington and formerly Xi’s protocol officer, is the favourite to take over as Foreign Minister when Wang’s term ends in March 2023, which means he will also become the Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s next interlocutor as Special Representative in the border talks—an interlocutor with close ties to Xi.
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Xi’s argument to the party is that a tough external environment, coupled with domestic challenges posed by slowing growth, will require more centralisation. That has been reflected in an amended party constitution, which has now further enshrined his “core” status, by making it“an obligation for all party members” to “follow the leadership core”. An amendment to the constitution has added what the party calls “two establishes” and “two safeguards”, to cement “Xi Jinping’s core position… and establish the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, as well as “safeguard Xi’s core position and safeguard the Central Committee’s authority and its centralised, unified leadership”.
An assertive Chinese diplomacy is likely to get even sharper in Xi’s next term. Xi’s report to the congress painted a world order that was not only, as the party declared previously, one that offered a “period of strategic opportunity” for China, but also one that posed “opportunities, risks and challenges”. Xi warned of “external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China”.He also called for a major push to boost Chinese capabilities in R&D “to build our self-reliance and strength in science and technology” and to keep “supply chains secure and reliable”, a concern that has deepened following the latest export controls on semiconductors by the US.
Ananth Krishnan is The Hindu’s China Correspondent and is based in Beijing.
- The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China leaves Xi in complete command, unbound by the term limits and rules of succession that his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, followed.
- Xi has introduced four of his close allies, all of whom share long and personal connections with him, as the newest members of the Politburo Standing Committee.
- The new military leadership bears Xi’s stamp too.
- China’s diplomatic appointments at the congress also bear Xi’s imprint.
- Xi’s argument to the party is that a tough external environment, coupled with domestic challenges posed by slowing growth, will require more centralisation.