BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping is working to consolidate even more power into his own hands, this time targeting retired Communist Party heavyweights to keep them from standing in the way of his aides taking key leadership posts at a party congress this autumn.
The government has announced that former Chongqing party chief Sun Zhengcai, a rumored potential successor to Xi, is under investigation. That a figure seen as having ties to a party elder fell from grace so close to the Beidaihe meeting, where elders gather with current leaders to decide top appointments and other matters, has sent shock waves through the political elite.
The roughly 89-million-member party holds its next twice-a-decade congress this fall. Some 2,300 delegates will first pick around 200 members and 150 alternate members for the Central Committee. The committee will select the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee, which currently have 25 and seven members.
All of these appointments are ostensibly up for a vote. But big decisions are traditionally made in advance by party leaders and elders at Beidaihe. Former Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, as well as 20 to 30 who had been part of the Politburo Standing Committee or held other senior posts, are said to still wield considerable sway over the process.
To deflect criticism of the closed-door process, past congresses have featured a straw poll where current Standing Committee members and party elders vote in advance for their Politburo candidates. While the results are not binding, many believe that the system has allowed elders to remain involved.
Xi is looking to change all this. "The leadership is considering only allowing current and alternate members of the Central Committee to vote in the straw poll," a source familiar with the matter said.
Elders are expected to vehemently oppose the idea, but many question why retired officials should even have a say. Xi seems to be taking heed of such views in the party.
The Chinese leader is also paving the way to place his most trusted aides, who had served him since he was just a regional player, at the top of the party. Politburo member Li Zhanshu is expected to move up to the Politburo Standing Committee. Central Committee member Chen Min'er, who replaced Sun as Chongqing's party chief, is a lock to join the Politburo. Some believe that he may even move up two rungs at once, straight to the Politburo Standing Committee.
Beijing party chief Cai Qi and Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong are also expected to score Politburo appointments -- an impressive three-rank promotion, given that neither is currently even an alternate for the Central Committee.
Such unorthodox decisions tend to face pushback from party elders. By cracking down on Sun ahead of the Beidaihe meeting and suggesting measures that would weaken elders' influence, Xi is likely trying to deter them from fighting the appointments.
But the Communist Party has been under collective leadership since Deng Xiaoping began a series of reforms in 1978, and elders have played a key role in preventing the top leader from growing too powerful. Some worry that silencing them would leave no one able to keep Xi in check anymore.