Chinese media announced the newest members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the primary decision-making body of the Chinese government, following the conclusion of the nineteenth Communist Party Congress on October 25 in Beijing. The Committee experienced a major reshuffling, with five members losing their seats. Some of these changes were unexpected, with General Secretary Xi Jinping breaking precedent by not naming a clear successor. This caused speculation that Xi intends to be the first Chinese leader in decades to serve more than two terms.
Xi is currently serving his second term as China’s president and the General Secretary of the Party. He enshrined his name and theory into China’s constitution alongside Mao Zedong’s and Deng Xiaoping’, as a reflection of his successful consolidation of power. Both state media and delegates to the Congress extolled Xi’s speech, in which he outlined a plan to turn China into a “great modern socialist country.” He vowed to continue the anti-corruption investigation that has expelled many high-ranking officials, including those whom he viewed as threats to his power. One of these ousted officials is Sun Zhengcai, the powerful Party Secretary for Chongqing who was elevated to the Politburo by Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao.
Wang Qishan, the leader of the anti-corruption campaign and a close ally of Xi, unexpectedly stepped down in accordance with the norm that dictates that officials over age 68 should retire. He will be replaced as the sixth-ranking member and the head of the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection by Zhao Leji, who led the Party’s Central Organization Department that placed supporters of Xi in numerous high-ranking posts.
The only returning member of the Standing Committee is second-in-command Premier Li Keqiang. Li, who has been a strong supporter of Xi’s foreign policy initiatives, currently leads the State Council, the equivalent of China’s Cabinet.
Li will be supported by Wang Yang, who will likely serve as the new head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a top advisory body. Wang has earned plaudits as a skilled reformer and administrator at both the provincial and national levels, which constitute skills that Xi will need as he continues his ambitious agenda.
Xi’s selection of the Party’s top theorist Wang Huning for the fifth-ranking seat on the Standing Committee complements Xi’s focus on agenda-building. While some have criticized his academic nature, he will be instrumental in building theoretical support for Xi’s reform programs as he has done for Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping from outside the Standing Committee.
Li Zhanshu, another close ally of Xi and his Chief of Staff, will assume the 3rd-ranking position as head of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress. Li’s close relationship with Xi dates back to the 1980s, when they were Party Secretaries for neighboring counties in Li’s home province of Hebei.
The final member of the Standing Committee is the new Executive Vice-Premier Han Zheng, who previously served as Party Secretary for Shanghai. His administrative experience in Shanghai makes him a strong choice for his role.
The Standing Committee will serve until the next Party Congress in 2022. At that point, by tradition, a new General Secretary would be named from one of the members of the Standing Committee. The membership of the current Committee, however, will require Xi Jinping to break tradition—either by remaining on for a third term, naming a successor not currently on the Standing Committee, or naming a successor who, due to the retirement age norm, would not be able to serve two terms. Only time will tell which course the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping will take.