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Who’s Who on the New CCP Standing Committee

The most important leaders in China know how to follow orders.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and members of the CCP standing committee.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and members of the CCP standing committee.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and members of the CCP standing committee. Reuters

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief. This week, we take a look at who sits on the new Standing Committee, announced at last week’s 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

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Xi Selects His New Standing Committee

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief. This week, we take a look at who sits on the new Standing Committee, announced at last week’s 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Xi Selects His New Standing Committee

Chinese President Xi Jinping ran the tables at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) last week: purging the final remnants of the once-strong Communist Youth League faction; publicly humiliating his predecessor, Hu Jintao; and seeing his role further enshrined in the Chinese Constitution. Likewise, the new Standing Committee—which is comprised of the party’s seven most important leaders and includes Xi himself—is dominated by figures close to the president.

In Xi’s personnel list, there are no signs of seeking to balance factions or throw bones to business or economic reformers. Two serious contenders for the Standing Committee, Hu Chunhua and Wang Yang—both known for being relatively pro-reform with a record of experimentation—were excluded from power altogether. Wang, who served on the previous Standing Committee, didn’t even make it onto the Central Committee list of more than 200 officials, whereas Hu was excluded from the 25-person Politburo.

Respected China institute MacroPolo surveyed more than 1,000 China experts, and not one called all seven names that ended up on the Standing Committee, reflecting how difficult political forecasting can be inside a closed system. As it is, the leaders on the Standing Committee have a lot in common. Most obviously, they’re all Han Chinese men in their 60s. (A woman has never sat on the Standing Committee.)

The age of the men on the new Standing Committee is also significant. The youngest, Ding Xuexiang, 60, is nine years younger than Xi—making him barely plausible as a candidate for leadership in the highly unlikely event that Xi retires in five years. The rest of the group is so close to Xi’s age that they certainly couldn’t replace him. When Xi and former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang were added to the Standing Committee in 2007 at ages 54 and 52, respectively, they were held up as shining examples of youthful leadership.

Furthermore, none of the six new members also have the kind of family connections that Xi had or any strong regional or factional powerbase of their own, with the partial exception of Wang Huning, who is a nationalist theorist who was close with previous leaders. That supports author Victor Shih’s thesis in his recent book Coalitions of the Weak: that strong leaders, such as former leader Mao Zedong, deliberately include politically weak underlings to reduce the chance of a political challenge.

Xi’s current team are men entirely dependent on him, largely from ordinary backgrounds, and who would be in serious trouble themselves if he fell from power.


Who’s Who

So who are Xi’s six subordinates, and will we see anything surprising out of them?

1. Li Qiang will technically be the most important of those individuals appointed to the Standing Committee, but in practice, he may be the most powerless. As the second figure to follow Xi onto the stage last week, he will succeed Li Keqiang as premier when he formally retires in March. The Chinese premiership is a strange role—sometimes prominent, often sidelined—and in some ways, it is like being U.S. vice president, except without the hope of succeeding the boss.

Past premiers, such as Zhou Enlai and Wen Jiabao, used the position to put a human face on the leadership. (Wen was noted for turning up and showing emotion after natural disasters.) But Xi completely eclipsed Li Keqiang, whose successor will likely be equally overshadowed. Li Qiang’s career was made when he started working under Xi in Zhejiang’s Standing Committee in 2005. He has since been the governor of Zhejiang (and later, Jiangsu) and followed Xi on foreign tours.

Unusually for a premier, Li Qiang doesn’t have any central government experience, putting him further under Xi’s control. He also has an immediate political weakness: As Shanghai party secretary since 2017, Li Qiang was responsible for implementing the city’s catastrophic lockdown this year. Before then, he was a relatively business-friendly leader with a light touch when it came to COVID-19 policies.

The Shanghai lockdown not only showed that Li Qiang has the necessary compliance with China’s zero-COVID policy—increasingly a touchstone for political loyalty to Xi—but it also damaged him enough to make him even more dependent on Xi’s protection. Don’t expect him to be anything other than Xi’s mini me.

