BEIJING (Reuters) – The three most glaring omissions from China’s new Communist Party leadership share one common trait: all rose through its Youth League and were considered members of a once-powerful faction whose influence Xi Jinping has now effectively crushed.
Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Wang Yang, both 67 and young enough to be re-appointed to the elite seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, were left off even the wider Central Committee, as Xi installed loyalists in top party posts during the recent twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle.
Fellow vice premier and one-time high-flyer Hu Chunhua, who, at 59, had been seen by some party watchers as a candidate for premier and once even a possible future president, did not make it to the 24-man Politburo.
The omissions show Xi has succeeded in a years-long effort to eradicate the faction, analysts said.
Political Cartoons on World Leaders
“On Hu Chunhua, I think this has been Xi Jinping’s main tactic of shutting down the youth league faction,” said Victor Shih, an expert on elite politics in China and a professor at the University of California, San Diego.
“He has stifled the careers of quite a few cadres in that faction.”
In a dramatic incident widely viewed as symbolic of the faction’s demise, Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, who is 79 and a Youth League veteran, was unexpectedly escorted from the stage at Saturday’s closing ceremony of the party congress.
Exactly what happened remains unclear, but state news agency Xinhua said in two English posts on Twitter that it was related to Hu’s health. The social network is blocked in China.
“They are completely defeated,” said Cheng Li, a specialist on the transformation of political leaders in China, referring to the sidelining of the Youth League faction.
“It means Xi can do many things he wants to, and opposing forces have got weaker,” added Li, who is with the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“It can be read as, he didn’t want the Western-style balance of power and wanted to show more of the centralisation of his power.”
As Xi kicks off his third leadership term with more power than any leader since Mao Zedong, he faces a mountain of problems, from a dismal economy to his own COVID-19 policy that has backed China into a corner, and souring ties with the West.
The “faction” refers to officials in leadership roles in the Youth League, which recruits and trains some of China’s brightest, mainly high school and university students, traditionally acting as a feeder organisation for the party.
The Youth League’s budget has been cut from nearly 700 million yuan ($96 million) in 2012, the year Xi assumed power, to about 260 million yuan in 2021, official data shows.
Membership has dropped to about 74 million over the same period from around 90 million.
China’s Communist Party has about 97 million members.
“As a party-led organization, the CYL has lost its clout as the place for grooming leaders,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
“But it has already been working hard to adapt to the changing political circumstances,” he said, adding that the Youth League had built a social media presence, appealing to nationalistic pride, and engaged in civic functions.
The Youth League has been active in attacking foreign brands accused of misbehaviour in China, such as false advertising.
Last year, Western journalists said they received death threats after its branch in the central province of Henan asked social media followers to report the whereabouts of a BBC reporter covering major floods there.
The Youth League did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Its political image lost some sheen in 2012, when Ling Jihua, a top aide to Hu Jintao, tried to cover up the circumstances around the death of his son, killed while driving a Ferrari that crashed in Beijing.
Ling was later charged with corruption and jailed for life.
Factions, cliques and power bases have existed, with varying levels of influence, since the party’s founding a century ago.
They famously included the so-called “Shanghai Gang” of former leader Jiang Zemin, who is now 96.
Xi’s faction, the so-called “Zhijiang New Army”, was forged during his years as party chief of the eastern province of Zhejiang between 2002 and 2007.
John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said the new leadership reflects Xi’s predominance.
“But history would remind us that no political system on earth has eradicated the existence of internal disagreement, rivalry, and power struggles,” he said.
“It can take time, but after one particular faction is eliminated, another faction eventually emerges.”
($1=7.2560 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard; Editing by Tony Munroe and Clarence Fernandez)
Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.