New-look Standing Committee to give all that Xi wants

Date first published: 31/10/2017

Key sectors: all

Key risks: political instability; economic policy changes

On 24 October, the last day of the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress, the party revealed the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s most powerful leadership body. As the world’s second largest economy, China’s leadership decisions affect far more people than the 1.4bln that live in the Middle Kingdom. It is somewhat incredible then, that outside the Communist Party elite, no commentators and most likely no governments knew who would be on the Standing Committee other than President Xi Jinping until it was announced.

Xi inherited rather than chose his first Standing Committee in 2012, but the new line-up are all his picks, offering some clues to his vision for the country. Foremost is the impression that Xi does not intend to stand down at the end of his second presidential term in 2022. China’s potential new leaders tend to first join the Standing Committee aged 57 or younger. Yet with the youngest Standing Committee member aged 60, no one will have the requisite youth to inherit Xi’s job in 2022.

One of the biggest shocks of the new Standing Committee is the absence of Wang Qishan. Wang is widely rumoured to have been Xi’s most trusted ally on the last Standing Committee. He led Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, which, along with catching Party ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’ involved in graft, almost certainly caught many of Xi’s potential challengers within the Party.

While convention suggested that Wang Qishan’s relatively advanced age of 69 made him ripe for retirement, his supposed loyalty and economics background led many commentators to speculate that Xi would defy convention and have Wang replace Li Keqiang as Premier. Yet Li retains his spot on the committee and his position as Premier, whereas Wang Qishan has retired.

Another Standing Committee veteran is Li Zhanshu, who has served as Xi’s chief of staff since 2012 and has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Xi’s behalf. Xi has also retained the government’s chief political theorist Wang Huning. He will almost certainly play a central role in fleshing out Xi Jinping ‘thought’, which is now canonised in the Communist Party Constitution, but which so far remains vague at best.

New appointment Han Zheng has spent his entire career in factory management in Shanghai. He brings technocratic experience to the Standing Committee. But economy-wise, Wang Yang’s appointment is the most interesting. The reform-minded Wang Yang previously held the top party posts in the city Chongqing and Guangdong province, two of China’s most liberalised and innovative regions.

Wang was also a rival of Bo Xilai, the disgraced former mayor of Chongqing who was also Xi’s major rival for the presidency. Bo fell in a bizarre scandal involving the death of a British businessman in 2012. Before Bo’s fall, Wang Yang faced off with Bo in well-known debates, arguing that China should adopt a more laissez-faire approach to growth.

Wang Yang and Han Zheng will likely have important roles to play in carrying out Xi’s goal of ‘supply-side reforms’, moving the economy from intensive manufacturing towards services and consumption. But what is most clear from the new line up is that Xi will remain at the centre of power decision-making for the next five years, and will attempt to stay even beyond that. Whether he encounters resistance within the party remains to be seen.