As Xi Portrays Calm, Tensions Mount Ahead of Leadership Shuffle

  • Smooth annual legislative gathering would underscore stability
  • President wants no surprises ahead of upcoming party reshuffle

What Are China's Priorities at NPC?

As 3,000 lawmakers from across China descend on Beijing for an annual meeting of the world’s largest legislature, President Xi Jinping needs to portray a united front ahead of a leadership reshuffle later this year.

Looming over the annual National People’s Congress that kicks off Sunday is the twice-a-decade Communist Party conclave that may see almost half of China’s most senior leaders replaced. The legislative meeting can provide a window into political tensions behind the scenes: Before the last big reshuffle five years ago, the NPC foreshadowed the downfall of a potential Xi rival who was later jailed for life.

Xi is looking to avoid any drama this time around as he seeks to win backing from party cadres for his efforts to overhaul an economy growing at its slowest pace in a quarter century. The president also faces growing challenges around the globe, from U.S. counterpart Donald Trump’s trade threats to Kim Jong Un’s push for more powerful nuclear weapons in neighboring North Korea.

“Xi is under pressure to further consolidate personal power ahead of the 19th Party Congress,” said Zhao Suisheng, director of the University of Denver’s Center for China-U.S. Cooperation. “He wants to be first, not first among equals. There’s still a lot of work to do.”

Growth Target

The NPC may feature an update on various points of tension, including plans to lay off half a million workers in smokestack industries and create a super regulator to oversee the securities, banking and insurance sectors. Investors will also watch to see if Premier Li Keqiang signals a tolerance for economic growth of below 6.5 percent for 2017, a move that could jeopardize a party goal to double gross domestic product from 2010 to 2020.

Xi will look to consolidate gains after the central committee last year designated him the party’s “core” leader, a status that eluded his predecessor Hu Jintao. In recent months, Xi has tapped allies to lead cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, as well as to head up some of China’s top economic bodies.

But even a president widely seen as China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping -- the late “paramount leader” who opened the country’s economy almost four decades ago -- faces resistance.

In November, Xi warned about “a handful of senior party officials overcome by their political cravings and lust for power” who have “formed cliques to pursue selfish interests.” Last month, in the first known National Security Commission meeting since 2014, Xi declared safeguarding “political security” as the year’s top priority.

Power Struggle

While the remarks hint at continuing power struggles behind the scenes, Xi has offered few specifics about who’s involved and what they want. Commentaries in the party’s People’s Daily newspaper have complained about opposition to reform from “retired cadres,” bureaucrats, regional officials and protected industries. Xi has also shaken up the Communist Youth League, a group that has churned out top leaders including Hu and Li.

If retirement conventions hold, 11 of 25 Politburo members -- including five of seven members on its supreme Standing Committee -- would be expected to step down, leaving their positions up for grabs. The reshuffle will also usher in a new Central Committee, a wider group of party leaders with more than 350 full and alternate members.

At stake for Xi is the ability to do everything from overhauling state industries to lining up an eventual successor when his tenure is slated to end in 2022.

“The biggest challenge Xi faces this year is to ensure the smooth transition of power,” said Wang Yukai, a government adviser and professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance, which is run by the State Council, China’s cabinet. “There will be resistance in the run-up to the leadership reshuffle from various interests groups who will put up a fight.”

Secret Process

Although the Politburo is officially elected by the Central Committee, its membership is decided by consensus-building among factions in a secret process, including a meeting of party elites in the seaside town of Beidaihe and occasionally straw polls among Central Committee members and retired leaders. The process for picking the Standing Committee is even more opaque.

One powerful tool for Xi to outmaneuver opponents is his signature anti-corruption campaign, which has seen more than 1 million officials punished over the past four years. At least 120 have been at the vice-ministerial rank or above, including Zhou Yongkang, a retired Standing Committee member and the country’s former security chief. On Thursday, the party’s anti-graft authority placed senior political adviser Sun Huaishan under a graft probe, the latest high-ranking official snared in the campaign.

The fear of getting locked up has stifled debate among the lawmakers, known as deputies, who will attend NPC meetings over the next two weeks, said Rory Truex, an assistant professor at Princeton University whose book, “Making Autocracy Work: Representation and Responsiveness in Modern China,” was published in October. Xi has enacted strict party disciplinary rules, citing individualism, liberalism and “inflated political ambitions” among the perceived ills he aims to correct.

Dissent Stifled

“There’s been a tightening of discourse within the NPC and it was pretty tight to begin with,” Truex said. “All of the deputies are a little bit on edge right now. They’re not protected from the anti-corruption campaign in any way. If they say anything particularly sensitive they would potentially face punishment for that.”

Five years ago, as the party was preparing to foist Xi to the pinnacle of power, the NPC set the stage for one of the party’s most dramatic downfalls ever. Remarks by then-Premier Wen Jiabao signaled disfavor with Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, a Standing Committee contender whose wife had been implicated in a murder case. Bo was fired the next day and has since been sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption.

Other NPC sessions have also veered off script. In 1992, around a third of lawmakers voted against or abstained from a motion to approve the Three Gorges Dam, which displaced more than a million people.

Fortunately for Xi, a boring NPC is usually par for the course. The meeting is “useless” because delegates pass whatever resolutions that party leaders tell them to, according to Zhang Ming, professor of politics at Renmin University in Beijing.

“It usually comes down to analyzing the kind of clothes people wear and what kinds of fun things people said,” he said. “It’s a form of entertainment.”

— With assistance by Peter Martin, and Ting Shi

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