China's new leadership Xi's third term begins in earnest

The Chinese government under third-term General Secretary Xi Jinping, who is also president, has started. Who is now in charge of China’s 1.4 billion people? How was Xi able to maintain his grip on the one-party government?


Xi's faction expands in party leadership

The overwhelming majority of the new leadership is particularly close to Xi. Six of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members and 19 of the 24 Politburo members are staunch Xi loyalists. Those not so close can be nominally considered as outsiders, but all pledge allegiance to Xi. This makes -- for all intents and purposes -- a faction-free ruling elite with with no opposition to Xi.

How did these Xi loyalists manage to rise to the top of the Chinese Communist Party and government? We examine the lives of those who became Politburo members or hold key positions in the government, and analyze their relationships with Xi.

Team Xi: Members of the new leadership

Click photos to see details.
Numbers in upper left of the photos are their rankings within the party. Figures in parentheses are one's age.

Politburo member

Key positions held by non-Politburo members

Politburo Standing Committee member
Politburo member

Personal connections within the 'Xi faction'

Personal connections within the Xi faction

The "Xi faction" completely dominates the party -- yet each key player has an individual relationship with the president, hence the faction's solidarity can be considered relatively weak. Former President Jiang Zemin's faction was cemented together by special interests, and the Communist Youth League faction was united by firm camaraderie. As the Xi faction -- once the minority -- grows larger, new intrigues linked to loyalists are emerging. Rivals are vying for a limited number of posts, and competing groups within the Xi faction are expected in the future. Maintaining the administration's centralizing force will become an issue for the new government.

We have mapped out and explained the network of people within the Xi faction who have been selected as Politburo members. The leaders of the Fujian, Zhejiang and New Shanghai factions that Xi met in the regions where he was once posted, and they are said to be his closest associates. The Tsinghua University group has been linked to Chen Xi, a former Politburo member who was Xi’s dormitory roommate at university. In the case of the Central Party School, two vice principals from Xi’s time as head of the school have joined the current leadership. Among senior military officials, Zhang Youxia, who is a childhood friend of Xi, has remained as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission despite being 72.

A group connected to Xi's home province of Shaanxi and his father is also gaining influence. They have little personal connection to Xi but have gained clout by trying to make a mausoleum for Xi's father and make the village where Xi spent his youth during the Cultural Revolution a "sacred place." Li Hongzhong, who falls into the "Others" category of Xi relationships, also received recognition for his loyalty. Other people not directly connected to Xi who were top executives of companies in the military and aerospace industries have been promoted to leadership positions in central and local governments as Xi pushed integration of the military and civilian sectors.

Another characteristic of Xi's personnel appointments is that he uses different personnel for the "inner moat" and the "outer moat." For the "inner moat" directly surrounding Xi, such as members of the Politburo Standing Committee, he places more importance on strong loyalty than on experience and aptitude. Conversely, the "outer moat" is made up of highly skilled technocrats. Among the members of the Politburo, State Council (cabinet) officials and top local officials are many outstanding individuals from various fields, including military industries, aeronautics, nuclear power, and health and medical care. Many of them were recruited under the Xi government, and there is no doubt that they are loyal to Xi.

Of the four people selected as vice premiers, Ding Xuexiang, the principal vice premier, and He Lifeng, in charge of macroeconomics and finance, are trusted and familiar subordinates whom Xi met during his past postings. Zhang Guoqing is a representative of the military industries and is expected to be in charge of science and technology policy, plus the integration of the military and civilian sectors. Liu Guozhong was selected by Li Zhanshu, who is said to have been Xi's drinking buddy in his younger days.

Xi brought his aides, one after another,
into the Politburo

Xi brought his aides, one after another, into the Politburo

When Xi became general secretary at the 18th Party Congress in 2012, he did not yet have a solid sphere of influence that could be defined as the "Xi faction." He is one of the so-called princelings, children of former high-ranking party officials. His father was Xi Zhongxun, one of the eight elders of the party. However, the younger Xi was sent to live in the countryside since his teens and did not form strong connections with other princelings to develop a faction.

