When the tall golden doors swung open and China’s new leadership team walked out onto the red carpet inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 23 October there was no surprise about who came first. If Xi Jinping had followed the example of his predecessor this past weekend should have been the end of his tenure as the Chinese Communist Party’s leader, having served two five-year terms. It had been clear for some time that Xi had no intention of doing so. Instead of a leadership transition, the party congress marked the beginning of his second decade in power, and a perilous juncture for the world’s second largest economy.
Since taking charge in 2012 Xi has purged his rivals, concentrating power in his own hands. He has presided over the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, the destruction of civil liberties in Hong Kong, and the imposition across China of a suffocating system of surveillance, censorship and social control. His crackdowns on the private sector and his rigid adherence to the “zero Covid” policy have kneecapped China’s economic growth, with youth unemployment reaching a record high of almost 20 per cent in July and the country’s over-leveraged property market on the brink. Meanwhile, his foreign policy has alienated China’s neighbours and galvanised Western alliances as US-China relations have plunged to their poorest since Richard Nixon first travelled to Beijing in 1972.
Yet the worst may be still to come.
The most striking aspect of this weekend’s ceremony to unveil the new leadership committee – formally known as the politburo standing committee – was not that Xi was still in charge, but that the six men who followed him out onto the stage were all his allies or trusted subordinates. Whereas the previous number two official, Li Keqiang, who is China’s outgoing premier, had risen to power through the support of party elders and the “Youth League faction”, his replacement, Li Qiang, is a long-time associate of Xi, 69, who served under him during his years as a party boss in Zhejiang province.
Li Qiang, 63, who will probably replace Li Keqiang as premier next spring, has no state-level experience. He was previously the party secretary of Shanghai, where residents endured a two-month lockdown this year that led to protests over food shortages and brutal policies that separated children from their parents and curtailed access to medical care. In other words, his primary qualification appears to be his loyalty to Xi and his willingness to follow orders regardless of the consequences.
The third-ranked official, Zhao Leji, 65, has long-running connections with Xi’s family and led the body responsible for prosecuting his anti-corruption campaign, which took down a number of Xi’s rivals. Wang Huning, 67, the fourth-ranked leader, is viewed as Xi’s chief ideologue and has worked closely with him during his first decade in power. The other three members of the new standing committee have either worked under Xi – and owe their careers to him – or have carried out campaigns on his behalf. He appears to have side-lined those who might have pushed back against his ideas and constructed a perfect echo chamber.
It was not surprising to see that, once again, there were no women in the standing committee, as has been the case since it was founded. But it was disheartening to see that not a single woman even made it to the next level down – the 24-member politburo – for the first time in 25 years. Zhang Gaoli, the retired official accused of sexually assaulting the tennis player Peng Shuai was seated in the front row on the stage during the congress’s opening ceremony in a clear signal that the allegations against him have not diminished his standing within the party elite.
Also missing from the line-up was anyone who could be seen as a credible successor to Xi at the next party congress in five years’ time, suggesting he plans to rule beyond his third term.
This congress will be remembered for signalling the unmistakable consolidation of Xi’s power and the removal of his last remaining rivals from the party’s top ranks. Indeed, the most memorable image from the past week was the undignified exit of his predecessor Hu Jintao during the proceedings on 22 October. As the assembled international news crews filmed, two dark-suited officials manoeuvred an apparently reluctant and bewildered Hu from his seat next to Xi at the front of the hall and led him off-stage. This sparked rumours that he had been purged or deliberately humiliated by Xi to send a message to other delegates and signal the final demise of the Youth League faction with which he is associated.
Hu – who was general secretary from 2002 to 2012 during a period of greater openness in China – was featured as usual in that evening’s round-up of the congress on Chinese state television, however, and no further evidence has emerged to support the idea that the incident was staged. A reporter for the Xinhua news agency later wrote on Twitter that Hu, 79, who looked frail during other appearances, was not feeling well and had left the hall to rest. Still, his departure seemed to sum up the shifting power balance in China. As he was led away, Hu glanced back at Xi and patted his former protégé Li Keqiang on the shoulder, his exit marking the end of an alternative path for China as he shuffled off the stage both literally and figuratively.
When Xi came to power in 2012 he warned that the country and the Communist Party faced serious challenges in the years ahead. Ten years later, during this congress, he reiterated that call, warning that “dangerous storms” were gathering around China. He presents his leadership and the party’s dominance as the only possible salvation, demanding greater discipline, obedience and political control. As he embarks on his second decade in power Xi is doubling down on this approach, apparently convinced that he is right, and dispensing with anyone who might tell him otherwise.
[See also: Chairman for Life? | China under Xi]