At the all-important two sessions (lianghui) meetings last month, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials adopted a new and surprisingly unambitious Five-Year Plan, reoriented the country’s technology strategy and redoubled the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. All of this was documented in the English-language media. But another crucial CCP announcement flew below the media’s radar. An innocuous-sounding procedural change gave President Xi Jinping the authority to dismiss vice premiers of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, one of the last potential bastions of elite opposition to his rule. Premier Li Keqiang, nominally the second-most powerful man in China, has now been effectively sidelined. Furthermore, Hu Chunhua, Xi’s charismatic potential successor, can now be fired at will.
Xi was already on track for a third term. First, he was “reelected” to a second term at the 19th Party Congress in September 2017. A few months later, the pliant National People’s Congress (NPC) lifted the two-term limit for the presidency. Despite acquiring total control, Xi remains wary of potential rivals, particularly Li Keqiang, his second-in-command. At the 19th Party Congress, Xi kept Li on largely as a figurehead, calculating that elevating anyone else to the number-two job would have anointed them as a potential successor. Since 2017, Xi repeatedly sought opportunities to undermine Li, cannily dispatching him to Wuhan in January 2020 to associate the premier with the botched response to COVID-19.
Neutralizing Potential Challengers
Xi is now looking beyond Li with the goal of neutralizing all potential challengers. Li has little practical influence in the CCP’s top echelons, but he wields formidable power on paper. Formally speaking, the CCP and the Chinese state are separate institutions. Xi Jinping is both general secretary of the CCP and president of the People’s Republic of China. Li is ostensibly the second-ranked official in the CCP, but his position as the head of the State Council, the executive branch of the Chinese state, is more important. Until the recent rule change, Xi had no formal authority to order direct personnel changes in the State Council. That meant Li’s four main subordinates, known as vice premiers, had some level of job security and could potentially use their position as a springboard to challenge Xi.
All of that has changed at this year’s lianghui with a legislative amendment. The law in question is Article 32 of the Organic Law of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China. The NPC meets only once per year, at the spring lianghui. Under the new rules, the Standing Committee of the NPC, which answers to Xi, can remove any official on the State Council, except the prime minister, at any time. This means that Xi does not have to wait for the next lianghui to get rid of Li’s subordinates.
In strict formal terms, if Xi wanted to fire a vice premier, Li would still have to consent. In practice, Li’s hand would be forced by Xi. The NPC is China’s top legislative body, a rubber-stamp parliament that exists to legitimize the CCP’s actions. If the NPC recommends personnel changes on the State Council, the premier of the State Council cannot resist. If Li were to do so, that would be tantamount to overriding the “democratic will” of the people of China.
Why is Xi bothering to amend the law if his third term is not in doubt? We do not know for sure, but we can speculate. Perhaps Xi is just generally wary of Li. But there might be another reason. There was widespread grumbling among the top brass of the CCP when Xi eliminated term limits three years ago. Rumors tell us that there is still some level of semi-organized resistance, with Li potentially involved. It might also be the case that Xi tried to replace one or more vice premiers, but Li resisted. Vice premiers of the State Council are all members of the CCP Politburo, the 20-member body that is the second-highest organ in the party bureaucracy.
Xi probably wants total control of the Politburo. Of course, Xi has other ways to take out such senior officials. In the past, “anti-corruption” crackdowns have cut many down to size. However, this anti-corruption process is disruptive and could send a signal that Xi’s control is shaky. Therefore, a sneaky legal change might be a better alternative.
We suspect that Xi is targeting a particular leader. China has four vice premiers: Han Zheng, Liu He, Sun Chunlan and Hu Chunhua. Han is a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the CCP’s top body. This legal amendment would not be enough to get rid of Han. So, he is not the target of Xi’s ire. Neither is Liu, Xi’s personal friend who won the economic policy argument in the 14th Five-Year Plan. In the shady world of CCP politics, Liu’s job seems safe as of now. Sun, the highest-ranking woman in the modern history of Chinese politics, is past the mandatory retirement age and poses no threat to Xi. This leaves Hu as the only possible target for the amendment. The fact that he is the most charismatic and popular of the vice premiers makes him a potential threat to Xi.
From 2012 to 2017, Hu was the party secretary of Guangdong, China’s most prosperous province. For decades, this position has been a stepping stone for national leadership. Ironically, Xi’s father served as party secretary of Guangdong, as did other CCP luminaries such as Zhao Ziyang, Li Changchun, Zhang Dejiang and Wang Yang. Hu is the youngest official at his level of seniority in the CCP. He is also connected, though not related, to Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. Before the 2017 NPC, there was widespread speculation that Hu Chunhua would leapfrog straight into the Politburo Standing Committee and be groomed as a putative future leader. Xi prevented this, giving Hu the position of vice premier instead. Now, Xi has gone further and hung a sword over Hu’s head.
Xi is determined to ensure an orderly confirmation of his third term at the next NPC in 2022. For three years, the Chinese media have humored Xi by resolutely avoiding the topic of his succession. Xi knows that it cannot be avoided indefinitely. According to longstanding CCP custom, anyone featuring in the succession sequence needs experience in the positions of vice premier, national vice chairman and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. Those who currently occupy these positions are either too old or not close enough to Xi to be considered successor material. The only exception is Hu who now holds office at the pleasure of Xi.
The study of Chinese elite politics is as much an art as a science. Like Kremlinologists at the height of the Cold War, China analysts make educated inferences from a small number of highly choreographed public events and documents. As a result, the line between speculation and analysis is often blurry. Nevertheless, as US-China relations deteriorate, the CCP’s succession plans are more important now than at any point since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.
Coming out of the lianghui, all signs indicate that Xi remains at the height of his power at home. Furthermore, he is likely to enter his third term in 2022 with a new suite of tools to deter — and, if necessary, eliminate — potential elite rivals. In this context, pushing for Xi’s ouster, as one anonymous senior US official recently recommended, would be reckless as it is likely to backfire.