Xi Jinping expands his power, elevating loyalists, forcing out moderates

By Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher

BEIJING – China’s leader, Xi Jinping, extended his formidable dominance on Saturday (22), advancing a contingent of Communist Party loyalists ready to defend his personal power and expand the state’s influence over the economy and on national security.

Xi has transformed China through his authoritarian rule over the past decade, purging potential rivals, crushing dissent and reasserting the central role of the Communist Party across Chinese society. Xi has long been expected to secure a third five-year term as the party’s general secretary. But evidence of his even tighter hold over the party came on Saturday, when the Communist Party congress approved a new membership list for the Central Committee, the elite body from which China’s top leaders are drawn.

That list showed that several senior figures were stepping down, opening the way for more of Xi’s favoured officials to rise into the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body. Xi’s control at the top will become even more entrenched, meaning less likelihood of elite pushback against his policies, which include a pugnacious stance toward Washington, and ever-greater party steering of the economy, technology and the internet.

“China has entered a new era of maximum Xi,” said Neil Thomas, an analyst of Chinese politics for the Eurasia Group. “A more Xi-centric Standing Committee means more support for Xi’s policies, which means a stronger focus on political control, economic statism, and assertive diplomacy.”

Xi’s new term and his leadership team will not be officially confirmed until Sunday (23), when the new Central Committee meets and holds a carefully controlled vote. But the scale of Xi’s victory was already clear from scanning the Central Committee list, experts said. Hu Chunhua, currently a vice premier, may be the sole new entrant into the ruling Politburo Standing Committee who does not have robust ties to Xi.

The premier, Li Keqiang and another senior official, Wang Yang, both stepped down Saturday from the Central Committee, indicating that both are set to retire. Li has served for the past decade as China’s premier, the second most powerful post in China with direct authority over government agencies. But Xi has overshadowed Li for years, including in economic policy, a realm that premiers once dominated.

“There’s been a lot about the premier-as-saviour talk — that these officials could stay around and push back against Xi, but obviously that’s not going to happen,” said Christopher K. Johnson, the president of the China Strategies Group and a former CIA analyst of Chinese politics. “Proximity to Xi is all that really matters now.”

The congress also approved amendments to the party charter — its foundational rules — that enhanced Xi’s official status and emphasized his ambitions to make one-party rule a permanent fact for China.

“The party is the supreme political force,” said one of the amendments approved by the congress. Another change further emphasized Xi’s exalted “core” status, which was already in the charter.

The retirement from the Central Committee of senior leaders with a record of favouring market-oriented policies and a somewhat less confrontational stance toward the West has left Xi in complete control of the national agenda.

“By pushing moderates and potential rivals out of the leadership, Xi conveys his overall priorities for socio-political stability, national security and policy continuity now and in the years to come,” said Cheng Li, a specialist in Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution. “Xi Jinping has further consolidated near-absolute power by promoting his protégés to the top leadership.”

Wang Huning, a senior party ideologue who has honed Xi’s ideas and image, and who is a long-time critic of the United States, stayed on in the Central Committee and is likely to remain a key political lieutenant.

Rising officials who are included among the 205 members of the new Central Committee and are seen as possible additions to the next Politburo Standing Committee include Li Qiang, the party chief of Shanghai, who oversaw its bruising COVID lockdown earlier this year. He was essentially Xi’s chief of staff when both worked in Zhejiang province 15 years ago. Ding Xuexiang, currently a senior aide to Xi, is also a strong contender for elevation into the next top line-up.

Xi’s progress toward his new term has been dogged this year by China’s painful economic slowdown, spreading public frustration over the country’s strict COVID rules, and rumours of internal opposition. The congress, however, seemed to brush all that aside with regimented acclaim for Xi.

It ended with a call for the party to stay in lockstep with him “in thought, politics and action.”

-New York Times



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