In the end, we did get a surprise! But it was one which I see as entirely consistent with the expected overall thrust of Xi Jinping further consolidating his grip on power. By not packing the Standing Committee of the Politburo (PSC) with Xi Jinping ‘loyalists’ (as many had expected he would do), China’s ‘core’ leader has effectively demonstrated his complete confidence in his primacy. This being said, it is worth noting that of the five new appointees, three are, in fact, close allies of Xi Jinping, ie: Li Zhanshu, ranked third in the new SC and many people’s top tip for promotion; Wang Huning, one of the Party’s top theorists and an international relations expert; and Zhao Leji, who has been heading up the Party’s powerful Organisation Department and who will now take over as head of anti-corruption from Wang Qishan. Of the other two: Wang Yang, who is the key official driving the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, comes from the ‘Youth League Faction’ (associated with former President Hu Jintao and current Premier Li Kiqiang); and Han Zheng is associated with the ‘Shanghai Clique’ around former President Jiang Zemin.
Nevertheless, coupled with the fact that no potential successor eligible to serve two full terms has been appointed to the PSC, one should also assume that Xi Jinping is just as confident of his ability to extend his own tenure beyond 2022 (which is considerably less of a surprise).
Substantively, my two biggest take-aways from the Congress were as follows — that is, if there was ever any doubt beforehand about the direction in which Xi Jinping has been steering his Party for the past five years:
- Domestically, after at least two decades of trying to work out how to do it and stay in power, as Jamil Anderlini wrote in a persuasive article in the Financial Times (subscriber access only) shortly before the Congress the CPC has effectively given up on moving, even slowly, towards western-style democracy, a step which ties in closely with Xi Jinping’s calculated erosion of the division between Party and state; and
- On foreign policy, Deng Xiaoping’s ‘hide and bide’ mantra is equally consigned to the scrapheap in favour of “a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and “the great victory [by 2035] of Socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
In short, as The Economist put it on 21 October (subscriber access only):
“Though Mr Xi talked about a new era, the next five years sound, from his [opening] speech, to be much like the past five — only more so.”