China will host one of the biggest events of its political cycle next week, a once-in-five-year Party Congress that will reshuffle the country’s top leadership. Anticipation is building about which leaders will stay or leave China’s top decision-making body of the Politburo Standing Committee, and how Chinese leader Xi Jinping will use the gathering to further solidify his power as the country’s supreme leader.
Xi’s re-election as party secretary is not in doubt, but one key question is whether China’s Premier Li Keqiang will remain in his post as one of the seven top leaders on the standing committee. Most analysts believe Li will stay on.
Another question is what will happen to the man regarded as China’s second most powerful, Wang Qishan. Like Li, Wang is a member of the standing committee. He is the country’s anti-corruption czar and heads the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
Some believe that Wang’s recent meetings with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon are a sign that he could stay on; others are not convinced.
Over the past five years, Wang has led a sweeping campaign that has seen more than one million lower-ranking officials punished and has taken down several high-ranking politically connected figures. The campaign has not only targeted the rampant problem of corruption within the party and government, but sidelined Xi’s political rivals. This has allowed Xi to move many of his close confidants up in the ranks.
In that process, Wang has made many enemies and, according to veteran China watcher Willy Lam, he is likely to be replaced. Wang, 69, not only fits unwritten party rules about age and retirement, but he is a handy bargaining chip for Xi to use in striking deals with other factions in the party.
“After staying in the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection for five years, Wang Qishan has created a big empire and there is even a Wang Qishan faction within the party. This is something, I think, Xi Jinping will not appreciate very much,” Lam said.
Role of factions
During the meetings that begin Wednesday, some 2,300 delegates to the Congress will vote on the members of a Central Committee. That body of 350 or more then selects members of a 25-member Politburo and a Politburo Standing Committee. The party’s Central Military Commission, which issues directives to the army, senior appointments, troop deployments and arms spending, is also selected by the Central Committee. Membership in the traditionally 11-man commission, however, is tightly controlled by the Politburo Standing Committee.
Some see factions continuing to play a role. Others, not as much.
“The old alliances, the Shanghai faction, the Youth League faction, these are all smashed, because he has picked and choose between different factions and everybody has to plead allegiance only to him,” said Francesco Sisci, a Beijing-based China analyst.
Under China’s previous leaders, power bases evolved, such as the Communist Youth League faction of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, and the Shanghai faction of former leader Jiang Zemin. Sisci says that Xi must choose carefully as he moves his own candidates up in the ranks, and selects members of the Central Committee, Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee.
“If he makes mistakes, it will be upon him, it will be nobody else’s fault,” he added.
Analysts say there is a chance that Xi could streamline both the Politburo Standing Committee, reducing its number of seats from seven to five, and the Central Military Commission, from 11 to five. Xi fills one of the seats on both bodies, which means both would have only four other members.
Rise of Xi
Since his election as party secretary five years ago, Xi has risen to become one of China’s most powerful leaders in decades. He is now referred to as the “core” of the party and presides over the military and government, as well. In addition to his titles of president, party secretary and head of the Central Military Commission, he also heads a handful of other leading groups that oversee everything from foreign affairs to military reform, internet security and the economy.
But what Xi will do with all that power is still unclear. While some hope it could lead to movement on long stalled reforms, others are not convinced.
Lam says Xi’s focus will be on securing the party’s position, as well his own position as China’s perennial ruler. Xi’s approach will be cautious, Lam adds, noting how the leader once compared the risks the country faces to the Titanic.
“Beijing cannot risk any subversive errors; subversive errors being those mistakes which could jeopardize the ruling status of the party. So, he [Xi] said: If the Titanic sinks, it will sink just like that,” Lam said. “On another occasion, Xi pointed out that irrespective of how brilliant and effective new policies are, if these new policies will lead to the demise of the Communist Party, then they cannot be adopted at all.”
Sisci says that, in principle, Xi will need to redistribute the power that he has accumulated and initiate some changes, but what those changes might entail is still unknown.
“We do know that the guy is full of surprises. He was totally underestimated by the people who chose him as successor. They thought he maybe was going to be their puppet, but he turned out to be his own man,” Sisci said. “We really don’t know what he is going to do next.”