- By Stephen McDonell
- China correspondent
The National People’s Congress, which starts this weekend, will be the symbolic culmination of Xi Jinping’s epic power grab.
China’s leader has overhauled the Communist Party and is placing himself at the core, and no one else has the slightest chance to challenge him.
The strongest representation of this will be in the shift in personnel to be announced at the annual policy meeting, a rubber-stamp session of nearly 3,000 delegates.
Take the role of the Premier, the person who manages the world’s second largest economy and, in theory, second only to Mr Xi in the power structure.
Outgoing premier Li Keqiang will take center stage on day one. Then, at the end, a new premier, almost certainly Li Qiang, will take the limelight.
They are two very different people, especially in terms of their loyalty to Mr. Xi, who started an upheaval a decade ago with his anti-corruption drive, and cuts through the ranks of rival party factions.
At the Communist Party congress last October, new appointments to the seven-person Standing Committee of the Politburo meant that the most powerful group in the country now had only Xi loyalists.
At this meeting, the heads of various departments and ministerial positions are to be replaced. They are all expected to fall into the same camp.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t qualified, but will they be prepared to give fearless and honest advice to the man who put them there?
“On the one hand this could mean that Xi can really get things done with his new leadership, but on the other hand there is a danger that he will be stuck in an echo chamber,” one senior business figure told the BBC.
So, what will these appointments mean for China’s direction?
If Li Qiang is indeed the new premier, sitting up there on the NPC’s last day taking veiled questions at the annual press event, it will have been a meteoric rise for him.
For this reason, many were surprised when he was promoted to become number two in the Communist Party’s pecking order.
It wasn’t so much that there had been a lockdown, but how poorly it was managed. Confining drivers to their homes meant that food and medicine could not be transported efficiently to many millions of people who were not allowed outside.
There was a severe food shortage, and when deliveries came through, residents posted pictures of the rotting vegetables they had to survive on.
By the end of the city-wide lockdown, people had had enough. They kicked down the fences that had been put up to contain them and fought with the guards that were in place to enforce what was at the time the much-hated zero-Covid approach.
Observers have questioned how the person responsible for this massive logistics failure can get the job of running the entire country.
Well, for one thing, his past paints a different picture. In the intervening years, some in the business world saw him as an innovator who managed to bypass partisanship.
“He’s smart and he’s a good operator, but he definitely got the job because of his loyalty to Xi. When the president asks him to jump, he says ‘how high?'” said Joerg Wuttke, the president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.He has been doing business in the country since the 1990s and has been in contact with the top echelons of the Communist Party for years.
Wuttke added that the negative effect of the zero-Covid strategy is still being felt by both businesses and ordinary consumers.
“There is caution in terms of spending because of the trauma of the zero-Covid period,” he says, “People have been shocked by the last few years in China. They are cautious about taking risks and are very cautious when making decisions .”This trauma is particularly present in Shanghai, and the allure of that city has faded considerably when it comes to foreign investment.”
However, Wuttke doesn’t think this is solely Li Qiang’s fault – and other business people echo the sentiment.
Li Qiang is credited with bringing Tesla to Shanghai. It was the company’s first factory outside the United States, and it was allowed to set up its own venture, without the requirement to merge with a Chinese partner as other foreign car companies had been forced to do.
Trumpeting the virtues of Shanghai’s pilot free trade zone in 2019, he said it would become an area open to international competitiveness, which would “serve as an important vehicle for China to become deeply integrated with economic globalization”.
He is seen in certain circles as a more liberal figure who is prepared to bend the rules.
Still, it is unclear whether he will now be an empowered chairman, unafraid to do what needs to be done because he has Xi’s support, or a former pragmatist who will fall in line on a much bigger stage, right in Mr Xi’s shadow. .
Back in 2016, he became party secretary of the prosperous eastern province of Jiangsu, known for its technology companies. He sought out meetings with Alibaba founder Jack Ma and other executives seeking advice on the business climate there.
But that was a different time. In recent years, Mr. Xi has ordered tech companies to be reined in, saying they had become too powerful for their own good. It has been common for the heads of these companies to “disappear” so they can be questioned by party discipline inspection officers – the latest being billionaire banker Bao Fan who brokered key technology deals.
This doesn’t seem like the kind of thing Li Qiang would have encouraged in the past, but he and Mr Xi go way back.
Before he was in Jiangsu, he was based south of Shanghai in another prosperous eastern province, Zhejiang. At the time, the provincial party chief was one Xi Jinping, and after Li became his chief of staff, the two would work late into the night impressing those above them.
Xi has never had such a shared background with outgoing Premier Li Keqiang.
They rose together in a period of much more collective leadership and Li Keqiang was then in a sense a rival. He was also considered a candidate for the top job. You can’t help but wonder what China would be like now if he had succeeded instead of Xi.
A bright economist who graduated from Peking University soon after the Cultural Revolution, Li Keqiang rose through the party ranks via the Communist Youth League, a rival power bloc.
After missing out on the top job, he was soon restricted as premier under Mr Xi who ran the place with a reach not seen since Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China.
At one point as premier, Li Keqiang declared that the reintroduction of street vendors in cities across China could help revitalize the economy and create a more lively atmosphere. But those who answered the call in Beijing were soon ordered away again by the police.
Under Mr Xi, that makes the capital look “backward” or “old-fashioned”. It did not matter that the premier had no less suggested this. In Beijing, it wasn’t supposed to fly.
Whether this was because Mr Hu was ill or he caused trouble after his people had been overlooked for promotion, this still unexplained incident brought the curtains down on a previous era before the world’s cameras.
As he was led away, he tapped Li Keqiang on the shoulder in a friendly gesture, and the Premier nodded back.
Li Keqiang will be remembered for his strong economic performance, but the end of his time in office was bedeviled by the zero-Covid crisis.
During the worst, he said the economy was under massive pressure and called on officials to be mindful not to let restrictions crush growth.
But when cadres had to choose between his order to protect the economy and Xi’s order to maintain zero-Covid with extreme discipline, there was no contest.
Nothing trumps Xi Jinping, who has now set up the party the way he wants it.
The only danger he seems to face is that his reputation has taken a hit among sections of the general public.
Zero-Covid; the hasty abandonment of zero-Covid on the back of widespread protests; the property crisis; high youth unemployment; The technological onslaught and the massive damage to the service industry have damaged his reputation.
“Mao survived in a time of complete economic collapse when people didn’t have much to lose,” says Wuttke. “Now people have a much better standard of living, but middle-class parents are starting to worry that their children won’t have a better life than them.”
This year’s NPC, and especially those elevated at the meeting, will be closely watched by those who want to see where this economic powerhouse is headed.
If Mr Xi’s path is all it’s cracked up to be, China should be firing on all cylinders soon now as all obstacles to the leader’s will.
If the country doesn’t do well on all fronts, that’s when the hard questions will start to emerge.