Commentary: China's political leadership line-up and power structures for a new era

Commentary: China's political leadership line-up and power structures for a new era

With the conclusion of China's 19th Party Congress, political commentator Bo Zhiyue examines China's new leadership line-up.

China new Politburo
New members of the Politburo Standing Committee, from left, Han Zheng, Wang Huning, Li Zhanshu, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Zhao Leji stand together at Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Oct 25, 2017. (Photo: AP/Ng Han Guan)

BEIJING: President Xi Jinping has emerged from the week-long 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress a huge winner, debuting a new Politburo Standing Committee lined with his allies, a Politburo filled with many of his former subordinates, a slimmer Central Military Commission, and a Secretariat and Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission staffed with his supporters.


The 19th Politburo Standing Committee has seven members, the same as its predecessor, but saw a turnover rate of more than 71 per cent.

This is significantly higher than the turnover rate of 44 per cent at the 17th Party Congress but slightly lower than the turnover rate of 78 per cent at the 18th Party Congress in 2012.

These percentages shift depending on the number of members on the Standing Committee – in 2012 it was reduced from nine members to seven – and the number of members who have reached the retirement age.

President Xi Jinping has been re-elected as general secretary.

His dictum “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” has been officially enshrined in the CCP Constitution as a guide for the party along with Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, and the Scientific Outlook on Development.

Premier Li Keqiang has also been re-elected as the number two ranking member of the 19th Politburo Standing Committee.

Premier Li Keqiang took office five years ago promising 'fair treatment' to foreign firms
Premier Li Keqiang, the number two man in China, took office five years ago promising fair treatment to foreign firms and a larger role for the market. (File photo: AFP/Fred Dufour)

Wang Qishan, the anti-corruption tsar, has retired along with four other members of the 18th Politburo Standing Committee (Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan and Zhang Gaoli) ostensibly because of their age.

This is a clear indication of the CCP’s institutionalisation of its leaders’ retirement. According to the implicit rule of Standing Committee members past the age of 68 stepping down, a precedent set since 2002, Wang, 69, had to step down and he did.

The five new members of the 19th Politburo Standing Committee are Central Committee General Office director Li Zhanshu, vice-premier Wang Yang, Central Policy Research Office director Wang Huning, Central Committee Organisation Department director Zhao Leji and Shanghai party secretary Han Zheng.

Based on previous leadership changes and appointments, the strongest ally of President Xi, Li Zhanshu, the number three ranking member, is likely to take over as chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in March 2018, when the Chinese parliament, the National People’s Congress holds its annual session. 

Wang Yang, number four in ranking, is likely to become chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference then.

Wang Huning, number five in ranking, who has accompanied Xi (along with Li Zhanshu) in all of Xi’s foreign visits since 2013, is likely to take over as president of the Central Party School and vice-president of the People’s Republic of China.

Zhao Leji, number six in ranking, has taken over from Wang Qishan as secretary of the CDIC. He is likely to head a new national supervisory commission expected to be established also in March 2018 by the National People’s Congress.

Lastly, Han Zheng, number seven in rank, is likely to become executive vice-premier of the State Council.

Han Zheng
Han Zheng, Secretary of the Shanghai Municipal Party Committee, and the seventh most powerful man in China, stands as he is introduced as a new member of the Communist Party of China's Politburo Standing Committee. (Photo: AFP/Wang Zhao)


The 19th Politburo’s membership of 25 people has largely followed the same structure of the last Politburo, with provincial leaders and leaders in the central government.

With a turnover rate of 60 per cent, the same as the turnover rate of the 18th Politburo but significantly higher than the turnover rate of 40 per cent of the 17th Politburo in 2007, there are 15 new faces, many of whom are Xi’s associates and loyalists.

Six provincial leaders have been promoted to the Politburo: Party secretaries Chen Min’er (Chongqing), Cai Qi (Beijing), Li Qiang (Jiangsu), Li Xi (Liaoning), Li Hongzhong (Tianjin) and Chen Quanguo (Xinjiang). The former three have worked with Xi previously, while the latter three are his loyalists in these provinces.

The other nine new faces are military and civilian leaders from the central government, including the Central Propaganda Department deputy director Huang Kunming and General Office of the Central Committee deputy director Ding Xuexiang, who have also worked with Xi in the past.

Out of those from the 18th Politburo who stayed, many are loyal stalwarts. General Office director of the Central Leading Small Group on Financial and Economic Affairs Liu He has worked very closely with Xi, though they did not go to the same middle school as rumoured.

Central Organisation Department executive deputy director Chen Xi was Xi’s classmate from Tsinghua University in the 1970s while Central Military Commission vice-chairman General Zhang Youxia is close to Xi because his father Zhang Zongxun was a comrade-in-arms with Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun.