Nevertheless, Xi became the party's general secretary because of internal politics. The faction of then-President Jiang Zemin was competing fiercely with the Communist Youth League faction, controlled by former President Hu Jintao. Jiang and his followers supported Xi as a candidate against the youth faction. Xi himself did not belong to the Jiang faction. When Xi took office as general secretary, he had only two trusted old friends in the party leadership: Wang Qishan, who joined the ranks of the standing committee of the Politburo, and Li Zhanshu, who became a member of the Politburo and director of the party’s General Office.

After Xi took office for his second term in 2017, the makeup of the leadership changed dramatically. Of the 25 members of the Politburo, 15 are Xi supporters. These politicians are not only his old friends, but also subordinates he grew to trust during his second term working in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces and in Shanghai. Among them are Li Qiang, party secretary of Shanghai; Chen Min'er, party secretary of Chongqing; and Ding Xuexiang, director of the General Office. These loyal subordinates have pledged absolute allegiance to Xi. And so a clear Xi faction has solidified.

How far will Xi's influence grow in his third term? A rapid expansion of the Xi faction can be expected. Eurasia Group, a U.S. political risk consultancy, expects the faction will account for about 80% of the Politburo, from the current 60%. Observers will be watching to see if his close aides join the Politburo Standing Committee.


The dismantling and rebuilding of power within the party

Deconcentration of party's power Return of power to party

Photo by Kyodo

Xi began his path to total control by first taking apart the power structure built up by Jiang in the CCP. Jiang consolidated his power by broadly distributing various rights and interests that had been created through China's rapid economic growth. This way of governance allowed him to wield power in his strategy of being "10 years in office and 10 years in retirement." As a result of this decentralization of power, factions had their own way, and bribery and corruption became rampant, rendering the party leadership toothless. Hu, who succeeded Jiang as general secretary, was unable to demolish the party structure built by his predecessor.

After becoming general secretary, Xi launched an anti-corruption campaign and ousted all high-ranking officials who had gained power and interests in Jiang's days. Some saw it as a power struggle between the Jiang and Xi factions, but from the standpoint of the president, it was the essential way to regenerating the CCP. His purges returned authority to the party and unified the leadership.

Reinforcement of the general secretary's authority

The anti-corruption campaign was harsh. High-ranking party and government officials with vested interests at various levels of central and local government were punished. Under Xi's reign, more than 20,000 high-ranking officials were placed under arrest or investigation. Documentaries were often broadcast on TV showing senior officials being put away for corruption. It was thought that this was done in part to gain support from ordinary Chinese for Xi's anti-graft campaign.

Corruption and bribery by high-ranking government and party officials since Xi took office

Reinforcement of the general secretary's authority
Sources: Central Commission for Discipline Inspection; National Supervisory Commission *Dec. 2012 to May 2021

The downfall of Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, in 2014 shocked party members. Despite an unwritten rule that members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the top leadership, cannot be charged, Zhou was expelled from the party and sentenced to life in prison. Businessmen who had been laundering money for high-ranking officials were dealt with even more severely, including being executed.

Lai Xiaomin, head of a state-operated company for disposing of bad loans, was one such example. He was executed only eight days after receiving a death sentence in his second trial. Xi then gave his aides the positions that had become vacant through his purges. He also created small, exclusive groups to oversee important areas and departments, such as organizational reform, the military, the judiciary, government finances and internet management, and appointed their top officials himself. This method of "small-group governance" accelerated the concentration of his authority. This method of control was almost complete by around 2018.

Xi became head of many divisions when high-ranking officials were ousted

Right: Times when investigations were started or announced; final penalties and treatment
Xi became head of many divisions when high-ranking officials were ousted

Photos of Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang and Ling Jihua by Reuters

Cleaning up corruption in the military and other divisions The biggest governmental reform since the founding of the People's Republic of China

Whether the paramount leader can control the People's Liberation Army is an important factor on which his power depends. Jiang, who did not have his base in the military, secured the allegiance of high-level military officers by offering them sweeteners. The relationship was strong. Hu, who succeeded Jiang and also lacked a base in the military, was unable to conduct the affairs of state as he wished. Against the backdrop of swelling military spending, corruption was rampant in those days. Zhang Yang, director of the Political Work Department of the Central Military Commission, was nicknamed the "jute bag general" because of rumors that "he always puts yuan in jute bags and piles them up."

