WASHINGTON (Reuters Breakingviews) - China’s politicians are preparing for a pivotal event. The leadership reshuffle at the Chinese Communist Party Congress, a meeting held once every five years set to kick off on October 18, will see most of the country’s top officials step down. All eyes will be on President Xi Jinping, who could upend decades of party tradition by seizing more power. Some hope a stronger Xi will put China back on the liberalization path. The fear is he will dismantle the consensus-based checks and balances put in place to prevent a return to the excesses of the Mao era.
The president’s boosters think that if Xi can put more trusted lieutenants into position, he will finally overpower so-called vested interests and deliver more aggressive reforms in financial markets and the state-owned sector. Skeptics question how market-oriented Xi is, and suspect he is angling to stay on after his term is due to end in 2022.
The debate will be settled at the end of the conference, when members of the next Politburo Standing Committee walk out on stage in a prearranged order. These individuals will in turn help pick new leaders of key financial and economic regulatory institutions.
There are four key measurements of how much power Xi accrues at the congress.
CAN XI PERSUADE THE POLITBURO TO IGNORE THE AGE LIMIT RULE?
Since the early 2000s, Politburo members have adhered to a “seven up, eight down” rule: officials aged 67 or younger at the time of the congress are eligible for promotion, while those 68 or over step down.
Proponents say this mechanism ensures peaceful transitions of institutional power in China; a tacit agreement among the elite to restrain the executive.
However, the limit is informal, and critics note it originated in gutter politics. Former President Jiang Zemin used the rule to knock opponents out of position. An official from a party think tank said last year the age limit is “folklore” and traditions could be “adjusted.”
At this congress, this question boils down to whether Wang Qishan, the country’s anti-corruption czar, stays or goes. Wang is competent, but he’s 69. The president might use Wang’s extension as a stalking horse, as Xi himself will approach the age limit in 2022. If Wang walks out on stage, it will be an unambiguous sign of Xi’s authority.
CAN HE INSERT “XI JINPING THOUGHT” INTO THE PARTY CONSTITUTION?
While less debated than the age limit, amendments to the party constitution are important; it’s the party’s way of saying how its leaders stack up.
The latest version says the party is committed to “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thought of the Three Represents, and the Scientific Outlook on Development.” What’s missing from this turgid phrase: any mention of former presidents Jiang and Hu Jintao. Their slogans – “Three Represents” and “Scientific Development,” respectively – are given pride of place, but Hu and Jiang’s names only appear later. The implication is that collective ideas are more important than individuals.
If one of Xi’s signature ideas is included in the amended party constitution without his name, that would be a sign of either institutional restraint on his authority or his own unwillingness to challenge orthodoxy. However, if the party constitution is revised to include something along the lines of “Xi Jinping Thought,” the message would be clear: the era of collective leadership is winding down, and Xi is now China’s most important leader since Mao.
The Li Keqiang question has consumed Beijing’s rumor mill since around 2015, when whispers surfaced of a falling out with Xi. Li is a veteran of the Communist Youth League, a political faction that the president has cut down to size in recent years.
The odds currently look in favor of Li staying put. The relationship between president and premier now seems less fractious than the rumor mill initially suggested, and Xi has already sidelined Li on economic policy anyway. Plus a scapegoat might be useful if the economy falters. If Xi were to replace the premier, however, it would suggest the president is unwilling to tolerate all but the most loyal lieutenants in positions of power.
The Politburo age limits usually means two relatively young leaders are “helicoptered” into the Politburo Standing Committee at the halfway mark of an administration. One is meant to replace the president, and another to take over from the premier.
The running bet is that Chongqing Party Secretary Chen Miner will land the successor spot for president, and perhaps Guangdong Party Secretary Hu Chunhua as the next premier. But if no young faces emerge in the Politburo Standing Committee at the end of the congress, it would suggest Xi plans to stay for another term.
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