China: All eyes on Xi Jinping at Party Congress. Source: DW Daily Bulletin

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China: All eyes on Xi Jinping at Party Congress

As China revealed the date of the 20th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping is expected to cement power and secure a third term.

The congress takes place mostly behind closed doors at the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing

On October 16, China’s governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will begin its 20th party congress, during which Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to secure an unprecedented third term.

The meeting typically lasts about a week and this year — as the current congress completes its five-year term — more than 2,000 members of the body will take part in the selection of new blood for the party’s Central Committee.

Some of the central committee members will be promoted to the 25-people Politburo. There will likely also be some new faces in the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the party’s most powerful organ.

Key leadership selection

Despite some domestic and global challenges, including weak economic performance and growing tensions with the United States, analysts say that setting the date of the congress for October shows that Xi’s authority in the party remains largely stable.

“The dates of past party congresses where leadership change took place were usually in November, which was largely caused by negotiation and compromises between different factions,” said Hsin-Hsien Wang, an expert on Chinese politics at the National Chengchi University (NCCU) in Taiwan.

“But the fact that the 20th Party Congress will be held in mid-October, as the other past party congresses where there was no leadership change, shows that the foundation of Xi’s authority is very solid,” he added.

Ling Li, a Chinese politics and law expert at the University of Vienna, pointed out that the date of the congress would not have been announced if the choice of the next party leader remained contested.

“When a date is announced, we can safely assume that key decision-makers have achieved a consensus on that choice,” she told DW.

In a piece published on August 30, the state-run China Daily wrote that the congress will focus on the CCP’s work over the past five years, major achievements, and valuable experience of the party’s Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has eliminated the two-term limit for the presidency

“The congress will thoroughly review the international and domestic situations, comprehensively grasp the new requirements for the development of the cause of the party and the country on the new journey in the new era, as well as the new expectations of the people,” the article said.

Cementing Xi’s hold on power

At the congress, a lot of attention will be on whether Xi will fill the lineup of top officials with his loyalists, including a potential successor. Since removing the presidential term limits in 2018, experts say Xi has continued to focus on preparing for an unprecedented third term.

 Xi’s past two predecessors had both stepped down after serving two five-year terms.

“Since becoming the general secretary of the CCP 10 years ago, Xi has dramatically changed China’s political landscape,” said Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer based in the US.

“From the perspective of power struggle, Xi Jinping remains quite successful. He has launched an anti-corruption campaign which he used to install his own people and remove political opponents,” Teng told DW.

Teng pointed out that ever since Xi abolished the presidential term limit in 2018, he “has turned the CCP from a collective dictatorship to a personalist dictatorship.”

Several members of the PSC are expected to step down based on the age limitation after the 20th Party Congress, as the underlying rule over the last few decades requires officials aged 68 or older to retire at the time of the next congress — while those aged 67 or younger can be promoted or remain in top positions.

Ling Li from the University of Vienna wrote in a recent piece on ThinkChina that the makeup of the CCP’s top leadership organ will be mostly “based on the extent to which Xi Jinping is willing and able to break or change” the age limit rule.

According to her, if Xi decided to uphold the current age limit, at least two current PSC members will have to retire this fall, whereas the rest of the current members could remain on the council.

“Regardless of the extent to which the age limit is to be held, set aside, or changed, the new PSC needs to bring in one or two younger members who can continue to sit in the PSC in 2027 so as to allow a staggered leadership transition then,” she wrote.

  • China Xi Jinping and his father Xi Zhongxun in1958 (picture-alliance/CPA Media/Pictures From History) Xi Jinping: a political historySlow beginningsXi Jinping, the son of communist revolutionary and political leader Xi Zhongxun, started his political career when he was finally accepted as a member of China’s Communist Party in 1974. Xi had applied to join the party several times, but was rejected due to his father’s political history — Xi Zhongxun had been purged in 1962 and was then persecuted and jailed during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Who will be the next Chinese premier?

Wang from NCCU said one important question is who might be the next premier.

In March, the current Chinese premier Li Keqiang announced that he would step down within a year. However, in recent months — due to China’s poor economic performance and high youth unemployment rate — Li has been more active in leading efforts to tackle economic and social problems, causing some to speculate whether he might try to challenge Xi’s authority.

“That speculation doesn’t match with the real situation in China,” Wang told DW.

“Economic issues, pandemic prevention, agricultural problems, and drought are all under the jurisdiction of China’s State Council, which makes Li’s active public presence very normal. I think Li is willing to take up these responsibilities while demonstrating his skills in tackling social and economic issues.”

Some experts have pointed to current Vice Premier Hu Chunhua and Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee, as the possible candidates for China’s next premier.

“The criteria to choose the next Chinese premier is dictated by Xi Jinping’s preference and political loyalty will be a key criterion,” Wang from NCCU said.

“From that perspective, Wang Yang may be more suitable than Hu Chunhua, as he has worked well with Xi over the last five years, successfully handling issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and the United Front Work Department,” he added.

In March 2022, Chinese premier Li Keqiang (L) announced that he would step down within a year

Will mounting domestic issues challenge Xi’s authority?

In recent months, China has been plagued by slower economic growth, with the GDP growth for the first half of 2022 dropping to 2.5%, lower than the annual target of 5.5%.

It comes after months of strict lockdown earlier this year in China’s biggest economic hub Shanghai. Additionally, the youth unemployment rate reached 19.9% in July — the highest since Chinese authorities began releasing jobless figures in 2018.

Internationally, the tension between China and the US has intensified since China staged a series of military exercises around Taiwan following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last month.

Some experts say that while they don’t think these domestic and international problems will pose challenges to Xi’s attempt to seek a third five-year term, the costs of his key policy initiatives will continue to mount.

“The costs of Xi’s version of the ‘China Dream‘ are mounting, but with the increased concentration of power and close Xi allies in the PSC, I seriously doubt there will be any political will to do anything more than modestly scale back any of his policy initiatives at the 20th party congress — if that, at all,” said Patricia Thornton, an associate professor of Chinese politics at Oxford University.

“I don’t see anyone or anything emerging that could or would challenge Xi, either before or at the 20th party congress. And because those moving up into the top positions will be Xi supporters, [it will bar] an unforeseen crisis event.”

2:55 min

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Edited by: Keith Walker 

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