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Hu Got Left Out?

The Rising Stars that Missed the Politburo Standing Committee

Chinese politicians Hu Chunhua and Chen Min’er were seen as potential successors to Xi and top contenders for the Politburo Standing Committee. Neither made it onto China’s most important leadership body.

(Credit: CNN)

China’s 20th National Party Congress witnessed the consolidation of President Xi Jinping’s power, the elevation of his inner circle to the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), and the humiliation of his political rivals. These Party Congresses happen only every five years and select China’s next leaders, which has huge implications for China’s future. But what is most intriguing are the individuals whose political fortunes were unexpectedly dashed.

While four Politburo members were raised to the most secretive and important decision-making body, the PBSC, two were considered strong contenders but ultimately not selected. The selection process itself is extremely opaque, forcing China watchers to read the tea leaves. Relying on analysis of informal rules, career paths, personal relationships, faction affiliation, and policy records, experts make tentative predictions about the likely direction of Chinese politics.

Unlike democratic systems, China’s top decision-making bodies — the 25-member Politburo and 7-member Politburo Standing Committee — are not directly elected by constituents. Instead, a short-listing process is ostensibly used where Party Congress participants are polled on their top nominations for the Politburo and PBSC. Incumbent PBSC members then use these straw polls to guide their decisions on electing new members. However, the actual voting process of incumbent members is not at all transparent and susceptible to backroom dealing, which is why Party Congress outcomes are so difficult for China watchers to predict.

What is known is that Xi undoubtedly wields enormous influence over the selection of candidates to the Politburo and PBSC, so who does not make it onto the committee says just as much about Xi’s power and desires as who does. The bottom line is this: if up-and-coming members of the CCP didn’t make it onto the committee, it means Xi did not want them there.

Let’s turn our attention to the rising political stars whose fortunes were dashed at last year’s 20th Party Congress: Hu Chunhua and Chen Min’er.

Hu Chunhua: The Challenger
(Credit: The Asahi Shimbun)

eading up to the 20th Party Congress, Hu Chunhua was seen as a potential contender for the PBSC. As the Vice Premier of the State Council, Hu was well positioned with high ranking experience in Party administration and governance of Hebei and Guangdong provinces. He is also the most prominent sixth generation leader of the Communist Youth League (CYL) — former President Hu Jintao’s faction. His mentor-protege relationship with the older Hu Jintao (no familial relation) gave him the moniker “Little Hu”. Hu Jintao boosted Little Hu’s career path and was influential in placing him onto the Politburo. Unfortunately for Hu Chunhua however, his strong relationship with the former president and his factional connections with the CYL were in fact severe weaknesses.

First, the CYL is the major rival of Xi’s faction, dubbed by some China watchers as the “Zhejiang New Army” as Xi’s allies tend to follow his career path through leadership positions in the Zhejiang province. Xi has been openly critical of the CYL, calling them “paralyzed from the neck down”. Meanwhile, Xi has sought to systematically remove CYL members from top leadership positions. Former Chongqing Party Secretary Sun Zhengcai, boosted to the Politburo by Hu Jintao at the same time as Little Hu, was purged by Xi in 2017 to little fanfare. Wang Yang, a member of the 19th Standing Committee with ties to the CYL, was forced into an early retirement when he didn’t make it onto the 20th PBSC despite meeting the informal “seven-up eight-down” age requirement. Instead, his seat was likely vacated to make room for another close Xi ally.

Fearful of being marginalized and aware of Xi’s power to destroy his political rivals with minimal reprisal, CYL members have bent over backwards to criticize their organization and show deference to Xi. The latest and most provocative demonstration of Xi’s disdain for the CYL came when he humiliated its leader during the 20th National Party Congress. Hu Jintao was unceremoniously escorted out of the Party Congress in a way that seems likely planned. As China watcher Bill Bishop put it, the “image of Hu Jintao being led out is a perfect symbol of Xi’s absolute decimation of [Hu’s] ‘Communist Youth League’ faction”. In the context of Xi’s extraordinary power over domestic politics, Little Hu’s connections to CYL and Hu Jintao are anything but a strength.

