President Xi Jinping wins a third term and a new, loyal inner circle

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Xi Jinping won a third term and a new, loyal inner circle: 5 big take-aways from China’s party congress

Ordinarily, in politics or anything else, affirming the status quo isn’t big news — especially when the outcome is widely anticipated. The just-concluded Communist Party Congress in China is an exception. President Xi Jinping has won an extension of his tenure, a third five-year term, and perhaps the New York Times’ Raymond Zhong put it best: It’s “the world’s most important non-change in leadership.”

The once-every-five-years gathering in Beijing made that “non-change” official, but a lot of other important things happened in the week of largely behind-closed-doors sessions. The objective of these meetings boils down to two major agenda items: to determine the party’s leadership, and chart a path forward for the party, its anointed leader and for the nation. On many of these fronts, norms were shattered to allow for Xi to gain even more power, making it the “most unforgettable meet[ing] in CCP history,” as Yawei Liu, director of the China program at the Carter Center, wrote on Twitter.

Xi’s third term may have been widely expected, but what makes it notable is that it came against the backdrop of some of the most profound internal problems that party and country both have suffered in recent memory. As Grid has reported, the nation has been buffeted by crises involving the housing market, youth unemployment, demographic trends (the population is shrinking), and an unusual public expression of upset around the country, aimed primarily at Xi’s policy of strict and sweeping covid lockdowns. In many other countries, an incumbent asking for another term might have paid a price given those realities, but that’s not quite the way it works in China. At least not in Xi Jinping’s China.

But Xi’s reappointment was hardly the only party congress decision that mattered. At a time of domestic difficulties, profound questions about China’s role on the global stage and a historic low point in U.S.-China relations, there are hints we’ve gleaned from the halls of power in Beijing over the last week that will have major implications for the next five years — in China and beyond.

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Here are five key take-aways.

1. Xi is here to stay

The biggest news out of the party congress, of course, was that history-making “non-change”: For at least the next five years, Xi will remain general secretary of the Communist Party. Having secured that title — and, importantly, chairman of the military commission — it is almost certain that Xi will continue as president as well.

This is unprecedented in recent times; Xi’s predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin served for two terms as president and general secretary before stepping down, allowing for relatively smooth transitions of power. But in 2018, Xi scrapped the constitutional term limit on the presidency, established in the 1980s, clearing the way for him to keep the job. At the time, state media outlets explained the change as a move to harmonize the presidency with the other two top posts: general secretary and head of the military, neither of which are limited in any way. But experts called it a power grab. Wu Guoguang, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center on China’s Economy and Institutions, told Grid that while former leaders manipulated accepted party norms, “Xi Jinping, it seems that he likes to get rid of norms, just to play the naked politics as he likes to do.”

From the moment Xi abolished the term limits, there has been speculation as to how long he intends to rule. He is 69 years old, and the phrase “leader for life” has been the subject of much discussion among Chinese political analysts. He has spoken often — including at last week’s party congress — about a broad range of goals for the country, some of which come with deadlines that reach into the 2030s and beyond. But experts differ as to whether Xi’s ambitions extend to a lifelong hold on power.

One clear clue from the party congress could be found in the slate of officials Xi promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member body that is composed of China’s top leaders. Every one of them would be too old to succeed Xi five years from now, based on the party’s age norms, except one member who is considered underqualified. That fact alone strongly suggests Xi will stay in power for at least another decade.

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Even with just five more years in power, Xi is sure to further imprint his legacy on Chinese society — an already substantial legacy that has included crackdowns on corruption, human rights and private corporations as well as efforts to clean up China’s environment, tackle climate change and alleviate poverty.

2. Six Xi loyalists take the helm

Once the top slot was settled, attention turned to several critical high-level positions in the party. Here, the big question marks going into the congress were which party officials would be promoted to serve in the standing committee. These promotions are consequential because they inform policymaking and could offer some sort of check on Xi’s power.

But the group that followed Xi onto the stage Sunday will be anything but. All six members of the new standing committee are clear Xi loyalists. Wang Huning, the party theorist who has been central to shaping Xi’s nationalist platform, was reappointed. Three of the new members — Li Qiang, Cai Qi and Ding Xuexiang — served as personal secretaries under Xi in past regional posts.

Xi appears to have tapped Li Qiang, the party secretary of Shanghai, to be the next premier — the No. 2 position in the government, despite Li’s lack of experience on the state council, which he will now run. Li served below Xi when he held the same position in Shanghai. Li’s elevation is also notable given that he presided over perhaps the most widely unpopular of all the “zero-covid” lockdowns: Shanghai’s disastrous two-month shutdown last spring.

Xi had already amassed significant power in his last five years, but a week ago, the top leadership body still included officials from more independent factions. Those figures provided at least some counterweight — however slight. The Wall Street Journal reported in May that Li Keqiang, the outgoing premier, had pushed for a more pro-growth economic policy amid the lockdowns. Now Li Keqiang has been forced out. Others from his faction have also been demoted.