Meanwhile Xi, whose father, Xi Zhongxun, had been a hero in the Chinese Communist Revolution and was one of the party's eight elders, had the advantage of being something like a prince of the military. In his days in Fujian, he developed friendships with local servicemen in the Nanjing Military Region, which faces the Taiwan Strait. Making the most of this background, he started an anti-corruption campaign in the military as well, carrying out a sweeping removal of high-ranking officers connected with Jiang. In 2014 and 2015, he purged two top-level officers, the most powerful figures in the military.

Purging high-ranking military officers
linked to Jiang

Purging high-ranking military officers linked to Jiang
Purging high-ranking military officers linked to Jiang

Photos of Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou by Reuters

Realizing top-down system through reform, pushing ahead with "strong-military" strategy against America

Having removed corrupt high-ranking officers, Xi was then able to launch what was said to be the first large-scale military reform since the founding of the country. He abolished the four headquarters -- staff, politics, armaments and logistics -- and created various functional groups under the Central Military Commission. He reorganized the seven military regions of the country into five theater commands and gave operations-planning capability to each theater command as in the U.S. military. Departing from the traditional style of attaching too much importance to the army, he placed it, the navy, air force, strategic support force -- which includes cyber forces -- and rocket force in parallel under direct control of the Central Military Commission along with the People's Armed Police Force and the China Coast Guard. That essentially means that Xi, chairman of the military commission, supervised all military forces and led their change from being a traditional defensive force to one that can counter U.S. forces in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

A tight grip on the People's Liberation Army is considered an important pillar of Xi's control. Shattering vertical divisions and realizing a top-down structure made it possible for him to advance his ideas on a strong military, such as a military-civilian fusion and the deepening of integrated and joint operations capabilities, both of which had been slow to progress.

Realizing top-down system through reform, pushing ahead with "strong-military" strategy against America
Realizing top-down system through reform, pushing ahead with "strong-military" strategy against America

The formation of the Xi faction Xi's close aides

Xi's early days yield clues to how he was later able to form this own faction.

Xi's deep attachment to his youth and his father Fujian members supported Xi’s path to promotion Competent staff members known as "New Zhijiang Army" Competent secretary uncovered Loyal subordinates from all over will gather in the center

His old friends and his father

Beijing > Yan’an, Shaanxi province > Tsinghua University > Central Military Commission > Zhengding county, Hebei province

His friends during this period
Wang Qishan
Wang Qishan 王岐山 (74)
Vice president
Big brother sent down to Yanan together during Cultural Revolution
Chen Xi
Chen Xi 陳希 (69)
Head of Organizanizon Department & Politburo member
Dormintory roommate at Tsinghua Uiniversity
Li Zhanshu
Li Zhanshu 栗戦書 (72)
Member of Politburo Standing Committee & chairman of Standing Committee of National People's Congress
Chief of county next to Zhengding, first place of provincial assignment
Zhang Youxia
Zhang Youxia 張又俠 (72)
Vice chairman of Central Military Commission & Politburo member
Childhood friend & buddy ties between fathers
Li Xi
Li Xi 李希 (66)
Party secretary of Guangdong & Politburo member
Lifted father's uprising place and village in Yan'an into "sacred sites"

Ages as of October 2022. Li Zhanshu's photo provided by Kyodo

Xi was sent to the countryside when he was 15, and spent seven impressionable years in Liangjiahe, a poor village in Yan'an, Shaanxi province. Wang Qishan, who lived in a neighboring village, became a friend. Later on, Xi met Li Zhanshu, who became a drinking buddy. Li served as party secretary of a county adjacent to Zhengding county in Hebei province, the first provincial area Xi was sent to work in as a member of the Communist Party. His experience in these poor villages had a profound influence on him, and he grew to view the friends he made during this period as being special.

