The Red Emperor

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

This fall, the Nineteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gave proof that during his five years as general secretary Xi Jinping has become the most powerful leader of China since Mao Zedong died in 1976. Most observers, Chinese and foreign, who already knew this could only have been surprised at the manner in which it was displayed in public at the congress: in the choice of the new leadership team and the designation of an official ideology named for Xi.

The CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) consists of the party’s top leaders, and it currently has seven members. In the past, the PSC has been the location of ferocious struggles for power. Mao forced out two deputies who might have succeeded him: Liu Shaoqi, who was denied medical treatment when seriously ill, and Marshal Lin Biao, who was hounded into fleeing the country and died when his plane crashed in circumstances still shrouded in mystery. Even Deng Xiaoping sacked two general secretaries who had gone wobbly on him. Under Xi Jinping, a defeated rival who aspired to PSC membership was tried and imprisoned, and a powerful retiree from the Seventeenth PSC suffered the same fate. The PSC is the pinnacle of the CCP, but going up or down or simply standing still in the party’s upper reaches can be perilous. Fealty to the supreme leader is the surest guarantee of one’s position.

At each five-year congress the PSC is reconstituted. Retirement from it and other leading party bodies is roughly determined by a norm laid down by Deng, who hoped to have regular renewals of leadership and to avoid the spectacle of 1976, when Premier Zhou Enlai (seventy-seven), Marshal Zhu De (eighty-nine), and Chairman Mao (eighty-two) all died while still in office. Retirement by age seventy is now the target. The rule of thumb for the PSC has been that you should leave if you have reached sixty-eight at the time of a party congress, but there is a possibility of staying on if you are only sixty-seven. Five members of the eighteenth PSC retired as a result of this norm. Only Xi Jinping (sixty-four) and Premier Li Keqiang (sixty-two) were young enough to retain their positions. But before the recent congress, the Beijing rumor mill was wondering if a third member would be kept on despite the age barrier.

The top leadership of the CCP is chosen from—though not by—the twenty-five members of the Politburo, which is in turn chosen from, but again not by, the 376 new members and alternate members of the Central Committee (CC), who are chosen from (but not by) the 2,287 delegates to the party congress. In practice, the incumbent general secretary and his closest followers select the compositions of the leading bodies, especially the PSC, after some consultation and perhaps argument with peers and predecessors. So while the members of the Eighteenth PSC were…

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