The National People’s Congress, which begins this weekend, will be a symbol of Xi Jinping’s epic power grab.
China’s leader has restructured the Communist Party, putting himself at the centre, and no one else stands a chance.
The most visible manifestation of this will be the personnel changes that will be announced at the annual political meeting, a rubber-stamp session of nearly 3,000 delegates.
Consider the position of premier, the person in charge of the world’s second-largest economy and, in theory, the only person in power after Mr Xi.
On the first day, outgoing Premier Li Keqiang will take centre stage. Finally, a new premier, almost certainly Li Qiang, will take centre stage.
They’re two very different people, especially in terms of their devotion to Mr Xi, who launched an anti-corruption campaign a decade ago, slicing through the ranks of rival party factions.
At the Communist Party Congress last October, new appointments to the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee meant that the country’s most powerful group now consisted entirely of Xi supporters.
The heads of various departments and ministerial positions will be replaced at this meeting. They are all expected to belong to the same faction.
It doesn’t mean they aren’t qualified, but will they be willing to give fearless and candid advice to the man who appointed them?
Xi consolidates power by filling his top team with loyalists.
Xi Jinping’s party is still in its early stages.
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“On the one hand, this may imply that Xi can really get things done with his new leadership, but on the other hand, there is a risk of him becoming trapped in an echo chamber,” an experienced business figure told the BBC.
So, what do these appointments portend for China’s future?
If Li Qiang is the new premier, he will have had a meteoric rise, sitting up there on the last day of the NPC, taking screened questions at the annual press event.
He oversaw the disastrous two-month lockdown of China’s financial capital last year as Shanghai party boss.
As a result, many people were surprised when he was promoted to number two in the Communist Party’s pecking order.
On May 29, 2022, the East Nanjing Road in Shanghai, China, is closed. Shanghai launched a three-phase plan to restore normalcy to production and life.
Shanghai was subjected to one of the world’s toughest and longest lockdowns.
It wasn’t so much that there was a lockdown as it was how poorly it was handled. The confinement of delivery drivers to their homes meant that food and medicine could not be delivered efficiently to the many millions of people who were not permitted to leave their homes.
There were severe food shortages, and when deliveries did arrive, residents shared photos of the rotten vegetables they were supposed to eat.
People had had enough by the end of the city-wide shutdown. They were kicking down the fences that had been erected to keep them in and fighting the guards who had been stationed to enforce the much-despised zero-Covid policy.
Observers have questioned how the person in charge of this massive logistical failure was appointed to run the entire country.
For one thing, his past paints a different picture. Previously, some in the business community saw him as an innovator who was able to work around Party constraints.
“He’s smart and a good operator, but he got the job because of his devotion to Xi. “When the president asks him to jump, he says, ‘how high?'” says Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China. He has been doing business in the country since the 1990s and has long had relationships with the Communist Party’s upper echelons.
Mr Wuttke went on to say that the zero-Covid strategy’s negative impact is still being felt by businesses and ordinary consumers alike.
“There is caution where spending is concerned because of the trauma of the zero-Covid period,” he says, “People have been shell-shocked by the last few years in China. They are wary of taking risks and exercise extreme caution when making decisions.” This trauma is especially prevalent in Shanghai, and the city’s allure for foreign investment has faded significantly.”
Mr Wuttke, on the other hand, does not believe this is solely Li Qiang’s fault, and other businesspeople agree.
Tesla was introduced to Shanghai by Li Qiang. It was the company’s first factory outside of the United States, and it was allowed to establish its own venture without the requirement of partnering with a Chinese partner, as other foreign car companies had been forced to do.
In trumpeting the virtues of Shanghai’s pilot Free Trade Zone in 2019, he said it would become an area open to international competitiveness, which would “work as an important carrier for China to become deeply integrated with economic globalisation”.
In some circles, he is regarded as a more liberal figure willing to bend the rules.
Watch: The Punishing Cost of the Shanghai Lockdown on Businesses
However, it is unclear whether he will now be an empowered rule bender, not afraid to do what is necessary because he has Mr Xi’s support, or a former pragmatist who will fall into line on a much larger stage, just outside Mr Xi’s shadow.
In 2016, he was appointed party secretary for Jiangsu, a wealthy eastern province known for its technology firms. He sought meetings with Alibaba founder Jack Ma and other executives to gain insight into the business climate in China.
But that was another era. Mr. Xi has recently ordered the reining in of tech companies, believing that they have become too powerful for their own good. It has become common for the heads of these companies to “disappear” so that they can be questioned by the Party’s discipline inspection officers, the most recent example being billionaire banker Bao Fan, who brokered key technology deals.
This does not appear to be something Li Qiang would have encouraged in the past, but he and Mr Xi have a long history.
He was previously stationed in Zhejiang, a wealthy eastern province to the south of Shanghai. The provincial party chief at the time was Xi Jinping, and after Li became his chief of staff, the two would work late into the night to impress those above them.
Mr. Xi has never shared a common background with outgoing Premier Li Keqiang.
They rose together during a period of much more collective leadership, and Li Keqiang was, in some ways, a rival at the time. He was also being considered for the top position. You have to wonder what China would be like now if he had won instead of Xi.
Li Keqiang, a brilliant economist who graduated from Peking University shortly after the Cultural Revolution, rose through the ranks of the Communist Party through the Communist Youth League, a rival power bloc.
He was soon constrained as premier under Mr Xi, who was running the place with a reach not seen since Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China.
At one point during his tenure as Premier, Li Keqiang declared that reintroducing street vendors in cities across China would help to revitalise the economy and create a more lively atmosphere. Those who responded to the call in Beijing, however, were quickly ordered to leave by police.
What makes the capital appear “backwards” or “outdated” is frowned upon under Mr Xi. It made no difference that the premier himself had suggested it. It was not going to fly in Beijing.
Li Keqiang appeared to be aligned with former leader Hu Jintao, who was ordered off the stage at last year’s Party Congress by Mr Xi.
Whether it was because Mr Hu was ill or because he was causing trouble after his people were passed over for promotion, this still unexplained event effectively ended a previous era in front of the world’s cameras.
As he was led away, he made a friendly tap on Li Keqiang’s shoulder, and the premier nodded back.
Former President Hu Jintao is escorted out of the Communist Party Congress as Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang look on.
GETTY IMAGES IS THE IMAGE SOURCE
Hu Jintao tried to catch Li Keqiang’s attention as he was led out of the October meeting.
Li Keqiang will be remembered for his strong economic record, but his presidency was marred by the zero-covid crisis.
During the worst of it, he said the economy was under enormous strain and urged officials not to let restrictions stifle growth.
When cadres were forced to choose between his order to protect the economy and Mr. Xi’s order to maintain zero-Covid with extreme discipline, there was no contest.
Nothing beats Xi Jinping, who now has the party organised exactly how he wants it.
The only danger he appears to face is that his reputation has suffered among some members of the general public.
The property crisis, high youth unemployment, the tech crackdown, and the massive damage to the service industry have all harmed his standing.
“Mao survived during a period of total economic collapse when people didn’t have that much to lose,” Mr Wuttke explains. “People’s living standards have greatly improved, but middle-class parents are beginning to worry that their children will not have a better life than they did.”
Those interested in the direction of this economic powerhouse will be keeping a close eye on this year’s NPC, particularly those who are elevated at the meeting.
If Mr. Xi’s way is all that it’s cracked up to be, China should be firing on all cylinders soon, with all impediments to the leader’s will removed.
If the country fails to perform well on all fronts, difficult questions will begin to emerge.