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17 October

China’s Turning Point?: 20th Communist Party Congress

People over the age of 68 cannot enter or have to resign from the PSC, though the rule isn’t expected to apply to Xi.

In the early hours of October 16, 2022; China’s Communist Party kicked off its 20th National Congress since its foundation in 1921. The National Congress, officially the party’s highest body, is held every five years and officially determines the party’s Central Committee and its policies. The Central Committee then elects the Politburo and the smaller Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). Since the Communist Party is the sole ruling party of the People’s Republic of China, PSC members are also the top leaders of the country.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to get a precedent breaking third-term as general secretary of the Communist Party. In China, the top leader holds three main posts: general secretary of the Communist Party (top party leader), state president (largely symbolic post and head of state) and chairman of the Central Military Commission (responsible for military leadership). The term limits for the presidency, previously two five-year terms, were removed in 2018, though the general secretary never had term limits. Due to an informal rule called “seven up, eight down”, people over the age of 68 cannot enter or have to resign from the PSC, though the rule isn’t expected to apply to Xi, who has consolidated large amounts of power by accumulating many titles and other measures.
Also on the people’s minds are questions about who will be in the next PSC. Due to the “seven up, eight down” rule, current PSC members Li Zhanshu (chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee) and Han Zheng (first-ranking vice premier) are expected to step down, creating two openings in the PSC. There have been speculations that the number of PSC numbers may shrink from its current 7 members to 5 members, or could rather be expanded to 9 members. For reference, the PSC had 5 members during Mao Zedong’s rule while it has 9 members during Hu Jintao’s rule.
One of the most pressing questions is who will be the next premier. The premier officially heads the State Council, China’s cabinet, and is generally seen in charge of China’s economy, though it has been speculated that the office lost some of its powers under Xi, who has centralized power in himself through leading many Communist Party commissions including on the economy. Li Keqiang, the current premier, is forbidden by two five-year term limits to remain on the post but it has been speculated he could remain on the PSC, by perhaps becoming chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s legislature. Historically, all premiers of the PRC except for the first premier, Zhou Enlai, have previously been vice premiers though it is possible as always precedent may be broken.
Wang Yang, currently chairman of the Political Consultative Conference and fourth-ranking member of the PSC, has been seen as a possible contender for premiership, having historically been a vice premier. Wang has earned himself a reputation for being a market reformer during his leadership of Guangdong between 2007 and 2012. However, if Wang becomes premier, he will likely only serve one term due to age limits. Hu Chunhua, currently vice premier, has also been named as a possible successor. Historically serving as the Guangdong party secretary, he has been called as part of the Tuanpai faction, though questions exist on how much that faction still operates, if it really operated at all.
Li Qiang, currently party secretary of Shanghai and close Xi ally, has been regarded as the number one pick of Xi for premier, though his image has been considered to have significantly dented due to his handling of the pandemic in Shanghai this year. Additionally, he faces the challenge of not having been vice premier. Han Zheng has been seen as the least likely candidate, mainly due to his age limits, though in an unlikely situation, he could be picked due to his history as vice premier.
Possible contenders for the PSC membership in general have included Li Qiang, Chen Min’er, Ding Xuexiang and Hu Chunhua, the first three being close Xi allies. One of the other speculations have been on who will replace Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat. Yang serves as the director of the General Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party, outranking Wang Yi, the foreign minister. Wang Yi has been named as a possible successor, despite his age limits. Also on interest are how much of the wider Politburo will remain, or be replaced.
Aside from top leadership, there have also been speculations on whether the historical post of the chairman of the Communist Party will be revived in the amendments of the party constitution, which was announced before the party congress. Famously held by Mao, the post was replaced by the post general secretary under Deng Xiaoping, who never held either of the roles nor the state presidency despite being the top leader. If he becomes chairman, it would be testament to the centralization of power under Xi. Also speculated is whether Xi’s political theories, called the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, will be officially abbreviated to just “Xi Jinping Thought”, similar to “Mao Zedong Thought”. And finally, there have been speculations on whether Xi will be given the title “people’s lingxiu” (lingxiu is a reverential word for leader in Chinese), along with his semi-official title as “party core” given in 2016. All PRC leaders except Hu Jintao and the short-serving Hua Guofeng have been designated as “party core” though only Mao and Hua have been designated as “lingxiu”.
After the new leadership is confirmed, they will get their state posts in early 2023, when the National People’s Congress will hold its yearly meeting. One of the most pressing questions for the new leadership is what will happen to the zero-COVID policy. Since the first COVID outbreaks, China has followed a harsh COVID policy that involves lockdowns and mass testing.
Though credit with staving of many deaths as seen in the rest of the world, recently the policy has stoked discontent due to damaging the economy. Many businesses operating in China have been wondering when China would start to open up. Economy is another pressing concern. Due to both zero-COVID and Xi’s policies aimed at constraining the property sector, which makes up nearly one-fourth of the national economy, growth has significantly slowed, with China expected to miss its target of 5.5 percent growth this year. China has an economy of nearly 20 trillion US dollars by exchange rates, second largest after the United States (which is around 25 trillion USD), reaching around 80 percent of the US output. For reference, the world’s third largest economy, Japan, has a GDP around 4.3 trillion USD.
Photograph: Qilai Shen (Getty Images)


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