Almost Here: The Most Consequential Political Event of the Year

Now that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders have emerged from the gathering in Beidaihe, the “campaign season” has entered its home stretch to the 20th Party Congress. Yet the quietude of the past couple of weeks belies a rather rocky year.

What began as a celebration of the Beijing Winter Olympics was quickly overshadowed by the war in Ukraine. As hope sprung for solid economic growth at the National People’s Congress in March, a Zero Covid policy put in place by mid-spring had stifled it. Meanwhile, the property volatility that started with Evergrande’s default had evolved into a mortgage crisis, leaving the Chinese economy struggling to regain its footing.

Even though that’s probably not how the Chinese leadership envisioned heading into the political transition, these developments do not seem to have materially affected General Secretary Xi Jinping’s reelection prospects. This can be seen most clearly in personnel, one of the greatest sources of his political strength.

In this final analysis before revealing our projections for the 20th Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), we revisit the criteria for promotion in the context of the 161 personnel changes our Selection 2022 has tracked this year.

Based on this examination, we find that Xi has secured what amounts to a “super majority” in the upcoming Politburo—the 25-member body at the apex of political power—all but ensuring his third term.

Age, Network, and Experience

We’ve already systematically analyzed the main criteria—age, network, and career experience—that determine a CCP politician’s political fortunes. Now let’s see how well they apply to the 161 personnel changes.

All personnel changes so far have strictly followed the retirement rule, making age still one of the strongest norms (see Table 1). At this rate, we estimate that at least 80% of the new 20th Central Committee (CC) will be composed of the post-60s generation of politicians.

It is a generation that largely avoided the worst of the Cultural Revolution and came of age during the early days of the Reform and Opening Up era. Leaders of that generation became pioneers in their fields.

Table 1. Age Rules of the CCP
Source: “Retirement Age Requirements for Cadres” (老干部离休退休的年龄规定).

Among the personnel changes, there is a notable network effect of promotions within Xi’s orbit. That orbit is defined as those that have first or second connections to Xi, as well as those who owe their positions to his patronage. By that count, Xi’s network will likely constitute some 90% of the new Politburo, scoring a decisive super majority.

One such promotion was Wang Xiaohong (65), part of Xi’s Fujian political base, as the new Minister of Public Security. This makes Wang a likely successor to Guo Shengkun, the current Secretary of the Central Committee of Political and Legal Affairs. That means Xi will have a Politburo member and a close ally in control of the public security apparatus, something he hasn’t had over the last decade.

Another important promotion went to Li Shulei (58), apparently one of Xi’s favorite Party historians and theoreticians. Given his age, Li looks to be a “young Wang Huning in waiting” but will likely first succeed Huang Kunming (66) to lead propaganda work. That also makes Li likely to be elevated into the Politburo, paving his path to the PBSC in 2027.

Even as the age norm steadfastly holds, Xi can’t simply rely on his close allies, as many of them like Chen Xi (69) will retire this year. Instead, Xi will have to extend his circle of trust to second connections—that is, those that are extensions of his closest allies (see Table 2). 

Table 2. Promotions of Xi’s 1st and 2nd Connections into the New CC

Note: Each listed above is expected to become a full member of the 20th CC, with Wang Xiaohong and Li Shulei likely to enter the Politburo.
Source: MacroPolo’s The Committee & Selection 2022.

One such close ally is Li Zhanshu, the current #3 on the PBSC, whose Guizhou power base has been rising. First it was the 2017 promotion of now outgoing Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi (69), followed by the promotion of current Guizhou Party Secretary Shen Yiqin (63), one of the highest-ranked female politicians.

What Zhao and Shen have in common is that they both worked with Li in Guizhou before he became Xi’s chief of staff in 2012. If Li were to further demonstrate his leverage, there’s a good chance that Shen makes it into the 20th Politburo and replaces Sun Chunlan (72) as one of four vice premiers.

While age and network may be the most important criteria for promotions, professional experience still matters. A careful examination of provincial leadership among the 161 personnel changes reveals that under Xi’s leadership, technocrats—essentially those trained in the STEM fields—have fared well in this political transition.

Technocrats have formed their own modest cohort among provincial and ministerial leaders, though they have no discernable political coalitions. Their expertise also happens to align with Xi’s priorities on technological advancement (e.g. aerospace).

The proportion of technocrat provincial leaders (party secretaries and governors) has more than doubled since 2017 from 35% (11) to 74% (23). Technocrats have also been promoted over the last year to head ministries (see Table 3).

Table 3. Promotions of Technocrats into the New CC

Note: Each listed above is expected to become a full member of the 20th CC, and Ma Xingrui is expected to enter the Politburo.
Source: MacroPolo’s The Committee & Selection 2022.

In contrast to the 19th Politburo, where Chen Xi is the only technocrat, the new Politburo will likely see a new wave of technocrats. For example, Ma Xingrui (63), the Party Secretary of Xinjiang and an aerospace technocrat, had already secured his Politburo seat last year. Earlier promotions of younger technocrats—Yuan Jiajun (60) and Chen Jining (58)—to key provincial leadership positions (Zhejiang and Beijing) also increase their odds of entering the Politburo.

The finale

Xi has closed on a decade of reshuffling Chinese politics, weakening opponents and garnering him a super majority in the top echelons of the CCP. Dissent and fissures will certainly percolate—it is Chinese politics after all. But there is little evidence of it coalescing into anything resembling a meaningful opposition.

Through it all, Xi has not thrown out the baby with the bath water when it comes to CCP norms and protocols, despite general perceptions otherwise. Our analysis and data over the past year have reinforced the strong age norm in determining who’s up and who’s down in elite politics. Promoting new blood into the 20th CC also has the virtue of making Xi the senior Party elder in terms of age and network.

The only thing left now is to assemble the new PBSC, the committee that will run China for at least the next five years. Will these criteria hold at the PBSC level? What might be its composition? The answers to those questions will soon be revealed as the centerpiece of our Selection 2022.

Damien Ma is the Managing Director of MacroPolo. You can find his work on energy, politics, and other topics here.

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