China: Party congress to signal leadership and policy continuity as challenges loom

The Communist Party of China’s (CPC) National Congress opened on 16 October and will run for roughly one week. This five-yearly congress is the most important event in China’s political calendar, bringing retirements and promotions within the party’s most powerful organs.

  • The congress will indicate the extent of President Xi Jinping’s dominance within the leadership, and prospects for intensification or moderation on key policies.
  • Ultimately, however, it will bring more continuity than change, cementing Xi’s pre-eminence for at least five more years and reaffirming existing pillars of his agenda.
  • That agenda implies further foreign policy frictions ahead and increasing difficulties in balancing economic growth with goals involving security, state control and self-reliance.
  • The congress does not decide detailed policies. Any near-term economic policy adjustments (which are unlikely to include an exit from zero-COVID-19) will come at subsequent meetings.

Pre-eminence persists

The congress will almost certainly give President Xi Jinping a third term as CPC General Secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC, which oversees the military). He will likely then be reappointed next March as state president, at the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC; legislature). Xi’s continuance in power will be a departure from practice in recent decades: his predecessors served only two terms, and leaders aged 68 or more at a congress usually retired. Such constraints were intended to prevent power struggles and succession crises, but were never explicit or institutionalised and may be applied only selectively going forward. 

Ahead of the congress there have been some signs of dissatisfaction with political and policy trends, and periodic talk of dramatic leadership upheaval. However, the latter largely comprises rumour and speculation. Overall, indicators point strongly towards Xi’s continued dominance for at least another five or ten years. Key questions now involve how, rather than whether Xi extends his rule, and what he does with yet further consolidated power. In his almost two-hour speech to the congress on 16 October, Xi hailed China’s achievements and reiterated familiar long-term goals, but also said the party must be ready to “withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms”.

PSC prospects

While Xi will remain, there will be a major transition below him. Well over half of the CPC Central Committee will be replaced, including many on its powerful 25-person Politburo (the Central Committee has roughly 200 full members and 170 alternate members). Seven Politburo members currently make up the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the party’s top decision-making body. Since the 1990s, age and career path have been strong clues to help predict PSC changes at a national congress. These are not reliable guides in an era of more centralised, less constrained top-down leadership, but suggest some more or less likely outcomes. Among current PSC members:

  • Xi himself is clearly not subject to any age limit, while party disciplinary chief Zhao Leji is only 65.
  • Premier Li Keqiang and PSC members Wang Yang and Wang Huning are 67, just under “retirement age”.
  • NPC Chairman Li Zhanshu (72) and Executive Vice Premier Han Zheng (68) seem likely to retire.

Possible outcomes thus range from no changes at all on the PSC, to everyone retiring except Xi. The body could also be expanded to more than seven members. However, our best guess is that Li Zhanshu, Han Zheng, and probably Li Keqiang will retire. The leading candidates to replace outgoing members of the PSC include: Vice Premier Hu Chunhua; Chongqing CPC Party Secretary Chen Min’er; CPC General Office Director Ding Xuexiang; Shanghai CPC Party Secretary Li Qiang; Beijing CPC Party Secretary Cai Qi; and CPC Publicity Department head Huang Kunming.

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Parsing promotions

It is best not to over-interpret individual personnel changes. They are not a simple tussle between organised factions, and all of the above candidates except Hu are considered Xi “allies”. However, changes may give clues to the degree of domination or compromise by Xi in deciding the transition. For example, a “maximally balanced” PSC would include some combination of Li Keqiang, Wang Yang and Hu Chunhua (who share a background in another faction), and one of them serving as premier. A PSC featuring none or only one of them would suggest an even more strongly Xi-dominated leadership going forward. Other points to note for the congress include the following:

  • The congress is very unlikely to annoint a future successor to Xi (the leaders noted above are probably too old). If any younger, “seventh generation” officials reach the Politburo, they will be seen as future contenders for the top jobs. They include Hangzhou Party Secretary Liu Jie, and Shanghai Deputy Party Secretary Zhuge Yujie.
  • Xi will probably remain dominant even if he doesn’t retain all of his current roles. There has been speculation that he could revive the position of CPC chairman, potentially putting himself above other leaders even if he relinquishes other roles. This is credible, but more likely to happen at a future congress rather than now.
  • As well as political reports and personnel change, the congress can bring changes to the CPC constitution. One likely amendment is changing the name of Xi’s signature political theory to “Xi Jinping Thought”. This would build on major moves in 2018 and 2021, elevating Xi above most of his predecessors in party history.

Premier punditry

Li Keqiang is highly likely to retire as premier due to an explicit term limit on the role. Because Li has come to be seen as the main voice for alternative views to Xi – at least on economic policy – much attention is focused on who will replace him. Replacement will not occur until next March at the NPC, but the PSC lineup at the end of the National Congress will probably indicate the next premier – traditionally, it is the second-ranked member of the PSC. Several other top economic officials are also due to retire at the NPC, including Vice Premier Liu He (Xi’s “economic tsar”), central bank Governor Yi Gang, banking regulator Guo Shuqing and Finance Minister Liu Kun. 

The frontrunners to become the next premier are probably Hu Chunhua and Wang Yang. If either becomes premier, and if Li Keqiang remains on the PSC, many pundits will interpret it as evidence of a “liberal” pushback against Xi. However, such an outcome would be well within the spectrum of normal changes and consistent with Xi’s call for leadership unity, so should not be read as a factional coup. It would suggest that market-leaning views still balance more statist ones, but would not necessarily portend a substantial change of direction. After all, Li and Liu – relative “market reformers” by CPC standards – have been the most senior economic and finance officials in China for the past decade, yet policies have reflected Xi’s instincts rather than theirs. Their successors will likely have even less clout.

Dilemmas around managing COVID-19, the real estate and tech sectors, and external tensions will continue, and at times policies will be eased, as have occurred periodically in recent years. But this has usually involved tactical adjustments in response to short-term circumstances, not long-term strategic reversals forced upon Xi by opposition. These cycles of relaxing and tightening certain policies and regulatory controls will continue, but within the same core long-term agenda represented in previously established plans such as the 14th Five-Year Plan, and visions for 2035 and even 2049.