BEIJING, (Reuters) – China’s ruling Communist Party broke with recent precedent on Wednesday, unveiling a new leadership line-up without a clear successor to President Xi Jinping, who has become arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
Xi led his team in order of rank on to a stage at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, overlooking Tiananmen Square, culminating a week-long party conclave at which he laid out his vision for an increasingly prosperous China confident of its place on the world stage.
Apart from Xi, Premier Li Keqiang was the only one to retain his spot amid sweeping changes on the Politburo Standing Committee. There has been persistent speculation Xi could seek to stay on in some capacity beyond the end of his customary second five years in power, which began on Wednesday.
All seven Standing Committee members are men in their 60s and, for the first time, none was born before China’s 1949 Communist revolution.
The make-up of the committee, which has ultimate control over the world’s second-largest economy, appeared to be a compromise to include a blend of Xi allies and those considered loyal to party elders, including Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, former presidents whose networks still wield influence.
Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution, said Xi appeared to have traded securing favourable amendments to the constitution in exchange for a compromise on the make-up of the Standing Committee, a line-up he likened to a “team of rivals”.
The member considered closest to Xi is Li Zhanshu, who has often accompanied Xi on overseas trips in a chief-of-staff-style role as the head the party’s General Office.
Li, who is not related to the premier, was named the third-ranked member, meaning he will most likely assume the role of head of the largely rubber-stamp parliament. That will not be confirmed until parliament meets in March.
Xi had already strengthened his hand considerably ahead of the announcement, with his political theory and “Belt and Road” infrastructure-led development strategy put into the party constitution. He was named the party’s “core” last year.
Guangdong party secretary Hu Chunhua and Chongqing party boss Chen Miner had been previously seen as prominent contenders to succeed Xi among the party’s so-called sixth generation of leaders but were not included in the Standing Committee.
Instead, both were named to the wider 25-member Politburo, a rung below the Standing Committee.
“He’s consolidated his power without making unnecessary problems for himself,” said David Zweig, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“The costs of keeping Wang Qishan or getting Chen Miner were too high. He didn’t need to do it.”
Wang, who led Xi’s sweeping anti-graft campaign and was considered China’s second most-powerful politician, is above retirement age; Chen was comparatively junior.
While the Standing Committee bears the hallmarks of compromise, the new Politburo is stacked with more than a dozen Xi allies, including Chen, Beijing party boss Cai Qi, economic adviser Liu He and Ding Xuexiang, who is expected to become Xi’s chief of staff as director of the party’s General Office.
“Xi has managed to put a lot of his own people there, as much as possible,” said Bo Zhiyue, a New Zealand-based expert on Chinese politics.
“Most of Xi’s close associates are too junior to be put into the Politburo Standing Committee right away.”
Blanket state media coverage made no mention of factional politics or alliances, while an editorial on the official People’s Daily’s WeChat account hailed the new seven-man line-up as a “dream team” to lead China into its “new era”.
Xi, who has sought to revitalise the Communist Party’s role across Chinese society, made no mention of who his successor might be as he introduced his new Standing Committee at a media event broadcast live around the country. His remarks were translated consecutively into English.
Xi did not take questions, but said the party had weathered trials and tribulations.
“We will also work with other nations to build a global community with a shared future, and make new and greater contributions to the noble cause of peace and development for all humanity,” he said.
Xi and Li were first promoted to the Standing Committee at the 17th Party Congress in 2007, in a clear signal that the pair would succeed Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao and occupy the top two offices – which they did five years later.
Zhao Leji, who headed the party’s Organisation Department, which oversees personnel decisions, replaced Wang Qishan as chief of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.