This year’s “two sessions” – the annual meetings of the legislature and political advisory body – begin on March 4 and will complete a twice-a-decade leadership transition, with a reshuffle of top government jobs including the premier, and Xi Jinping set to secure a third term as president. In the first of a six-part series on what to expect from this key event, Jun Mai looks at the general political direction in China.
According to China’s political calendar, with its top government positions in five-yearly transition mode and the lame ducks on their way out, the past four months or so should have been mundane.
No surprises were expected until next month’s annual session of the national legislature, when dozens of news faces promoted from the Communist Party’s rank and file at October’s party congress will be assigned to their government positions.
But the past few months have been anything but uneventful, with President Xi Jinping, who secured third term as party general secretary at the congress, overseeing the abrupt abandonment of China’s almost three-year-old zero-Covid policy.
The annual meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s legislature, and its top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), are collectively known as the “two sessions”.
With Xi’s new team to be fully in place by the time the NPC meeting closes in about two weeks, experts said Beijing was likely to return to policy normality and focus on long-term goals such as technological self-reliance.
“I’d think Xi is really trying to get back to stability in the long term, to implement the long term-targets he has set out,” said Nis Gruenberg, a China analyst with the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a Berlin-based think tank.
“A certain degree of necessary pragmatism is also visible, like we saw with the reversal of zero-Covid. Now it’s also facing huge fiscal pressure. Tech regulation will be normalised. I expect a more normalisation of political oversight, but room for pragmatic reactions to shocks.”
Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, agreed.
“Nothing can compare with the challenges faced in economic growth and job creation,” he said. “I think the utmost priority now for them is to let the country recover.”
The expected confirmation of Li Qiang, who now ranks second in the party, as the country’s new premier will arguably be the most watched moment of the legislative session.
The appointment would put Li, a Xi protégé, in the co-pilot’s seat of the world’s second-largest economy. It would also be the first time since 2012, when Xi became party general secretary, that the premiership has been held by someone who has worked closely with Xi for decades.
The transition is also expected to see top government positions dominated by Xi protégés following the departure of senior leaders with backgrounds in the Communist Youth League – closely associated with former president Hu Jintao – including Premier Li Keqiang and Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua.
Dong Zhang, a political scientist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said Xi’s total dominance and his close relationship with Li Qiang might give the new premier more leeway than his predecessor.
“From an optimistic perspective, if Xi has no strong prior preferences for certain policies, he is more likely to endorse the policies proposed by his followers like Li Qiang rather than Li Keqiang or [outgoing CPPCC chairman] Wang Yang,” he said.
“Of course, the downside is that his loyalists may cater to his taste and report what he likes to hear.”
Yang said Li Qiang’s actions were at least unlikely to be viewed as potential challenges to Xi, unlike those of his predecessor.
Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping delivers a report to the party’s national congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 16. Photo: Xinhua
But he added that Xi’s decade-long project to concentrate decision-making power in the party, and ultimately his own hands, would leave the State Council, China’s cabinet, weaker than it was before 2012.
“All the party commissions will continue to exist, and Li Qiang will sit on them too, so information sharing won’t be a problem,” he said. “But key decisions will still need to be made by Xi, who has become more powerful in recent years.
“Li Qiang will be someone very important in the Chinese system, but still one weakened compared to his predecessors in the old days. And it will take time for him to own a range of issues.”
After Xi took the helm of the party in 2012, he founded a handful of party leadership groups on a wide range of economic and industrial issues, all chaired by himself.
He also revived a party group on economic affairs that had seldom been used by former party leaders, and repeatedly called for “the party’s leadership on managing the economy”.
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In 2018, Beijing introduced a far-reaching party and government overhaul to further assert the Communist Party’s control over a range of issues, transferring some portfolios previously under the watch of the State Council to the party.
Beijing announced in February that a similar structural overhaul was planned for this year, with experts expecting even more cabinet portfolios to be transferred to party organs.
During his two five-year terms, Li Keqiang’s imprint on key policies shrank significantly compared to his predecessors. Wen Jiabao, his immediate predecessor, headed the drafting process for three party plenum policy documents. Li Keqiang headed none.
Zhang said that with most key government positions filled by his protégés, Xi would try to balance their powers on the State Council. “When his followers have disagreements on some policy issues, Xi is likely to become the ultimate arbiter,” he said.
Gruenberg said he expected the new leadership to be “very productive” when implementing Xi’s policy directions.
“The new Politburo is pretty interesting because you have a lot of very skilled politicians and technical people,” he said. “Even ideologues make sense for Xi’s big ticket policies. Ideology, controlling the party state, technology and security are important issues.”
He said Xinjiang party chief Ma Xingrui, Chongqing party chief Yuan Jiajun and former Tianjin party chief Zhang Guoqing, all newly promoted to the 24-member Politburo, were ideal candidates to drive Xi’s vision of technological independence.
All three had decades of experience in the space sector and defence industry, and they had only entered politics in recent years.
Gruenberg said there were also more “party soldiers” in the Politburo, like United Front Work Department head Shi Taifeng, with decades of experience in party organs under their belts.
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In an analysis published in January, Neil Thomas, a senior China analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group, argued that Xi had arranged the selection of what might be “the most educated” party Central Committee ever.
He said 49.5 per cent of its 205 full members and 171 alternate members were technocrats, up from 37.2 per cent in 2012, and 7.7 per cent were senior scholars in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, up from 4 per cent in 2012.
Gruenberg said they were not merely Xi “yes men”.
“You cannot only be a yes man any longer, you need to be red and professional,” he said. “They might not agree with every policy Xi is pushing, but in general there’s an appeal of a stronger China that’s more technology independent. You don’t need to be a total yes man to subscribe to the general idea of Xi Jinping’s policy.
“You have less exposure to international affairs, fewer people who have experience working [overseas] or with foreigners, there are few real barbarian handlers left. That’s one of the weaknesses of his new team.”
Since its abrupt pandemic-control U-turn in late November, Beijing has sent out strong signals that it is shifting its policy focus back to economic growth and sung the praises of the private sector, including big tech and real estate, which had been battered by an onslaught of regulatory oversight.
Xi has also doubled down on his previous call for technological self-reliance and hailed China’s development path as a successful alternative to the West’s.
Yang said that because Xi was standing comfortably on previous achievements in areas such as poverty alleviation, he was unlikely to roll out major policy changes any time soon.
“There won’t be major grand objectives to be announced,” he said. “It’s not like he just came to power and needs to establish himself with new ideas.”
Yang said he expected Beijing to focus on stability in economic growth, improving the quality of growth and building up self-reliance.
However, one burning question remains unanswered.
Xi, who will turn 70 in June, is expected to begin his third presidential term during the legislature’s annual session, and he is keeping cards close to his chest on what, if anything, he has in mind for a succession plan.
There is no heir apparent in the top leadership who appears ready to assume Xi’s full portfolio of responsibilities in five years, and it’s not clear if one will emerge then.
“It’s a big problem to have a successor known, all the networking will start and people will start to line up behind him and challenge him as well,” Gruenberg said. “But it’s also a big problem not to have one, because that creates even more uncertainty.
“Xi and his succession is actually the biggest grey rhino now. It’s a problem we know, but we don’t know when it will