Nine members of the 18th Politburo are absent from the 19th Politburo. Six of them retired due to their age, in keeping with tradition. These are Liu Yandong, Ma Kai, Li Jianguo, Meng Jianzhu, Guo Jinlong and Fan Changlong. Politburo members who are 68 or older during a party congress have retired without exception.

One member, Sun Zhengcai, had been dismissed from the Politburo because of his alleged involvement in corruption including trading power for sex and sloth.

Sun Zhengcai (centre) had once been tipped for promotion to the Politburo's elite, seven-member
Sun Zhengcai had once been tipped for promotion to the Politburo's elite, seven-member standing committee but is now being investigated by the Chinese Communist Party's top anti-graft watchdog. (File photo: AFP/Wang Zhao)


The Secretariat has been completely reshuffled. It has seven members, three of whom are Xi’s associates: Ding Xuexiang, Chen Xi, Huang Kunming; another three are his supporters: Wang Huning, Yang Xiaodu, You Quan and Guo Shengkun.

Wang will take charge of the Secretariat on behalf of the Politburo Standing Committee. Ding is likely to take over as director of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee.

Yang will likely assist Zhao Leji in his anti-corruption work, while Chen is likely to become director of the Central Organisation Department. Guo will likely take over the portfolio of Meng Jianzhu as the secretary of the Central Commission on Politics and Law.

Zhao Leji
Zhao Leji, Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the sixth most powerful man in China, is introduced as a new member of the Communist Party of China's Politburo Standing Committee, the nation's top decision-making body. (Photo: AFP/Wanh Zhao)

Huang is likely to take over as director of the Central Propaganda Department and You Quan is likely to become secretary general of the State Council.


It is not surprising that Xi has been re-elected as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and that General Xu Qiliang and General Zhang Youxia have been made its vice-chairmen.

What is interesting is that the new CMC is substantially smaller than its predecessor. Instead of eight regular members in addition to the chairman and vice-chairmen of the 18th CMC, the 19th CMC has only four regular members – a sign of the concentration of decision-making authority in Xi and his few CMC members.

They are General Wei Fenghe, General Li Zuocheng, Admiral Miao Hua and General Zhang Shengmin.

General Wei is commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force, and he has been a member of the CMC since 2012.

General Li is chief of staff of the CMC General Staff Department, and Admiral Miao is the director of the CMC Political Work Department. These are two vital positions in the PLA: One commands the troops and the other manages the movements of all PLA military officers.

The last member General Zhang has the important job of overseeing the anti-corruption campaign in the military.

As detailed in a previous commentary on the slew of changes to the military leadership, these new appointments to the CMC have extensive professional connections to Xi’s reform agenda.

Xu Qiliang
Chinese vice chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Qiliang attends the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5, 2016. (File photo: AFP)

Commanders of the PLA Navy and the PLA Air Force and directors of the CMC Logistic Support and CMC Equipment Development Departments used to be members of the CMC but these generals have retired and their successors are not members of the CMC.

Neither is the Commander of the PLA Ground Force represented anymore in the CMC.

These signal that the PLA’s future direction will be shaped by the CMC and not their individual service commanders as it used to be the case.


The Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission has a new leader Zhao Leji, who now has eight deputies.

Yang Xiaodu, a member of the Politburo and a member of the Secretariat as well as minister of Supervision, is the most powerful first deputy secretary of the CDIC.

His immediate predecessor Zhao Hongzhu was only a member of the Secretariat but not a member of the Politburo.

General Zhang Shengmin, another deputy secretary of the CDIC, is also a member of the CMC.

Zhao Leiji has worked closely with the outgoing anti-corruption tsar in his time as the head of the party’s Organisation Department, and demonstrated his loyalty to Xi by putting people close to Xi in important positions and being the man to announce their new appointments – which he did for Cai Qi in Beijing and Chen Min’er in Chongqing.

Composite picture of Cai Qi and Chen Jining
Beijing's party secretary Cai Qi (left) and mayor Chen Jining (right) were elected on Jun 23 and their appointments were announced by Zhao Leji. (Photos: Reuters)

This, the authority his deputies wield, together with the possibility of setting up a new national supervisory commission in March 2018, makes it likely that, under the leadership of Zhao Leji, the CDIC will continue its vigorous fight against corruption in the party and the government.  


Clearly, Xi is a big winner of this reshuffle. He has consolidated his power and elevated his status as a great leader with a new thought for a new era.

He has placed his allies in either the Politburo Standing Committee, the Politburo, the Central Military Commission, the Secretariat or the CDIC, all of whom now act as checks on each other so that none become powerful enough to challenge him.

With a strong mandate from the 19th Party Congress and his allies in strategic positions, Xi will be able to realise his ambitions for China in the next five years.

Dr Bo Zhiyue, a leading authority on China’s politics, is founder and president of the Bo Zhiyue China Institute, a consulting firm providing services on China to heads of governments and CEOs of multinational corporations.

Source: CNA/sl