China Premier's Lavish Praise Shows Xi Power for Reshuffle

Updated on
  • Li proclaims president’s ‘core’ status in speech to parliament
  • High-profile address sets stage for upcoming party congress

Takeways From China's National People's Congress

Besides the usual economic targets and policy pronouncements, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s annual speech to parliament also delivered an unambiguous political message: President Xi Jinping is the boss.

Li’s address to 3,000 members of the National People’s Congress on Sunday included seven references to Xi’s recently acquired status as the Communist Party’s “core” leader. The high-profile vote of confidence from the party’s No. 2 official -- and one-time Xi rival -- demonstrated how much the president has consolidated power ahead of a midterm reshuffle planned for later this year.

Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang at the opening of the NPC on March 5.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

“Li Keqiang having to say he’s the ‘core’ of the leadership in this very public way sends a signal,” said Dennis Wilder, who was a senior director for Asia at the National Security Council under George W. Bush and a China military analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. “It reinforces the idea that Xi is in charge.”

The upcoming 19th Party Congress represents Xi’s best opportunity to secure a lasting legacy, and he’s been increasingly demanding personal loyalty from a range of influential figures, including generals, company executives and journalists. This year’s promotions could signal whether Xi, 63, intends to line up possible successors and extend his influence beyond 2022, when his second term as party secretary is slated to end.

Bloomberg News reported in February 2016 that several provincial-level party bosses had begun publicly proclaiming Xi’s central status, in the first signs of bid to elevate his standing. Then in October, the party designated Xi as its core leader -- something never bestowed upon his predecessor, Hu Jintao -- giving the president added authority to push his agenda and promote favored officials.

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 this year, leaving their positions vacant.

Li, 61, told the NPC delegates gathered in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing that Xi’s role as the core leader “reflects the fundamental interests of the party and the Chinese people” and was of “crucial and far-reaching significance for ensuring the flourishing and long-term stability of the party and country.”

Li, whose rank and age made him a Xi rival before the party meeting that signaled their political futures, leads the State Council, China’s cabinet. Since taking power, Xi has assumed matters that were once handled by the premier, including chairmanships of top economic committees and presenting the country’s five-year development plan to party leaders.

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On Sunday, Li credited “all the achievements of the past year to the sound leadership of the Party Central Committee with comrade Xi at its core,” and struck an upbeat tone about the economy despite “graver” challenges ahead. He forecast growth of “around 6.5 percent, or higher if possible” this year, providing a stable environment for the reshuffle.

While NPC speeches usually include such nods to the party leadership, Li’s remarks were notable for their repetition and direct reference to Xi. For instance, former Premier Zhu Rongji only once cited the core status of outgoing President Jiang Zemin -- the last leader so anointed -- in his final 2003 work report. The term was never used more than three times in previous NPC speeches under Jiang.

“I don’t see any signs that Li is not on board with the core stuff,” said Trey McArver, the director of China research for TS Lombard, an investment research company. “And even if he’s not, I think he is aware that it’s not in his interest to push back."

Party officials have denied any attempt to revive the personality cult that surrounded revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. The communique that officially elevated Xi also reaffirmed the “collective leadership” model that governed China since the aftermath of Mao’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution.

‘Not Subtle’

Still, shows of fealty have proliferated, with ministers, provincial leaders and other NPC delegates proclaiming support for the party’s new core. Tianjin party secretary Li Hongzhong told a February meeting that Xi’s public statements showed the “thoughts, theories, emotion, charm and the highest level of a politician of General Secretary Xi Jinping as the core of the Party Central Committee, the core of the entire party,” according to the official Tianjin Daily.

Wilder, who’s now a senior fellow with Georgetown University’s Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues, said Li was probably delivering a message on Xi’s behalf.

“What he wants to do is make it clear to anybody who thinks they’re going to oppose him that this isn’t acceptable -- he gets to call the shots,” he said. “This is not subtle this time: No one inside the system would miss this message.”

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— With assistance by Peter Martin

(Updates with economic forecast under ‘Collective Leadership’ subheadline.)
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