All the Emperor’s men

How Xi Jinping became China’s unrivalled leader — and how he plans to expand his power base

Politics is personnel, especially in China’s Communist party system.

Xi Jinping, who is expected to be appointed for an unprecedented third term as leader, tightened his grip on power on Sunday as he addressed the party’s 20th congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

The most powerful ruler of China since Mao, Xi has centralised decision-making in his own hands in a way his recent predecessors could not have dreamt.

Since the early 1990s the Communist party has operated a series of term limits that kept the political peace between different factions. This has prevented rival groups, or one individual leader, from becoming too influential.

Xi has eliminated those restraints. He has achieved this by manipulating appointments to the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) and purging key rivals from the leadership.

It is through his control of the personnel system and a sweeping corruption crackdown that he has been able to bulldoze the factions that once dominated the party, stacking key positions with loyalists and sidelining any potential challengers to his leadership.

For more than a decade, Xi has exploited the idiosyncratic rules and implicit conventions within the Chinese Communist party with ruthless efficiency.

Every five years, the party holds its national congress revealing the party’s leaders and the key policy directions for the world’s most populous country.

Xi Jinping is general secretary of the party central committee and chairman of the central military commission.

The highest-level political body is the standing committee. It is currently composed of seven members, but had nine as recently as 2007.

Beneath the standing committee is the 25-member politburo, the stepping stone to the top positions in the party.

Below that is the central committee of around 205 cadres composed of government ministers, provincial leaders, military officers and top regulators.

The selection process for China’s top leaders is opaque, with positions determined only after brokering behind closed doors and negotiations between incumbent and past members of the politburo.

For decades after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1990s, the leaders followed unwritten rules, such as ensuring a balance of ages and political factions across the highest echelons of the party and ceding their posts at the end of two five-year terms. This system had ensured peaceful transitions of power after 30 years of increasingly chaotic rule under Mao.

Despite being a princeling — the son of a party elder and revolutionary leader — when Xi, then 60, became China’s leader in late 2012 he was seen as lacking a clear-cut group of loyal followers among the leadership.

Jiang Zemin, general secretary from 1989 to 2002, still wielded immense power over Chinese politics after retiring to his home city of Shanghai.

Jiang’s influence flowed through the Shanghai faction — supporters and confidants who had been promoted under his watch or had connections in his local support base.

Xi’s own promotion to the standing committee five years earlier was partially down to the support of Jiang and his former vice-president Zeng Qinghong.

Jiang’s power, however, was offset by a group of technocrats loyal to his successor Hu Jintao and his premier Wen Jiabao. This faction, named after the Communist Youth League where many of them built their careers, included Xi’s future premier, Li Keqiang.

Faced with the same powerful interest groups that Hu Jintao had been either unable or unwilling to confront, Xi began to weaken the factions that had come to dominate elite Chinese politics since Deng.

An old friend, Wang Qishan, became a standing committee member the same year Xi took over as leader. Wang, a seasoned bureaucrat, was tapped to lead an unprecedented crackdown as Xi’s new anti-corruption tsar. The campaign was legitimised by rampant corruption across the party-state, but it soon became a tool for Xi to purge his political rivals.

Among the first in a series of key military and political heavyweights to fall was Zhou Yongkang, the former head of China’s internal security apparatus and a supporter of Jiang. The arrest of Zhou shattered an unwritten rule since the end of the Cultural Revolution — under Xi, even incumbent or retired standing committee members were no longer untouchable.

Within just a few years of Xi taking power, 25 of the 205-member CCP central committee, the tier of party leaders below the politburo, were removed from their posts on grounds of corruption.

By 2017, as the party elite prepared to meet for a congress it holds every five years to select its leaders, Xi was in a position to ramp up the placement of his choice of people into positions of influence.

Two of the five vacant seats in the standing committee went to Li Zhanshu, Xi’s chief of staff since 2012 and a trusted ally, and Zhao Leji, a loyal bureaucrat and head of the department responsible for handling state appointments. Also promoted to the standing committee was Wang Huning, Xi’s principal ideological guru.

Zhao became the new anti-corruption tsar, following Wang who had reached the party’s unofficial retirement age for standing committee members.

Xi was moving closer to abandoning the unwritten rule that there be a balance of factional groups at the highest levels of government.

Under a norm established during Jiang and Hu’s tenures, Xi should also have used the 19th party congress to identify the country’s next leader.

The custom was for the leading member of the next generation of officials to be appointed to the standing committee, so that he could spend a period gaining experience in positions at the highest levels of power.

The party had also developed an implicit age limit for politburo standing committee members: those who are 67 or younger can be reappointed, those 68 or older must stand down — a system known as “seven up, eight down”. But all five new members of the standing committee were too old to serve as a two-term party leader after Xi. The age-limit, however, will be ignored for Xi to stay on as leader.

