BEIJING – Four of the current seven supreme leaders ruling China, including Premier Li Keqiang and fourth-ranked Mr Wang Yang, are to retire in a major reshuffle that will allow President Xi Jinping to surround himself with his allies.
Their departure, along with the retirement of third-ranked Mr Li Zhanshu, 72, and seventh-ranked Mr Han Zheng, 68, gives room to Mr Xi to stack the Politburo Standing Committee – the apex of political power – with loyalists, say analysts.
Both Mr Li’s and Mr Wang’s names did not appear in a list of the newly elected 20th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on Saturday at the end of a week-long party congress. The new cohort of leaders – 205 full members and 171 alternate members – come from the top rungs of the party, military and government.
They will today elect from among them the 25-member Politburo and its Standing Committee made up of seven men. They will also elect members of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the country’s military high command, who are also drawn from the same pool.
Mr Xi is expected to secure a rare third term as general secretary of the party, and chairman of the CMC.
Central Committee members were voted in on Saturday by around 2,300 delegates attending the once-every-five-years congress who represent the 96 million members of the CPC.
Changes to the party Constitution adopted at the congress also strengthened Mr Xi’s authority by establishing his “core status” in the party and his ideas as the party’s guiding principles.
The highly choreographed congress was disrupted when Mr Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, 79, was unexpectedly escorted off the stage. He appeared reluctant to leave. No reason has been given for his departure.
The retirement of Mr Li and Mr Wang is seen as a blow to the Communist Youth League faction, to which the two men as well as Mr Hu belong. Neither Mr Li nor Mr Wang has reached the retirement age for Politburo members. Both are 67.
An informal retirement norm, better known as the “seven up, eight down” rule, sets the age limit at 67 for old and new members of the Standing Committee and the wider Politburo at the start of a new term. Politicians aged 68 or older are disqualified.
Mr Xi, 69, is not adhering to the age limit.
Mr Wang was hotly tipped to take over from Mr Li as the next premier. Mr Li was said to have asked to retire for health reasons.
“It’s very rare for any leader to stay in the Politburo for four terms, or 20 years, with the paramount leader being the exception. Li and Wang have already been in the Politburo for three terms, so it is difficult for them to stay on,” said Dr Chen Gang, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute in Singapore.
Other leaders who will step down include economic czar Liu He, 70; top diplomat Yang Jiechi, 72; vice-premier Sun Chunlan, 72; head of the Communist Party’s organisation department Chen Xi, 69; and former Xinjiang party chief Chen Quanguo, 66.
Delegates on Saturday also elected members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s anti-corruption watchdog.
Based on the list of newly elected members, Guangdong party chief Li Xi – an ally of Mr Xi – is the most likely candidate to become the next anti-corruption czar, to be named on Sunday at the new Central Committee’s first meeting. This will also give him a seat on the new Standing Committee.
Of the 12 Politburo members who have been re-elected into the new Central Committee, the majority are Xi loyalists – Shanghai party chief Li Qiang, 63; top aide Ding Xuexiang, 60; Chongqing party chief Chen Min’er, 62; Beijing party chief Cai Qi, 66; propaganda chief Huang Kunming, 65; Central Military Commission vice-chairman Zhang Youxia, 72; and Guangdong’s Mr Li, 66.
Third-ranked vice-premier Hu Chunhua, 59, also from the Communist Youth League faction, is also on the list.
Mr Xi is likely to fill the vacated seats in the Politburo Standing Committee from this pool.
“Under the unified Xi’s army, the next problem is how they show their loyalty to Xi. They are competing with each other to show loyalty to Xi, which may stimulate unnecessary rivalry and activism in the leadership,” said Assistant Professor Lee Jonghyuk at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.