Chen Xi, who was Xi's roommate at Tsinghua University, worked at the university for many years. But after Xi became a member of the Politburo, Chen was given a remarkable promotion to become a high-ranking party and government official. Zhang Youxia, Xi’s childhood friend, played an important role in Xi's military reforms as a high-ranking military officer. Both Chen and Zhang have supported Xi within the government since his first term as general secretary. In addition, Zhang was reappointed as a member of the Politburo and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, despite his advanced age of 72 at the start of Xi's third term in power.

Of the people on the above list, only Li Xi does not have a direct relationship with Xi. When he was a local senior party official in Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, he named an uprising by Xi Zhongxun, Xi’s father, a "sacred war" and tried to make Liangjiahe, the village where Xi spent his youth, a "sacred place." He later became an aide to Xi. This shows Xi rewards those who respect his father and his past.

Xi’s career in Fujian

Xiamen > Ningde > Fuzhou > governor, party deputy secretary of Fujian

The friends he made in this period
He Lifeng
He Lifeng 何立峰 (67)
Chairman of National Development and Reform Commission & vice chairman of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference
Holder of Ph.D. in economics from Xiamen University & close aide since in his 30s
Huang Kunming
Huang Kunming 黄坤明 (65)
Head of Publicity Department & Politburo member
Born in Fujian & transferred to Zhejiang after serving as city mayor
Cai Qi
Cai Qi 蔡奇 (66)
Party secretary of Beijing & Politburo member
Transferred to Zhejiang after serving as senior provicial official and city chief
Wang Xiaohong
Wang Xiaohong 王小洪 (65)
Minister of Public Security and party secretary
Senior public security official in Fuzhou city, Fujian & family friendship
Miao Hua
Miao Hua 苗華 (66)
Member of Central Military Commision & director of commission's Political Work Department
Born in Fuzhou & hailed from Fujian's provincial military organization

Ages as of October 2022. Photos of Huang Kunming,Wang Xiaohong & Miao Hua provided by Reuters. Cai Qi's photos from Beijing municipal government's webside via Kyodo

After being assigned to a post in Fujian province, Xi began to move up the ladder, starting with the position of vice mayor of Xiamen. Some of his current aides are people he spent time with in those days.

In his second term as general secretary, Xi assigned them to important jobs in fields that are considered pillars of the party, such as the economy, propaganda, justice and public safety, and the military. In Xi's third term, He Lifeng became the top official in charge of macroeconomy and finance, and Wang Xiaohong has been assigned as the top official responsible for justice and public safety.

He Weidong reached the top of the uniformed services as one of the vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission. He is a veteran officer from the former 31st Group Army of the Nanjing Military Region. He rose remarkably under the Xi government, and also served as commander of the Eastern Theater Command facing the Taiwan Strait.

Along with Miao Hua, who also serves as a member of the Central Military Commission, He is said to be one of a group of military officers with whom Xi interacted during his time in Fujian Province. In the military, they are also known as the "Taiwan Strait Faction." The members of this group have taken up positions as the backbone of the Xi government, both in name and in reality.

Xi's career in Zhejiang

Provincial governor > provincial party secretary

The friends he made in this period
Li Qiang
Li Qiang 李強 (63)
Party secrtary of Shanghai & Politburo member
Aide during days as party secretary
Chen Min'er
Chen Min'er 陳敏爾 (62)
Party secretary of Chongqing & Politburo member
Supported serialization of columns during days as party secretary
Huang Kunming
Huang Kunming 黄坤明 (65)
Head of Publicity Department & Politburo member
Held top municipal posts
Cai Qi
Cai Qi 蔡奇 (66)
Party secretary of Beijing & Politburo member
Held top municipal posts

Ages as of October 2022. Photos of Li Qiang & Huang Kunming provided by Reuters. Chen Min'er's photo by Kyodo and Cai Qi's from Beijing municipal government's webside via Kyodo

When Xi was transferred to work in Zhejiang province in 2002, he was already attracting attention as one of the princelings. Li Qiang and Chen Min'er, who became his aides in this period, proved themselves as very capable staff members and earned his trust. In particular, Li Qiang served for Xi as the party's secretary general for two and a half years. Moreover, Li is said to have been selected as secretary general at the behest of Xi himself. The bond between the two was so strong that Li was able to take the premiership in an unprecedented move, without any experience as vice premier or in any other central post.

