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China's Xi emerges with solid strength from Party Congress designated for third term

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CNN

China’s top leader Xi Jinping will enter a norm-destroying third term with an even greater concentration of power, after retiring key party leaders from the senior governing body to make room for his own allies.

The week-long Communist Party Congress concluded on Saturday with the introduction of a new Central Committee – the party’s 200-member central leadership – which will elect a new list of top leaders on Sunday.

Prime Minister Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, who neither seem to have close ties to Xi, were not included in the new Central Committee, meaning they left China’s top governing body and will retire in full.

Xi is expected to be appointed as the party’s general secretary for another five years on Sunday, paving the way for a potential lifetime administration. At age 69, he exceeded the informal retirement age of 68 for senior party leaders. Xi’s name was included in the list of new Central Committee members.

Li and Wang are both 67 years old and are eligible to serve five more years on the party’s highest Politburo Standing Committee, according to retirement norms. Instead, they are retiring early from the party’s power peak, breaking with precedents in recent decades.

Li, China’s second-highest-ranking leader, is required by the country’s constitution to resign as prime minister in March, allowing the prime minister to serve only two terms. Wang, who chairs the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, was previously viewed by some as a potential successor to Li.

Their surprise departure opens up two more spots on the Standing Committee for Xi to fill in with his own allies and protégés. Two other members of the body have passed retirement age and are preparing to resign.

A standing committee lineup that populates the body with Xi loyalists will “change the power-sharing arrangement China has seen since the late 1970s,” according to Victor Shih, a distinguished Chinese politics expert at the University of California San Diego.

“Unofficially, Xi Jinping’s powers are (already) extremely high. He restructured the military, cleared the security apparatus of other influences, but formally speaking in the Politburo Standing Committee, even now there is a balance of power where officials who have historically had no connection with it still hold seats – this could end Shih, the addition of such an outcome, Xi’s He said it could create an “unhealthy dynamic” in which he is surrounded by people who are not used to giving critical policy feedback.

Several of Xi’s bodyguards or allies have been flagged as possible candidates for promotion by observers of elite Chinese politics. These include Chen Min’er, 62, a longtime close ally and patron of Xi’s Chongqing party chief, Ding Xuexiang, 60, who heads the Communist Party General Office, a position similar to Xi’s chief of staff, and Shanghai party chief. Li Qiang, 63, faced a fierce public backlash over the city’s painful two-month Covid lockdown earlier this year.

Eyes will also be on Hu Chunhua, 59, a vice-premier outside Xi’s orbit and previously touted as Xi’s potential successor, Hu’s promotion to the Standing Committee in 2017 was denied and stalled his ascension.

Hear the dire warning that brought a roaring applause to Xi Jinping during the speech

The party’s five-year national congress is a carefully crafted political theater to showcase the party’s unity and legitimacy.

However, Saturday’s closing ceremony in the Great Hall of the People was a dramatic highlight when former senior leader Hu Jintao was unexpectedly removed from the event.

According to footage and video of the meeting, 79-year-old Hu was sitting in a prominent position at the front table on stage, right next to his successor Xi, when approached by a staff member.

The circumstances surrounding his departure are unclear, but he initially seemed reluctant to leave. In recent years, it has been seen among the population in an increasingly fragile health.

CNN was censored on air in China while announcing Hu’s debut.

Due to the uncertainty of Chinese elite politics, the party is unlikely to make a public statement about Hu’s sudden exit from the stage. The dramatic moment is nowhere reported in the Chinese media or discussed on Chinese social media. But it has launched a storm of speculation overseas.

The party convention fell short of expectations among some Chinese pundits that Xi could be blessed with new party titles, new words of honor, or that his political ideology could be formally shortened to “Xi Jinping Thought,” already enshrined in the party charter. It is closer to the status of Mao Zedong, the founding father of communist China.

However, a flurry of Xi’s policies and political slogans was added to the party charter, including phrases reinforcing his “fundamental” status in the central leadership and the entire party.

Approved by a ceremonial vote by about 2,300 delegates, the amendment to the party’s charter also includes one of Xi’s hallmarks: “fight”. The term is also used by Xi when talking about the challenges and perceived threats facing the party and the country both at home and abroad.

“Dare to fight, dare to win, bury your head and work hard, be determined to keep moving forward,” Xi told delegates in his closing speech.

The party charter was also amended to “resolutely oppose and include Taiwan independence.” The Communist Party claims the self-governing democratic island is its territory, although it has never controlled it.

At the closing ceremony, the delegates also stamped approval on the working report of the party’s 19th Central Committee, a summary of which was presented by Xi at the opening of the congress last Sunday.

The working report lauded Xi’s leadership, saying that in essence the party he was with was driving China through a “brutal and complex international situation” and a “great succession of risks and challenges”.

Unlike the previous convention, where Xi set a vision for China and a rough roadmap to achieve that vision, Xi just reiterated the importance of doubling down on the current path – especially when faced with headwinds, said Steve Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.

“The main source of the counterwinds is the evil foreign power, especially the US trying to keep China down, so he wanted the Chinese people to follow even more strongly the nationalist flag that was flown by the CCP and not led by any other ‘greatest’. Xi Jinping himself, one of the leaders of the CCP,” said.

“This is good news for Xi, but bad news for China and the rest of the world,” he said.

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