News analysis

Race is on, but wait to succeed Xi may be a long one

Three Politburo members in their 50s may be in the running but must first prove their loyalty

While the world's focus has been on the line-up of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) apex body, who's who in the Politburo is also worthy of attention for what it says of President Xi Jinping's grip on the party.

The 25-member Politburo, a top decision-making body of the CCP from which the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) is drawn, is stacked with Mr Xi's allies and proteges, analysts say.

There are also several members who are only in their 50s, which will make them eligible for the top leadership in 2022, when the next CCP national congress is held.

The first plenum of the CCP's new Central Committee was held yesterday, at which a new Politburo and its standing committee were elected. It took place a day after the close of the party's five-yearly national congress, its 19th, on Tuesday.

Mr Xi now "has solid control of the Politburo", with about 15 of its 25 members being close to him, noted Hong Kong-based analyst Willy Lam.

"They are members of Xi's faction, people who have worked under him in Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai," he added, referring to the provinces and city where Mr Xi had served as party chief before being catapulted to the PSC at the 17th party congress in 2007 as successor-in-waiting. He assumed power five years later in 2012.

Mr Xi had earlier placed several of them in positions that would pave the way for them to be promoted to the new Politburo.

They included Mr Cai Qi, 61, who was made party secretary of Beijing in May this year, a position that usually comes with Politburo membership.

Mr Cai, who was not even on the Central Committee from which Politburo members are drawn before the 19th congress, is a native of Fujian who had worked with Mr Xi during the latter's 17-year stint in that province.

Another is Mr Chen Xi, 64, also a native of Fujian, who shared a dormitory with Mr Xi when the two were students at the prestigious Tsinghua University in the late 1970s.

Mr Chen is tipped to be promoted to be minister of the party's Organisation Department, which oversees personnel matters of the party. He is currently its vice-minister.

Then there is Mr Chen Min'er, 57, who caused a sensation in July when it was suddenly announced that he would be replacing Mr Xi's potential successor Sun Zhengcai, the Chongqing party boss who was being investigated for graft.

There had been speculation that he might be promoted to the PSC at the 19th congress as successor-in-waiting, but this did not happen.

Mr Chen Min'er was propaganda chief of Zhejiang province when Mr Xi was its party boss from 2002 to 2007, helping to write Mr Xi's weekly column in the provincial party paper. Just as Mr Xi's political fortunes have risen, so have Mr Chen's.

When Mr Xi came to power in 2012, he had few allies in the Politburo. That was because he was a compromise choice between the Communist Youth League faction of former president Hu Jintao and the Shanghai faction of Mr Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin.

But the retirement of several Politburo members before the 19th congress gave him the opportunity to put his own people in it.

While this helps Mr Xi tighten his grip on power, it also means that there are fewer checks and balances within the Politburo on Mr Xi's power, noted Dr Lam.

What is also interesting about the new Politburo is the number of younger members with links to Mr Xi.

Apart from Mr Chen Min'er, there are three others who are in their 50s. One of them is Mr Li Qiang, 58, the current party boss of the wealthy coastal province of Jiangsu. When Mr Xi was Zhejiang party chief, Mr Li was his right-hand man.

Another Xi ally is Mr Ding Xuexiang, 55, who worked for Mr Xi when the latter was party boss of Shanghai in 2007. Mr Ding is the deputy head of the Central Committee's General Office, which he is tipped to head.

The fourth is Mr Hu Chunhua, the youngest at 54. However, many observers say he is out of the running as he is seen to be close to former president Hu.

However, the other two - Mr Li and Mr Ding - are seen as Mr Chen Min'er's rivals in the succession stakes.

Mr Xi would have five years to observe their performance and make up his mind, said Dr Lam.

However, Professor Yang Dali of Chicago University did not think that there would be open competition at this point.

"The least anyone wants is to be seen to be trying to succeed Xi, especially when it is not exactly clear that Xi wants to retire at the end of his second term," he said.

The key at this point, he noted, is to test the loyalty of these men to Mr Xi.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2017, with the headline 'Race is on, but wait to succeed Xi may be a long one'. Subscribe