BEIJING — China's Communist Party unveiled its new leadership lineup on Wednesday, granting President Xi Jinping another five years in power as general secretary and including no obvious successor in the senior-most ranks.
Xi introduced the six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee to the media, breaking with recent convention by not including a potential heir in the lineup.
That appears to raise the chances Xi could stay in power beyond 2022.
On Tuesday, the Communist Party amended its constitution to insert Xi Jinping Thought as a guiding principle for the party, elevating Xi to the same status as its most important historical figures, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
That means Xi is likely to wield ultimate authority in the party as long as he is alive, experts say, and it makes any challenge to that authority tantamount to an attack on the party itself.
On Wednesday morning, Xi led his six colleagues onto a stage in one of the many rooms within the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
He first announced the party's Central Committee had voted to give him five more years as general secretary that morning — saying he sees this as "not just an approval of my work but encouragement to spur me on" — before naming his colleagues in the top leadership, all men in their 60s dressed in dark suits.
Apart from Xi, the only other member of the previous Standing Committee to retain his seat was Premier Li Keqiang, with the other five all newcomers replacing retiring members.
None of the newcomers is young enough to be a realistic candidate for the top job at the next Party Congress in five years’ time.
Among those stepping down was a key Xi ally, the head of the powerful anticorruption authority, Wang Qishan, who at 69 had reached the normal retirement age.
Xi, 64, and Li, 62, had both been promoted to the Standing Committee in 2007 while still in their early 50s, giving them five years' experience to draw on before they took the top two spots in the party hierarchy in 2012.
This time around, there is no such succession plan.
Guangdong party Secretary Hu Chunhua, 54, and Chongqing party boss Chen Min’er, 57, had been seen as possible contenders, but neither made it to the Standing Committee, both having to be content with a place at the next level down, in the 25-member Politburo.
Another prominent figure, Sun Zhengcai, was sensationally ousted this year, accused of corruption, removed from his post and kicked out of the party.
“In a clear break with party tradition, not a single one of his potential heirs has joined the innermost leadership circle,” said Matthias Stepan, a politics and policy expert at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin. “This will fuel speculation that Xi plans to remain in power beyond the next Party Congress in 2022.”
In the meantime, this leaves Xi more powerful than ever, having already overshadowed and undercut Li, whose role is mainly involved in the economy.
Third in seniority is Li Zhanshu, 67, who is seen as a close ally of the president, serves as his chief of staff and is expected to be appointed to run the rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress.
Then comes Wang Yang, 62, who had a reputation for encouraging innovation and greener growth while party boss in the southern city of Guangdong.
Next is Wang Huning, also 62, director of the party’s Central Policy Research Office. A former political scientist who worked on ideology for two previous presidents, he has since become a close ally of Xi and is thought to have helped him develop his “Chinese Dream” slogan.
Then comes Zhao Leji, 60, who takes over as head of the anti-corruption agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and finally Shanghai party boss Han Zheng, 63.
Neither Wang Yang nor Zheng is seen as a Xi crony, but both would have had to work hard to prove their loyalty to the president to have risen this far. Nevertheless, their appointments will help broaden support for the leadership group within the broader party.
“The status quo of coexistence between Xi allies and various factions at the top level will remain in place,” said Zhang Lifan, a party historian. “However, we can see that the factions are weakening, and there aren’t any powerful figures from any of them.”
“Xi has assumed absolute authority,” he added.
Experts said the concentration of power poses a risk for China, making it harder for the Communist Party to change course when necessary and also raising the possibility of a power vacuum should Xi suddenly become ill or die.
Zhao Leji’s role running the anti-corruption agency puts him at the center of efforts to maintain discipline and loyalty within the party. The youngest member of the Standing Committee, he could be a man to watch, with the potential to play an important role beyond 2022, Stepan at MERICS said.
Party convention suggests anyone age 68 or above at the Congress, which is held every five years, should retire, meaning none of the current Standing Committee members are young enough to be candidates for two terms as general secretary and president in 2022.
Xi ended the event by thanking the media for covering the Party Congress, saying China didn’t need “lavish praise from others” but welcoming objective reporting and constructive suggestions.
Then he concluded with two lines from an ancient poem about a plum blossom in an ink painting, which “doesn’t need people to praise its nice color, but only wants to fill the universe with its light fragrance.”
Yet in the hours that followed the event, CNN, BBC and CNBC faced intermittent blackouts in China when discussing the new leadership lineup.
Censorship has been significantly stepped up in China since Xi took power.
Amber Ziye Wang contributed to this report.