Huang Kunming and Cai Qi moved from Fujian to Zhejiang at about the same time as Xi did and supported him as heads of the cities to which they were assigned. This group is called the "New Zhijiang Army," using Zhejiang's alternative name of Zhijiang.

Career in Shanghai

Party secretary of Shanghai

The friends he made in this period
Ding Xuexiang
Ding Xuexiang 丁薛祥 (60)
Head of General Office of CCP, head of General Office of President & Politburo member
Aide to party secretary

Ages as of October 2022. Ding Xuexiang's photo provided by Kyodo

After Xi helped realize remarkable economic growth in Zhejiang as the province's party secretary, he took on the same position in March 2007 in Shanghai, which was widely viewed as a gateway to promotion to the Politburo. Xi served in Shanghai for only seven months because he joined the Politburo Standing Committee at the party congress in October of that year. But he found a competent aide in Ding Xuexiang, who served as his secretary in Shanghai. Ding was lifted to the party’s Central Committee when Xi became general secretary. Ding became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and the principal vice premier in Xi's third term as general secretary. He is one of the most successful "Cinderella boys" in the Xi government.

Career in the Politburo

Member of the Politburo Standing Committee, a secretary of the Central Secretariat of the CCP, president of the Central Party School
Member of the Politburo Standing Committee, a secretary of the Central Secretariat of the CCP, vice president of China, president of the Central Party School
Member of the Politburo Standing Committee, a secretary of the Central Secretariat of the CCP, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, president of the Central Party School
General secretary of the CCP, chairman of the Central Military Commission, vice president of China
General secretary of the CCP, chairman of the Central Military Commission, president of China

At all the places and departments Xi worked in, he found able personnel and trusted subordinates and made them his aides. Their relationships with Xi, though, were completely vertical. It seems inevitable that the collective leadership system of the CCP will shift further to a one-man show.

But unlike the Jiang faction, in which members had close ties because of vested interests, and the Communist Youth League, whose members have strong fellowship bonds, Xi's faction has only weak horizontal links between members. The members of the faction are rivals who compete for Xi's favor. With the party leadership composed mostly of Xi loyalists in the future, it remains to be seen how the faction will change as a group and how that will affect the government of the country.

"Snare of autocracy" awaits Xi,
will become a risk for the world

Xi has rebuilt the party's governance over 10 years. The party's instructions have come to extend to every nook and cranny of Chinese society. What awaits Xi in his third term and beyond is a "snare of autocracy." With the U.S.-China confrontation, the Taiwan issue and a slowdown in the domestic economy, China's circumstances are increasingly severe. Will Xi, who has taken the helm of the country of 1.4 billion people, be able to continue making the "right choices"? ... The world is going to face a risk it has not experienced before.

- column -

Will Xi aim to surpass Mao Zedong?

It is often said that Xi is imitating Mao Zedong. His strong top-down style, unification of the party's leadership and ruthless ousting of political rivals are no different from Mao's style of power. The means he used to seize power are also very similar to those used by Mao. Establishing his authority by "historical resolution" and strengthening a cult of personality through thought inculcation … these are all roads Mao followed.

Socialist policies, such as putting pressure on IT entrepreneurs and entertainment businesses and emphasizing "common prosperity," caused people to whisper that it might be a recurrence of the Cultural Revolution. Xi is said to aim at restoring the post of "party chairman" held by Mao. Within the party, a proposal to make Xi's title the same as Mao's -- "leader" -- is being discussed. If the proposal is approved, Xi will be regarded as a leader ranked with Mao.

Will Xi aim to surpass Mao Zedong?

There were aims even Mao could not achieve. One was to expand the socialist revolution to the world. Although revolution is too difficult now, Xi has already begun to export the Chinese model of governance to countries that participate in the Belt and Road Initiative. Another aim was to absorb Taiwan. If Xi could achieve these two aims, he could surpass Mao in both name and reality. Will Xi really aim to surpass Mao? The ambitions of Xi, who has consolidated his power as a paramount leader, will influence the future of the world.