China’s new roster of top leaders have shuffled into their places on the red carpet for their curtain call, the procession leaving no question as to who is in charge. President Xi Jinping has been reappointed to head the Communist Party, with no one waiting in the wings as his nominated heir.
What’s more, not one of the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s cabinet, is under the age of 60, meaning none of them is likely to succeed Xi when and if he stands down at the end of his second term in 2022.
It’s a highly unusual move, unprecedented in recent years, leaving Xi to continue his push for reform and fight against corruption unquestioned. Critics worry that Xi’s “rule” has evolved into a dictatorship, the president eliminating rivals who question his positions and squelching stories about his family’s amassed wealth.
Xi has also presided over rapid growth in China’s military capability and backed a muscular stance over its claims on territory such as the resource-rich South China Sea. China’s island building near the shores of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam has been ruled illegal by an international court in the Hague. But such is China’s economic clout that, bar a military flyby or two, no one has done anything at all about it.
The new Politburo Standing Committee has seven members – it has had anywhere from five to nine in the past. Premier Li Keqiang also retains his role, something that wasn’t at all certain to happen when doubts over his leadership surfaced last year. And there was no place for Xi’s protégé Chen Min’er, the current head of the megacity of Chongqing.
Chen is one of two likely candidates, as it now stands, to succeed Xi when he eventually steps down. But he did not leap straight into the Politburo Standing Committee — a move Xi made when he shot to prominence in 2007.
Neither did Hu Chunhua, the current Communist Party Secretary of China’s richest and most-productive province, Guangdong, across the border from me here in Hong Kong. Hu is another frontrunner to succeed Xi, but both Hu and Chen joined the 25-member Politburo that sits one rung down the leadership ladder from the Politburo Standing Committee.
So it’s anyone’s guess who will emerge over the next half decade to step forward as Xi’s replacement.
The new Politburo Standing Committee members are, in order of seniority:
— Xi’s current chief of staff and close ally, Li Zhanshu, 67, who is likely to become head of the National People’s Congress;
— vice premier and former head of Guangdong Province Wang Yang, 62, likely to become chairman of China’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
— political theorist Wang Huning, 62, confirmed as new propaganda chief and secretary of the Central Committee Secretariat;
— new anti-corruption chief Zhao Leji, 60, who steps up from heading the Communist Party’s organization department;
— long-time Shanghai politician and current Shanghai party chief Han Zheng, 63, the new executive vice premier and an ally of former president Jiang Zemin.
The new leadership of the Central Military Commission, which oversees the military, were also named, as well as the 25 members of the broader Politburo.
The powerful Wang Qishang, Xi’s current right-hand man in his fight against corruption, has retired from the Politburo and even the Central Committee, an elite body beneath the Politburo and now comprised of 204 people. Wang is already 69, past the unwritten age of retirement at 68 for officials, and is retiring from public life.
Xi, now 64, has already evolved into the most powerful Chinese leader since Chairman Mao Zedong. That became black-and-white fact at this year’s gathering, the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, which has come to conclusion a week after it began.
Only Chairman Mao managed to get himself written into the Communist constitution while still in power. That is now also the case with Xi, who had already been identified as being at the party’s “core.” He has now had his “Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” written into the Communist Party’s constitution while in charge. The parallel with Mao Zedong Thought is clear.
Every Communist leader is expected to come up with his own take on Marxist-Leninist thought. Deng Xiaoping, the reformist who started the opening up of China’s economy, has also had his Deng Xiaoping Theory enshrined in the Communist Party charter, but well after he died. Mao made China independent; Deng made it prosperous; Xi promises to make it strong.
Xi’s version calls on China to seize its “new era” of development and take its proper position internationally, in maintaining world peace and economic stability. China is ready, he says, to play a greater role in building “a common destiny of mankind.”
The elevation of “Xi Jinping Thought” to such lofty status leaves him ideologically unquestioned in his push to bring into existence the China of his vision. His immediate predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin don’t have their names attached to their Communist theory.
Xi has been ruthless in his push to the top, and equally quick to move to ensure he stays there unquestioned. He has used the corruption battle to weed out “tigers and flies,” officials large and small, with 18 members of that elite 200-odd member Central Committee being taken down since he came to power in 2012.
Corruption is rife throughout the Communist Party structure, with so much power put in the hands of even petty officials down to the district level. They’re the guys I see gambling huge stacks of chips in Macau, wearing cheap suits and smoking no-name cigarettes. But Xi has also used the witch hunt to dispatch any rivals and enemies, making him more feared than respected within his own party.
Xi will be 69 at the time of the 20th National Congress. That will see the end of his second term, and there’s speculation he may attempt to stay on for a third.
I would bet that Xi does not seek a third term. He’s a stickler on precedent and protocol — a characteristic that has lent credence to his leadership. What he will, however, do is remain on in a position (or two) of power. Goodness knows, he’s got enough of them.
Xi is President of the People’s Republic of China, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, leader of the Leading Group for National Defence and Military Reform of the military commission; leader of the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatization; leader of the Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs; and the leader of similar leading groups for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, Taiwan Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Party Building, Deepening the Study and Practice of the Outlook of Scientific Development, and of the Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs.
Shorthand: president, chief Communist, chief of the Armed Forces, and the head of reform of the military, cyberspace, the economy, the Communist Party, foreign affairs, science, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong. Phew.
As the shrewd may detect, the Communist Party is big on titles. Xi, while stepping down as president, will surely find a few that help him to retain power behind the scenes. He’s in charge for the next five years — and if he stays healthy, probably many more to come.
[The original of this story appears as my regular column on Real Money for TheStreet.com. Click here for the full story on TheStreet.]