Hu Chunhua, likely concerned about his political fortunes in the era of Xi, attempted to keep a low profile while continuing his upward career trajectory. But that was not enough to escape Xi’s ire. Little Hu not only did not make it onto the Politburo Standing Committee, but he didn’t even keep his position on the Politburo. While Hu remains on the Central Commission, the governing body one step below the Politburo, his political career is effectively over. With Xi in power, no potential challenger from a different faction stands a chance. But as Chen Min’er shows, even potential successors affiliated with Xi’s ideology and faction have been sidelined.

Chen Min’er: The Successor?
(Credit: Reuters via SCMP)

Since before his time as Chongqing Party Secretary, Chen Min’er seemed groomed for leadership. Not only is he a member of Xi’s so-called Zhejiang New Army, but he is also well experienced with provincial-level leadership credentials and is seen as a capable administrator. Chen climbed rapidly through the ranks under Xi’s leadership as a trusted confidant. Even in 2017, during the last Party Congress, some analysts predicted that Xi would take the extraordinary move to elevate Chen from the Central Commission to the PBSC, skipping the Politburo. While Chen was ultimately promoted to the Politburo, talk itself of emulating Xi’s career path demonstrates his meteoric rise.

Chen’s ties to Xi have been a key part of that. His relationship with Xi is not considered on the same level as mentor-protege, but they do have a strong working relationship. Reports indicate that Chen has Xi’s trust, having apparently worked with Xi during his time in Zhejiang to write a weekly newspaper column that helped to “burnish Xi’s public image”. Chen was also promoted to become deputy governor of Zhejiang during Xi’s final year there.

But Chen has other things going for him as well. First, analysis from The Diplomat suggests that he has had a “nearly perfect” political career, rising through the ranks of the CCP’s propaganda departments, provincial standing committees, and landing leadership positions in Guizhou and Chongqing. Moreover, his factional connections make him a great candidate. Chen is now the “highest ranking member” of both Xi’s Zhejiang New Army and the Guizhou Connect, an emerging political faction united around scientific innovation and techno-industrial policy. These latter connections, established during his time in Guizhou, may give him a cross-faction base of support.

Lastly, CCP political tradition usually dictates that a rising leader from the next generation is elevated to the PBSC. That way, this new member can serve one or two terms on the Standing Committee and be groomed for the presidency until their time is ready. Xi, the current General Secretary, is 69 years old and is part of the fifth generation of CCP leaders. Chen was one of the few sixth generation leaders not only in the Politburo and politically connected enough to garner a promotion, but also part of Xi’s faction. If Xi were to tap a leader-in-waiting, it would likely be Chen Min’er.

Companies were so confident that Chen would get the promotion to the PBSC that they pledged more than $10 billion in investments to curry favor with him. Yet, it was not to be. Chen remains on the Politburo, but was not elevated to the Standing Committee by Xi.

What went wrong? Two possibilities: Xi may think Chen Min’er still has more to prove. Chen lacks economic policy and financial management experience at the national level. However, this wouldn’t explain Xi’s other picks to the Standing Committee, such as Ding Xuexiang and Li Qiang (who is also part of the sixth generation, but according to CCP tradition, is too old to be promoted at the next Party Congress). The more likely possibility is that Xi doesn’t want to name any potential successor to the PBSC, no matter their qualifications or faction affiliation.

What it means for China’s future

If Xi were to promote a sixth generation leader-in-waiting to the Standing Committee, he may be seen as a lame duck. By winning a third term, he is already on track to outlast every Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. According to some China watchers, he may even be angling to name himself the title of Chairman at the next Party Congress, a title that Mao held for life.

After enshrining his name into China’s Constitution in the 19th Party Congress and stacking the PBSC with sycophants in this round, it's clear that Xi’s political ambitions are not over. He has no plans to retire soon and does not want to be considered on his way out. By leaving no immediate successor, Xi leaves no alternative to his continued rule — no matter the cost to China’s next generation of leaders.

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