By JOE McDONALD
BEIJING (AP) — President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in decades, increased his dominance on Sunday when he was nominated for another term as head of the ruling Communist Party in a break with tradition and has promoted allies who support his vision of tighter control over the struggling society and economy.
Xi, who took power in 2012, won a third five-year term as general secretary, abandoning a custom under which his predecessor left after 10 years. The 69-year-old leader is expected by some to try to stay in power for life.
The party also appointed a seven-member standing committee, its inner circle of power, dominated by Xi allies after Premier Li Keqiang, the No. 2 leader and proponent of market-style reform and enterprise private, was removed from management on Saturday. It was good that Li was a year younger than the party’s informal retirement age of 68.
“Power will be even more concentrated in the hands of Xi Jinping,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on China politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. The new appointees are “all loyal to Xi”, he said. “There are no checks and balances or checks and balances in the system at all.”
On Saturday, Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, 79, abruptly left a meeting of the party’s Central Committee with an aide holding his arm. This raised questions about whether Xi was expanding his powers by ousting other leaders. The official Xinhua News Agency later reported that Hu was in poor health and needed to rest.
Xi and other members of the Standing Committee – none of whom were women – first appeared as a group to reporters at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China’s ceremonial legislature in central Beijing.
Leader No. 2 was Li Qiang, the Shanghai Party Secretary. This puts Li Qiang, who is unrelated to Li Keqiang, in line to become prime minister, the top economic official. Zhao Leji, already a member, was promoted to No. 3, likely to lead the legislature. These positions are to be allocated when the legislature meets next year.
Leadership changes were announced as the party wrapped up a two-decade congress that has been closely watched for moves to reverse an economic crisis or changes to a tough ‘zero-COVID’ strategy that has shuttered cities and disrupted deals. Officials disappointed investors and the Chinese public by not announcing any changes.
The lineup seemed to reflect what some commentators called “Maximum Xi,” valuing loyalty over ability. Some new leaders lack experience at the national level as Deputy Prime Minister or Cabinet Minister, which is generally considered a requirement for the position.
Li Qiang’s promotion served as an apparent confirmation, as it puts him in line to be prime minister with no experience in national government. Li Qiang is considered close to Xi after working together in southeastern Zhejiang province in the early 2000s.
Li Keqiang has been sidelined over the past decade by Xi, who has taken over the decision-making bodies. Li Keqiang was excluded from the list of the party’s new 205-member Central Committee on Saturday, whose Standing Committee is chosen.
Another departure from the Standing Committee was Wang Yang, a reformist suggested by some as a possible prime minister. Wang, 67, has not reached retirement age.
Other new members of the Standing Committee include Cai Qi, Beijing’s party secretary, and Ding Xuexiang, a career party official considered Xi’s “alter ego” or chief of staff. Wang Huning, a former law school dean who is chief of ideology, remained on the committee. Member No. 7 is Li Xi, the party secretary of Guangdong province in the southeast, the center of China’s export-oriented manufacturing industry.
The Central Committee has 11 women, or 5% of the total. Its 24-member Politburo, which has had only four female members since the 1990s, has had none since the departure of Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan.
The party’s plans call for creating a prosperous society by mid-century and restoring China to its historic role as a political, economic and cultural leader.
These ambitions face obstacles related to security of access to Western technology, an aging workforce and tensions with Washington, Europe and Asian neighbors over trade, security, services. human rights and territorial disputes.
Xi called for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and a revival of the party’s “original mission” as a social, economic and cultural leader in a return to what he sees as a golden age after his takeover in 1949.
At the congress, Xi called for faster military development, ‘self-reliance and strength’ in technology and defending China’s interests abroad, which increase the likelihood of new conflict .
The party has tightened control over entrepreneurs who generate jobs and wealth, prompting warnings that the rollback of market-oriented reforms will weigh on economic growth which fell to 2.2% in the first half of this year , less than half of the official target of 5.5%.
“Obviously it’s a return to a much more state-controlled type of economy,” Cabestan said. “That means, for private companies, they will be even more on a leash, with party committees everywhere.”
Under a 1950s propaganda slogan of “common prosperity”, Xi is urging entrepreneurs to help narrow China’s wealth gap by raising wages and funding rural job creation and other initiatives.
Xi, in a report to congress last week, called for “regulating the mechanism of wealth accumulation,” suggesting entrepreneurs could face even more political pressure, but gave no details.
“I would worry if I was a very wealthy person in China,” said economist Alicia Garcia Herrero of Natixis.
In his report, Xi stressed the importance of national security and controlling China’s supply of food, energy and industrial products. He gave no indication of possible shifts in the policies that prompted then-President Donald Trump to launch a tariff war with Beijing in 2018 over its tech ambitions.
The party tries to support Chinese creators of renewable energy, electric cars, computer chips, aerospace and other technologies. Its trading partners complain that Beijing unduly subsidizes and protects its suppliers from competition.
Trump’s successor Joe Biden has maintained punitive tariff hikes on Chinese goods and this month increased restrictions on China’s access to American chip technology.
The party has tightened its control over private sector leaders, including e-commerce giant Alibaba Group. Under political pressure, they divert billions of dollars to chip development and other party initiatives. The prices of their shares in overseas markets have plunged due to uncertainty about their future.
The party will “step up its industrial policy” to close the “big gap” between what Chinese tech vendors can make and what smartphone, computer and other makers need, Garcia Herrero and Gary said. Ng from Natixis in a report.
Overseas, Chinese efforts to assert leadership will lead to “more tension and difficulty” because “countries are not just going to follow the Chinese model,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University’s China Institute. from London.
With potential dissidents expelled, “there is no one in Beijing who can tell Xi Jinping that this is not the way to go,” Tsang said.
Xi gave no indication that Beijing will change its “zero-COVID” strategy despite public frustration over repeated city shutdowns that have turned into protests in Shanghai and other regions.
Xi’s security and self-sufficiency priorities “will hold back China’s productivity growth,” Julian Evans-Pritchard, Sheana Yue and Mark Williams of Capital Economics said in a report. “His determination to stay in power makes a course correction unlikely.”
Central bank governor Yi Gang and banking regulator Guo Shuqing were also absent from the Central Committee’s list on Saturday, saying they will retire next year as planned.
Xi suspended retirement rules to keep Gen. Zhang Youxia, 72, on the Central Committee. This allows Zhang, a veteran of the 1979 China-Vietnam war, to remain Xi’s vice chairman on the commission that controls the party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army.
The party elite agreed in the 1990s to limit the general secretary to two five-year terms in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the power struggles of previous decades. This leader also becomes chairman of the military commission and assumes the ceremonial title of president.
Xi has waged an anti-corruption campaign that has ensnared thousands of officials, including a retired Standing Committee member and deputy cabinet ministers. This shattered party factions and weakened potential challengers.
Xi is on track to become the first leader of a generation to choose his own successor, but has not yet indicated any possible candidates. Hu Jintao and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, were both chosen in the 1980s by then-Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping.
Ahead of the congress, banners criticizing Xi and “zero COVID” were hung above a major thoroughfare in Beijing in a rare protest. Photos from the event have been removed from social media. Popular messaging app WeChat shut down the accounts that had forwarded them.
Xi’s government has also come under fire for mass detentions and other abuses against predominantly Muslim ethnic groups and the imprisonment of government critics.
AP video producer Caroline Chen contributed.