2. Zhao Leji is one of two members who also served on the previous Standing Committee, where he was the youngest member. Zhao is the definition of a safe pair of hands, a party man with a steady career and a record of success at the provincial level who has spent the last five years running the CCP’s feared internal Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. He doesn’t seem to have played a major role in leading individual cases, instead acting as an all-around fixer.

Zhao’s father was a minor official in Shaanxi, where Xi’s family has strong ties; his great-uncle, an early governor of the province, is rumored to have been close to Xi’s father. Zhao seems to be a loyal ally to Xi as a result.

3. Wang Huning is probably the most interesting of the six members; he also served on the previous Standing Committee. A major political theorist, he leads a small working group that enforces CCP ideology. Occasionally called “China’s Kissinger,” Wang was also a favorite of previous leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, a nationalist theorist with a vision of China as providing an authoritarian alternative to a weak West.

Wang’s 1991 book America Against America attempted both to explain the rise of the United States and predict its fall. Around a decade ago, he seems to have played a major role in convincing the party leadership that it was losing the cultural war with the United States and needed to crack down to stop Chinese youth becoming too much like Americans.

As much as the CCP has succeeded in cutting off the new generation from the outside world, it’s done an increasingly poor job of selling itself to the world. Wang’s theories of overtaking the United States might have seemed a lot more plausible in an era of 8 percent GDP growth, when China is now on track for 2.5 percent growth. But it’s clear that there is no going back on Xi’s repressive policies, and Wang will remain one of their main theoretical drivers.

A still-powerful Wang also means a rigidly anti-American worldview as well as the continuation of the so-called wolf warrior approach by ambitious diplomats trying to give the leadership what they think it wants.

4. Cai Qi is Xi’s longest-standing political friend. The two leaders have worked together since Cai joined Xi in a Fujian provincial department in 1985. Xi has clearly been Cai’s boss since the 1990s, but the two men remain close. Cai is a total Xi sycophant, having trailed him from post to post and vigorously promoted his role as the core of the CCP.

Cai’s latest job was as party secretary of Beijing, seemingly so Xi would have him close by. His years in power have seen the destruction of the capital’s cultural life and a war against the poor, including the evictions in the winter of 2017 that left hundreds of thousands of homeless people on the cold streets, leading to an embarrassing public walk back.

But all that entirely kept with the party line, and Cai was heaped with praise for the successful handling of the Beijing Winter Olympics this year.

5. Ding Xuexiang is basically Xi’s chief of staff—an effective administrator who started working with him in 2007 and has remained close by ever since. He is very smart, very effective, and has few connections or pull of his own, making him a perfect Xi ally. At a spritely 60 years old, Ding is the youngest person on the new Standing Committee. He is also a pure administrator who has mostly held assistive roles within the central government.

Although Ding is a skilled survivor, he is unlikely to have big ambitions of his own. (Now that I’ve said that, watch him turn out to be China’s Francis Urquhart and scheme his way to power.)

6. Li Xi is taking over the CCP’s disciplinary unit from Zhao Leji. Like the others, he is a long-term associate of Xi, with the two men often photographed together. Those ties go back to one of Li Xi’s early jobs working for a close associate of Xi’s father. Li Xi has also successfully headed several important economic hubs as party chairman, most notably Guangdong.

Li Xi may end up taking over the role that Li Keqiang played in overseeing attempts at economic reform—while keeping the party first.



Who Comes Next?

Although none of the other leaders on the Standing Committee seem to be a plausible successor to Xi, nature doesn’t respect political scheduling. Xi is only 69 years old, but he has long participated in an exhausting political lifestyle—one that for many officials involves regular drinking and overeating (and other risky behavior). That has taken a toll on Xi’s health: One of the rumors behind his weekslong disappearance in 2012 was that he had a bad attack of gout.

If Xi drops dead tomorrow, there will be a bloody tussle to succeed him, since there is no clear top choice. His true successor is probably nowhere near the top of the party right now. Even when Xi goes, I would bet that there is a temporary period of weakened collective leadership with no clear single autocrat, followed by the eventual emergence of another princeling with strong family ties.

But it’s exactly those princelings who Xi is careful of letting get anywhere near power—perhaps one reason why so many of them have gone into private enterprise rather than party politics.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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