Packing the standing committee in this way means that China’s already powerful leader now reigns supreme, according to Victor Shih, a professor of China studies at the University of California, San Diego. “First, there will not be any chance of an elite pushback against his decisions,” Shih told Grid. “Second, the people in charge of the major bureaucracies in China will be his loyalists and will presumably do their best to implement his policies.”

Xi shattered any illusion of shared rule on Sunday with the brazen removal of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, from the seat next to him during the congress’ closing session. Hu was lifted from his seat and escorted out of the hall. It was without question the most dramatic moment for viewers of the event — again, a gathering that is not normally distinguished by public drama of any kind. Chinese state media claimed that Hu had health issues, but the country’s former leader seemed to actively resist being removed from the stage. And references to Hu were quickly scrubbed by digital censors in China.

Two men take Hu Jintao off his seat by the arms as Xi Jinping looks, sitting right next to them.

“This kind of disruption to the proceedings is very rare,” said Shih. “I think symbolically this truly spells the end of an era of power-sharing. He was seated next to Xi Jinping precisely to provide an image of shared power, but then he was removed.”

3. Xi Jinping writes himself into party history — again

If any party cadres were in doubt as to Xi’s status, amendments to the party constitution made it clear.

The new language reads that Xi is now “the core of the Party’s Central Committee and of the whole Party.” Xi has already been referred to as the “core” leader for years, but now that word is enshrined in the constitution. The change was made by unanimous vote.


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This follows Xi’s move at the last party congress to insert a more unwieldy set of words, “Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era of Socialism With Chinese Special Characteristics,” into the constitution, a change that lifted him to the level of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping as leaders whose names have been officially attached to party doctrines. As the New York Times reported, Xi described the “new era” as the third chapter in Chinese Communist Party history: Mao made China independent, Deng made it prosperous, and Xi would bring a new chapter of strength.

4. Security trumps economics — and everything else

One of the most important moments of the party congress was Xi’s nearly two-hour “Work Report” speech — the traditional address that functions as a kind of State of the Union look at past accomplishments and challenges for the country’s future. The biggest message in Xi’s report was that among the party’s priorities, national security towers above all else.

Grid analyzed the speech and found that economic policy was given short shrift, while national security was mentioned 26 times. In the full report to the party congress (from which Xi’s speech was excerpted), “security” or “safety” were referenced 89 times, up from 55 times in 2017, Reuters reported.

For Xi, key national security priorities include Hong Kong, Taiwan and bolstering the military’s strength. He claimed credit in the speech for transitioning Hong Kong from “chaos to governance” — a reference to the protests that swept Hong Kong in 2019, and the National Security Law and other measures that have stifled dissent in Hong Kong. On Taiwan, Xi underscored the party line: “We have resolutely waged a major struggle against separatism and interference, demonstrating our strong determination and ability to safeguard state sovereignty and territorial integrity and oppose Taiwan independence.” He added, “We will never promise to abandon using armed force and reserve the option of adopting any necessary measures.”

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will mark its centennial in 2027 — a deadline the government has set for the elevation of the armed forces to “world class” standards, which Xi highlighted in the speech. That will mean a continuation of the rapid military buildup under Xi.

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National security was also framed as a matter of domestic technological strength, and a response to increasing tensions between China and the West. Xi vowed to “resolutely win the battle of core technologies,” echoing calls from the other side of the Pacific. The U.S. has placed tighter restrictions on semiconductor exports to China to try to prevent the country’s technological advancement, and invested in boosting domestic electric vehicle supply chains to lessen reliance on China.

Reflecting this struggle for technological supremacy and other global tensions, Xi said that China must ready itself for “strong winds and high waves and even dangerous storms” ahead.

5. Sticking with zero-covid

Perhaps no decision was more widely anticipated — within China at least — than the course Xi and the party would chart when it came to zero-covid. Over the past year, the government has wielded the policy as a bludgeon to strike down even minor outbreaks of the virus, often by forcing huge metropolises into lockdown. The blunt policy has hammered China’s economy and caused food and medical shortages in cities under quarantine; those problems, in turn, have led to widespread pushback and even public protest.

Here, the news out of the party congress was essentially … no news at all. All the signals point to the policy remaining in place. Despite the growing resentment toward the lockdowns, Xi fully defended it in his speech. China’s “all-out people’s war on the virus,” he said, had “protected the people’s health and safety to the greatest extent possible.”

For China’s ailing economy, that presents a major problem. As Houze Song, a senior fellow at the Paulson Institute, told Grid, “the No. 1 challenge is really zero-covid. My opinion is that as long as the zero-covid [policy] is in place, no other policy matters, regardless of how well it is designed or implemented. They will not be able to offset the impact of zero-covid.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Lili Pike
    Lili Pike

    China Reporter

    Lili Pike is a China reporter at Grid focused on climate change, technology and U.S.-China relations.