For the first time in more than a quarter of a century, the CCP had failed to designate a clear potential successor to its sitting general secretary.

Then, at a key meeting to ratify the new parliament in Beijing months later, China’s constitution was amended to abolish the two-term limit for the president — paving the way for Xi to transcend the retirement age and rule for an unprecedented third term.

But Xi’s control does not just come from the failure to anoint a successor. China’s leader has consolidated power across many of the party-state’s crucial executive positions.

During Xi’s first term, Jiang’s faction controlled law enforcement and the police force, the clique loyal to Hu and Wen led the economy and propaganda departments. Xi only had his friend Wang Qishan as the head of party discipline.

On the eve of the party congress, at the end of Xi’s second term, he firmly controlled all these crucial positions, assigning his protégés to replace allies of Jiang and Hu-Wen.

These are cadres he has either known since his youth, trusted officials whom he worked with over decades earlier in his career, or loyal rising stars conspicuous for their lack of connection to the rival camps.

With control over the politburo and executive, and no natural successor in place, Xi cemented the potential to rule for life.

China’s new leaders face an unprecedented set of existential threats at home and abroad.

Amid frustrations over slowing economic growth and the state’s zero-Covid policy, a growing number of Chinese are starting to question the wisdom of Xi’s policies.

Relations between China and the west are at historic lows. Many blame Xi’s assertiveness over Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan and his support for Vladimir Putin despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Yet when Xi walks out of the Great Hall later this week with his fellow members of the standing committee, he will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with close comrades. And when he surveys the cadres occupying critical administrative roles, he will see a vast majority of allies.

Here are some of the Xi loyalists who are likely to be promoted in the coming days and weeks — helping him cement his control over the machinery of the party-state.

Xi’s rising stars

Potential appointments to the Politburo Standing Committee


Chen is the party secretary in the south-western city of Chongqing. He formed a close bond with Xi while serving as director of the propaganda department in Zhejiang when Xi was party boss there in the early 2000s.


Ding advanced his career in Shanghai, where he was promoted to chief of staff to successive party secretaries, including for a period, Xi. Alongside Chen Min’er, Ding is viewed as among Xi’s favourite protégés.


Huang, China’s propaganda chief, followed Xi to Beijing after working with him in Zhejiang and Fujian. While among Xi’s trusted aides, analysts believe his appointment hinges on when Wang Huning, Xi’s influential ideological adviser, retires.


The Shanghai party boss has been a close ally of Xi for two decades. As recently as the beginning of the year Li was considered fast-tracked for promotion, but Shanghai’s disastrous response to the pandemic has left a cloud of uncertainty over his political future.

Political rising stars


Chen worked with Xi in Zhejiang and has one of the top jobs responsible for internal security. He is a candidate to be promoted to head the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLC), overseeing the police, state security and courts.


Wang is another protégé recently tapped by Xi to consolidate his hold on China’s public security ministry. The two men worked together in Fujian province in the 1990s. Neither of his two predecessors were considered particularly close to Xi.


Ties between Li and Xi are believed to span 40 years via connections between Li’s former patron and Xi’s father in Gansu. Li was promoted to be Guangdong party chief in 2017. Leading the crucial manufacturing hub is viewed as a launch pad for higher office.


While closer to retirement age than his rivals, the Beijing party chief who worked with Xi in both Fujian and Zhejiang is now considered one of Xi’s closest allies.


Shen is the current Guizhou party chief and the only woman to serve as a provincial party secretary. She could be in line to replace Sun Chunlan, one of Xi’s go-to trouble-shooters, and the only female member of the current politburo.


Miao is considered a politburo candidate after being fast-tracked by Xi. This has taken him from a provincial military role to the political chief of China’s Navy and, in 2017, head of the political department of the Central Military Commission, which Xi chairs.

Economic rising stars


He is tipped to succeed Liu He as vice-premier with responsibility for the financial sector. But He lacks the international profile of Liu, who speaks English, studied overseas and was Xi’s key liaison in foreign financial circles during his first two terms.


Yin is the vice-mayor of the capital city Beijing. Harvard-trained and a veteran central banker, Yin could be the top candidate for the next governor of the People’s Bank of China.


Prior to Yi’s promotion to chairman of China's stock markets regulator he was a stalwart of the country’s largest bank ICBC, where he has been working for more than three decades. He is likely to take the helm of the banking and insurance watchdog.

Additional reporting: Tom Mitchell and Cheng Leng.

Notes and sources: Alfred Chan, author of “Xi Jinping: Political Career, Governance, and Leadership”; Cercius Group; Wu Guoguang, University of Victoria, Canada; Cheng Li, Brookings Institution; David Shambaugh, author of “China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now”; Richard McGregor, author of “Xi Jinping: The Backlash”; MacroPolo, Paulson Institute; Congressional Research Service (US); Victor Shih, University of California, San Diego; Bruce J Dickson, author of The Party and the People; Chinese government websites and state media.

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