Xi Jinping Unveils China’s New Leaders but No Clear Successor – New York Times

BEIJING — President Xi Jinping thrust China into a new era of strongman politics on Wednesday, unveiling a leadership team without a likely successor among the six officials who will help him rule for the next half decade.

In a nationally televised ceremony, Mr. Xi introduced the new members of China’s highest council of power, the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, on the red carpet of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In addition to Mr. Xi and China’s premier, Li Keqiang, the committee included five new members, all men in their 60s.

“Over the past five years, we’ve done a lot. Some work has been finished, some we must continue with,” Mr. Xi, 64, said after briefly introducing the committee members, who stood stiffly in line. “A new era needs a new look, and even more needs new accomplishments,” he added.

The debut was the culmination of a weeklong party congress in Beijing that underlined the breadth of Mr. Xi’s political ambitions. On Tuesday, its final day, the congress elevated Mr. Xi to the same exalted status as the nation’s founding father, Mao Zedong, by enshrining “Xi Jinping Thought” in the party’s constitution.

The five new Standing Committee members are party leaders with long careers in Chinese politics, including one of Mr. Xi’s longtime allies and a scholar of international relations. But the party declined to name a younger leader to the committee who might succeed Mr. Xi when his second term as president ends in 2023.

That was a departure from China’s carefully scripted transfers of power in recent decades and a possible signal that Mr. Xi intends to govern beyond this next five-year term. Mr. Xi may also want more time to test possible successors, while avoiding lame duck status with an heir waiting in the wings.

But by discarding the unspoken conventions that have ensured relatively stable leadership changes in recent years, Mr. Xi has pushed Chinese politics into new territory that critics have warned could lead to turmoil, or a cult of personality with echoes of Mao.

“If Xi goes for broke and breaks precedent by not preparing for an orderly and peaceful succession, he is putting a target on his back and risking a backlash from other ambitious politicians,” Susan L. Shirk, the chairwoman of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.

“By taking such a risk, he shows himself to be more like Mao than we originally thought — he demonstrates his power by overturning institutions,” said Professor Shirk, a former State Department deputy assistant secretary for China policy.

In a possible nod to such concerns, most of the new Standing Committee members were not longtime associates of Mr. Xi, though all have worked with him in some capacity. Mr. Li, the premier, was once seen as a possible rival to Mr. Xi to lead the country.

Among the new members were Wang Yang, 62, a vice premier who promoted himself as a can-do reformer while party chief of Guangdong Province in southern China, and Han Zheng, a former mayor of Shanghai who is credited with guiding that city’s emergence as China’s glittering financial and business capital. Neither had a long history of working closely with Mr. Xi before he became president in 2012.

Other new members have worked alongside Mr. Xi for years. They included Li Zhanshu, his longtime friend and aide, and Wang Huning, a former professor turned party ideologue who has helped craft Mr. Xi’s speeches and reports. An expert on international politics, Mr. Wang also advised Mr. Xi’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and as a young scholar wrote a book, “America Opposes America,” based on a six-month visit to the United States.

The seventh member, Zhao Leji, served as head of the party’s organization department and will assume leadership of its anticorruption agency, succeeding Wang Qishan, perhaps Mr. Xi’s most powerful lieutenant. Mr. Wang has retired as scheduled, despite speculation that Mr. Xi might try to keep him on the committee.

“Xi has seemingly chosen magnanimity with the list,” said Christopher K. Johnson, an expert on Chinese elite politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Of course, that’s easy to do when you’ve achieved your two core objectives — making yourself the party’s untenured ideological arbiter and refraining from signaling the succession.”

Mr. Xi’s victory at the congress means he will welcome President Trump to China next month more confident than ever in his hold on power and in his pursuit of a more assertive foreign policy. His signature initiatives to extend China’s influence overseas, such as the global infrastructure program known as “One Belt, One Road” and a drive to build artificial islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, are likely to get a boost.

Some China watchers have said they also expect Mr. Xi to place more emphasis on overhauling the economy and cleaning up finances, after spending the past five years stamping out dissent and tightening his control over the party and the military, China’s other political power center.

One sign he may do so was the promotion of Liu He, his closest economic adviser and a longtime advocate of curbing debt and financial hazards. As a new member of the Politburo, a broader 25-member council that is less powerful than its Standing Committee, Mr. Liu appears likely to wield greater influence on policy.

In his remarks Wednesday, Mr. Xi noted that next year would mark 40 years since Deng Xiaoping opened up China to market forces and vowed to “firmly and unwaveringly deepen reform in every aspect.”

Few experts expect Mr. Xi will take big steps toward market liberalization, but many believe he must move to limit financial risk. After decades of rapid growth, China faces growing economic challenges that include mountains of debt held by local governments and inefficient state-owned conglomerates.

“He wants a team around him that will implement his vision,” said Evan S. Medeiros, the former senior director for Asian affairs in the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. “On economic issues, one could tentatively say that this Politburo Standing Committee is more reform-minded than the current lineup.”

The party congress, the party’s 19th since its establishment by Marxist revolutionaries in 1921, has portrayed Mr. Xi as a transformational leader guiding the nation into a “new era” of Chinese socialism. Mao unified China after nearly a century of civil war and foreign invasions, Deng brought it prosperity and Mr. Xi is said to be restoring the nation to global strength and leadership.

The congress blessed his one-man style of rule by writing his name and ideas into the party’s constitution, in effect declaring any effort to challenge him to be an act of ideological heresy.

Under Mao and then Deng, the party struggled with succession arrangements that ended in purges and division. Then, in the 1990s, the party established a pattern of installing likely successors on the Standing Committee well in advance, with party leaders serving no more than two terms.

Mr. Xi himself joined the committee in 2007, before taking power in 2012. Before him, Mr. Hu served on the committee for a decade before succeeding Mr. Jiang.

The inclusion of one or two officials in their 50s in the new Standing Committee would have suggested they were being groomed to take over from Mr. Xi in five years. Instead, the party’s failure to promote anyone of that age will ignite speculation that Mr. Xi wants to extend his influence beyond the end of his second term.

China’s national constitution says that he cannot serve more than two terms as president, but Mr. Xi could stay on in other posts, as the party leader or chairman of the armed forces, for example, or create a new role to preserve his power. Other experts believe Mr. Xi will formally retire in five years, after selecting successors he is confident will uphold his policies.

The party has promoted a phalanx of officials loyal to Mr. Xi into the broader Politburo. About two-thirds of the 15 new members joining the body once worked under Mr. Xi or have other longstanding ties to him, including some younger leaders seen as potential successors.

They included Chen Min’er, 57, who worked as a propaganda functionary with Mr. Xi when they were both officials in the eastern province of Zhejiang in the early 2000s. Some experts had speculated that Mr. Xi might attempt to catapult Mr. Chen into the current Standing Committee, a move that would have made him the heir apparent.

Instead, Mr. Chen is one of four Politburo members under the age of 60 who could be considered a candidate to lead the country in five years — but only if Mr. Xi relinquishes control.

Adam Wu contributed research.

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