China’s top leaders are set for a reshuffle. Here are the names to watch

China’s top leaders are set for a reshuffle. Here are the names to watch

China’s top leadership team around President Xi Jinping is set to change this month at a twice-a-decade congress. Pictured here is the last such congress in 2017, with Xi at the center.

Nicolas Asfouri | Afp | Getty Images

BEIJING — China is poised to reshuffle the top officials surrounding President Xi Jinping at a highly anticipated congress meeting this month.

The ruling Communist Party of China is expected to kick off its 20th National Congress — held once every five years — on Oct. 16.

About a week later, the names of the new team are due to be announced.

The composition of the team will reflect the political sway Xi and his associates have, and how much support the president wields for ideas — such as preferences for greater state control in the economy.

Xi, who is 69, is widely expected to further consolidate his power after being head of the party for 10 years. This month’s congress is expected to pave the way for him to stay on for an unprecedented third five-year term.

Chinese politics have always been opaque, but it seems as if absolutely no light whatsoever is escaping from this black box.

Scott Kennedy

Center for Strategic and International Studies

But forecasts for which officials will step down or take on new roles remain speculative.

“Chinese politics have always been opaque, but it seems as if absolutely no light whatsoever is escaping from this black box,” said Scott Kennedy, senior advisor and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Hence, one hears much less speculation now compared to previous leadership transitions,” he said.

“The irony of this mystery is that Chinese officials regularly lecture foreigners about how little they understand China,” Kennedy said. “Part of the problem is how little information is actually made available to us.”

Here’s what’s publicly known — and some of the names that analysts are watching in the upcoming reshuffle:

Political structure

This month’s congress decides which officials will become leaders of the ruling Communist Party of China.

About 2,300 party delegates are set to gather in Beijing to select a new central committee — consisting of about 200 full members.

That committee then determines the core leadership — the Politburo and its standing committee.

The current Politburo, or political bureau, has 25 members, including Liu He. Liu was at the forefront of trade negotiations with the U.S. in 2020 and 2021. In China, he heads the central government’s financial stability committee.

However, Liu is not part of the Politburo’s standing committee, the highest circle of power. It currently has seven members — including Xi and Premier Li Keqiang.

Xi holds three key positions: General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and President of China.

He is expected to retain the first two titles at this year’s party congress. State positions such as president and premier won’t be confirmed until the next annual meeting of the Chinese government, typically held in March.

Economic policy: Who will replace Premier Li?

One of the most closely watched changes in the political reshuffle is the future of Premier Li Keqiang, who turned 67 this year.

While top-level economic policy in China is largely set by Politburo members, Li has been an official face and leader of implementation in his role as premier and the head of the State Council, China’s top executive body.

Li said in March that this year marks his last as premier, a position he’s held since 2013. However, he could remain a standing committee member, JPMorgan analysts said, pointing to a precedent at the 15th party congress.

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Over the last decade, Li has met regularly with foreign businesses to promote investment in China. Since the pandemic began, he has upheld cutting taxes and fees for businesses instead of offering consumption vouchers. Li studied economics at Peking University.

All of modern China’s premiers, except for the first, previously served as vice premiers, JPMorgan’s analysts said.

The current vice premiers are Han Zheng, Hu Chunhua, Liu He and Sun Chunlan — the only woman in the Politburo.

“Whoever becomes premier actually sends a signal about Xi Jinping’s primary need, or his political and policy consideration,” Brookings Senior Fellow Cheng Li said Tuesday at a talk hosted by the think tank.

He named four people in the Politburo who could join or stay on the standing committee, and have a chance to replace Li Keqiang as premier.

  • Han Zheng — Han is a member of the standing committee. Becoming premier would reflect “policy continuity,” Brookings’ Li said.
  • Hu Chunhua — Hu has close ties to Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao. Promoting him would signal “leadership unity” with Xi appointing people from outside his faction, Li said.
  • Liu He — Liu studied at the Harvard Kennedy School in the 1990s. More recently, he led the Chinese delegation in trade talks with the U.S. and has spoken several times with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. If Liu became premier it would be for his “international popularity,” according to Li.
  • Wang Yang — Wang is a standing committee member and was a vice premier from 2013 to 2018. He is known to be market-oriented, and selecting him as premier would reflect “drastic policy change,” Li said.

Among Xi’s loyalists…

Analysts at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis laid out another scenario in which Xi’s protege Li Qiang, Shanghai Party Secretary and Politburo member, could become premier.

Other loyal Xi allies the analysts named include:

  • Ding Xuexiang — Politburo member and “essentially Xi’s Chief of Staff, as well as in charge of his personal security, meaning he is among Xi’s most trusted circle,” the Asia Society report said.
  • Chen Min’er — Politburo member and party secretary of the Chongqing municipality, a job he gained by Xi’s “abrupt ousting” of the prior secretary, Asia Society pointed out.
  • Huang Kunming — Politburo member and head of China’s propaganda department, who worked closely with Xi in the provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, the report said.

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Liu Jieyi “seems likeliest to succeed Yang” in the foreign affairs director role, said Neil Thomas, senior analyst, China and northeast Asia, Eurasia Group, in a report.

Liu is director of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, and previously represented China at the United Nations. Such experience “would suggest Beijing will enhance its diplomatic focus on global governance reform and deterring ‘Taiwan Independence,'” Thomas said.

At age 64, Liu is “the most senior diplomat not set to retire,” the Eurasia Group said in its report, while noting “rumors” that Foreign Minister Wang Yi could succeed Yang instead.

Wang is a member of the party’s 200-member central committee, and previously led the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office. He turns 69 in October.

China has a loose retirement age of 68 for its officials.

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“If Wang Yi replaces Yang Jiechi in the Politburo as the most senior official overseeing foreign policy, one would expect the tougher foreign policy to continue,” Tony Saich, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said in a September paper.

The Chinese Communist Party’s central committee publicity department did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment sent during a week-long Chinese holiday.

All eyes on Xi’s successor

For many China watchers, the greater question is not how the 69-year-old Xi will consolidate power, but who might be his successor and how will he prepare the person in the coming years.

Under Xi, China’s bureaucracy has become less autonomous and more tied to him personally — especially since there are few checks on power, Yuen Yuen Ang, associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, wrote in the Journal of Democracy in July.

The threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power, she said, “will be succession battles resulting from Xi’s personalist rule.”

Under a “best-case scenario,” China will be able to remain stable under Xi’s rule until 2035, she said.

In a “worst-case scenario,” Ang said, “a sudden vacuum could invite violent power grabs.”

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