Leadership Transition Clues Emerge Ahead of NPC

Speculation that Xi Jinping may be aiming to defy his conventional 10-year  term limit has been mounting over the past two years. With Xi expected to begin his second five-year term and simultaneously tighten his grip on power by leveraging support from recently promoted allies at the 19th Party Congress later this year, The New York Times looks at one way Xi might take steps to ensure his own influence continues past 2022. Chris Buckley reports on indications that Xi may attempt to bend another unwritten term limit rule to allow his close ally Wang Qishan, currently a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and Xi’s anti-corruption czar, to remain in the PSC. The custom, known as the “seven up eight down” (七上八下) rule, has since 2002 dictated that any member of the PSC that is 68 as a Party Congress convenes must retire, while any 67 or younger can remain on the committee.

Whether Mr. Xi can get away with changing the age ceiling for staying in the party’s top rank, the Politburo Standing Committee, has become a bellwether of how far he can consolidate his grip on a new party leadership that will be chosen in the fall.

Mr. Xi’s immediate goal appears to be opening the way to retaining , who has led his signature anticorruption drive and become one of the most powerful and feared officials in China, those people and other observers said. Mr. Wang, who is 68, could be forced to step down this year if the informal age ceiling holds.

[…K]eeping Mr. Wang in place would also create an example that Mr. Xi could follow to stay in power after his two terms as president end in 2023. Already, news that Mr. Xi may delay choosing his successor has fanned speculation that he wants to prolong his hold on power.

[…] Mr. Wang’s staying on is a strong possibility, though not a certainty, said a retired Chinese official who knows several leaders, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss elite political deliberations. He said that Mr. Xi said that the age rule was not absolute, which was understood by officials to mean that he wanted Mr. Wang to be considered for the next term. […] [Source]

Buckley notes that Wang’s fate is sure to be closely followed and speculated upon as the National People’s Congress, China’s national legislature, begins its annual meeting this weekend—the last major political event before top Party leaders gather at the .

At Reuters, Philip Wen and Benjamin Kang Lim report that Xi could use his substantial cache of power to promote another key ally directly to the Politburo Standing Committee during the , filling a seat in top Party leadership that could otherwise be filled by a political rival. The ally, Chen Min’er, Party boss of Guizhou, is not currently on the 25-member Politburo, generally a required detour before promotion to the PSC.

Chen, a trusted confidant of Xi, has already ridden on the coat-tails of his former boss since they worked together in Zhejiang, where Xi was provincial party leader, and three sources with leadership ties think he could jump straight into the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) during the 19th party congress in the autumn.

[…] “Chen Miner is a dark horse,” said a Chinese official who has worked with Chen. “He has a good relationship with Xi and is very competent. He gets things done.”

“At the very least, Chen Miner will become a member of the Politburo,” a source with ties to the leadership told Reuters.

[…] If Xi does prove strong enough to appoint Chen to the PSC, it could be at the expense of candidates from rival factions, such as Guangdong party chief Hu Chunhua, from the Communist Youth League grouping close to former-president Hu Jintao, or Sun Zhengcai, who runs the metropolis of Chongqing. […] [Source]

At the South China Morning Post, Daniel Ran reports that Shanghai Party secretary Han Zheng is another top contender for a PSC seat later this year. The story of Han’s once unlikely rise to potential PSC member illustrates the rapidly changing tides of Party politics in China:

It would prove that persistence pays off, with the 63-year-old not even counted among potential dark horses a decade ago when political analysts were compiling lists of rising political stars on the mainland.

If he does secure a seat on the innermost Politburo Standing Committee at the party’s national congress this autumn he is likely to succeed Zhang Gaoli as the country’s top-ranked vice-premier, charged with overseeing economic development and environmental protection.

[…] Han’s prospects looked very different in 2008, when he was Shanghai’s mayor and it seemed his political career was coming to an end in the wake of a pension fund scandal that had toppled Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu, his immediate boss, two years earlier. [Source]

At The Wall Street Journal, Chun Han Wong reports on how the upcoming NPC meeting will test Xi’s accumulated clout ahead of the leadership transition, noting expectations that Xi will attempt to minimize dissent:

The NPC is a largely rubber-stamp parliament but one where delegates have in the past criticized government policy. Observers expect Mr. Xi to try to curb any airing of grievances, as any political controversy now could jeopardize his success in promoting allies and sidelining rivals in the fall party conclave.

Mr. Xi “is more interested than ever in showcasing the party’s unity and its achievements,” said Matthias Stepan, a specialist in Chinese domestic politics at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies.

[…] In recent weeks, Mr. Xi has stepped up his campaign to enforce “strict party governance,” urging officials to demonstrate “self-discipline.” The party’s top disciplinary agency this week disclosed a number of actions against officials across China for failing in their management responsibilities.

For the NPC—a largely ceremonial affair in any year—such efforts mean divisive topics are likely to stay off the agenda. This week, for example, China’s labor minister signaled an indefinite delay to a proposal to raise the statutory retirement age, despite warnings from economists that Beijing must urgently address demographic pressures from an aging population. The minister, Yin Weimin, had previously pledged to complete a plan this year, but on Wednesday he said the issue has stirred “very heated” public debate and that a proposal will be rolled out “at the appropriate time.” [Source]

Bloomberg News reports further on mounting political tensions ahead of the legislative gathering this weekend and Party conclave later this year despite Xi’s efforts to to portray stability:

Xi is looking to avoid any drama this time around as he seeks to win backing from party cadres for his efforts to overhaul an economy growing at its slowest pace in a quarter century. The president also faces growing challenges around the globe, from U.S. counterpart Donald Trump’s trade threats to Kim Jong Un’s push for more powerful nuclear weapons in neighboring North Korea.

“Xi is under pressure to further consolidate personal power ahead of the 19th Party Congress,” said Zhao Suisheng, director of the University of Denver’s Center for China-U.S. Cooperation. “He wants to be first, not first among equals. There’s still a lot of work to do.”

[…] The NPC may feature an update on various points of tension, including plans to lay off half a million workers in smokestack industries and create a super regulator to oversee the securities, banking and insurance sectors. Investors will also watch to see if Premier Li Keqiang signals a tolerance for economic growth of below 6.5 percent for 2017, a move that could jeopardize a party goal to double gross domestic product from 2010 to 2020.

Xi will look to consolidate gains after the central committee last year designated him the party’s “core” leader, a status that eluded his predecessor Hu Jintao. In recent months, Xi has tapped allies to lead cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, as well as to head up some of China’s top economic bodies. […] [Source]

Last October,  Xi Jinping was officially crowned “core” leader by the Party he leads—a title coined by Deng Xiaoping in reference to Mao —rebooting speculation over Xi’s consolidation of power and plans for the 19th Party Congress. This week, the State Council released a document that would make Xi’s “core” title a part of ideological training in post-secondary education across China. Reuters’ Christina Shepherd reports:

China cemented President ’s position as the “core” of the Communist Party on Monday, making it part of ideological teaching in colleges and universities as Beijing tightens its hold on education.

Political thought and party leadership in China’s places of higher learning should “closely revolve around the Chinese Communist Party with comrade Xi Jinping at the core”, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, said in a document released online.

[…] In a separate announcement, the party’s discipline and anti-graft agency said last week it would carry out “flexible” inspections of 29 of China’s top universities, in part to help strengthen ideological education. [Source]

Institutes of higher education, historically hotbeds of activism in China, have been conduits for Xi’s ideological goals for much of his presidential tenure. In 2014, a campaign against “Western values” spread into Chinese universities.