March 16, 2017 2:00 am JST

Chinese parliament cements Xi's status, but silent on successor

National People's Congress affirms leader's place at party core

SHUHEI YAMADA, Head of Nikkei's China Headquarters

BEIJING -- China's legislature has solidified President Xi Jinping's position at the "core" of the Communist Party in a just-ended parliamentary session that provided no signs of behind-the-scenes maneuvering ahead of a crucial leadership selection this fall.

The economy continues to enjoy moderate to fast growth thanks to the "leadership of the party Central Committee, with Comrade Xi at its core," Premier Li Keqiang told reporters Wednesday after the close of the latest National People's Congress session.

This praise came from someone who has reportedly disagreed with Xi on the direction for economic policy. Li's straight-faced acknowledgement that his former rival for party general secretary -- China's most powerful position -- now occupies the party's core adds to the impression that Xi has no serious rivals for leadership.

Last October, the party designated Xi a "core" figure for the first time at a major conference. Now that designation has government approval: The National People's Congress on Wednesday approved a government work report that refers to Xi in this way six times.

The parliamentary session helped set the stage for this year's main event in Chinese politics: the autumn National Congress of the Communist Party, a twice-a-decade gathering that will mark the end of Xi's first five years in power. A major reshuffle of the Politburo Standing Committee, the de facto top decision-making body, is expected at that time.

Compared with last year's session, the just-ended National People's Congress was a quiet affair, with only tepid debate on policy issues. It offered few if any clues to potential changes to the Standing Committee's membership. While a second term for Xi is assured, recent custom has replaced retiring members of the body with potential successors to the incumbent general secretary.

Two figures widely seen as leading contenders to succeed Xi -- Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua, the party secretaries for Chongqing and Guangdong Province, respectively -- held work sessions during the congress. But the mostly administrative proceedings gave no indication of their chances of elevation to the Standing Committee.

This reticence may reflect Xi's desire to delay the narrowing down of successor candidates for as long as possible, according to a veteran Chinese newspaper editor.

Xi is said to be looking to raise the retirement age of 68 for Politburo Standing Committee members at the party congress, with a view to extending his own stay at the top. With a busy diplomatic schedule ahead in next few months, the selection process may take until summer or later to reach the final stage.

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