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Xi Jinping begins third 5-year term, elevates several allies along with him

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

China unveiled its new leadership lineup on Sunday. Xi Jinping stays on as party chief for a third term, as expected, but there were also some surprises. NPR's John Ruwitch is in Beijing and joins us now. Hi, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: A third term for Xi - like we said, that's not unexpected. But also, we had some things we didn't see coming.

RUWITCH: Yeah. I mean, at the actual closing ceremony of this weeklong party congress, Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, was led out of the room in a very sort of unscripted way. Now, Hu Jintao is 79 years old. It may have been health related, but it certainly sparked a lot of conversation online. The big headline, as you say, is Xi Jinping getting another term. He's consolidated power in the party and in the military. He's eliminated rivals. The way it all went down this week just bolstered his power. And it surprised a lot of observers, frankly. You know, the congress gave him and his agenda a full-throated endorsement. The party constitution was amended to include some wording about Xi Jinping that really elevated his stature in the sort of pantheon of Chinese leaders - just building on a cult of personality that's been growing around him. The magnitude of Xi's authority, though, really became clear this weekend when it all wrapped up with some very significant personnel changes.

RASCOE: Go into some detail. What are these personnel changes?

RUWITCH: Well, I mean, well, in short, Xi Jinping basically ran the table. These party congresses are an opportunity to reshuffle the leadership. And in the top echelons of the party, they have historically sought a balance of power between factions or at least representation from different sort of patronage networks. Not this time, though. Xi clearly doesn't think those things matter anymore. Two of the country's most senior politicians were forced out. One was Premier Li Keqiang. The other was Wang Yang, who's a reform-minded vice premier. You know, they were theoretically eligible to stay on because of their age. They're 67. But neither was considered to be a very close ally of Xi Jinping, and it seems that that was their downfall.

The case of Wang Yang is particularly interesting. There were widespread rumors that he might become the next premier. He's out, and that job looks like it's likely to go to a man named Li Qiang, who was promoted into the No. 2 spot in the party hierarchy. Li Qiang has been a close ally of Xi Jinping since the early 2000s, and here's what's really interesting about him. He's the party secretary of Shanghai, which had a very ugly COVID lockdown in April and May. And instead of being demoted or fired, he's getting this huge, new job. I asked Tony Saich about this. He's an expert on Chinese politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

ANTHONY SAICH: It clearly means that loyalty is more important than performance. One would have thought that given the mess with the lockdowns in Shanghai, the criticisms that came - that would have tarnished Li Qiang's reputation. But clearly, for Xi Jinping, the fact that he's a known, trusted associate is far more important.

RASCOE: So what does all this imply? Like, does Xi Jinping face any constraints on his power now?

RUWITCH: At the elite levels, it certainly appears like he does not. Loyalty is key. The rest of the leadership lineup, like we said, are men who are allies and proteges of Xi Jinping. And there's nobody in the top ranks of the party who's obviously being groomed to succeed Xi, which is by design. Analysts say he's clearly likely to stay more than just this one extra term that he's been given. Look. Xi Jinping has a clear vision for how he wants to make China strong, influential and a more equitable nation. That was all endorsed heavily by the congress. He's now got people around him who are going to push those policies. The country faces huge challenges, though, particularly in economics and on the global stage. And it's really hard at this point to see who's left in the inner circle to stand up and offer criticism or even just an alternative viewpoint to the way Xi Jinping wants to run things. And that's worrying.

RASCOE: That's NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. Thank you so much, John.

RUWITCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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