China’s NPC: Who are the top men tapped to support Xi Jinping?
China’s National People’s Congress wrapped up on Monday after announcing a host of top officials that will assist Xi.
While Chinese President Xi Jinping has risen to become the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong after securing an unprecedented third term in power, he is surrounded by a group of key officials that support his governance.
At the top of the hierarchy is the State Council, China’s “chief administrative authority,” headed by a 10-person executive committee that oversees provincial administrations and 26 ministries.
While many of the top posts have traditionally been handed out with an eye on keeping China’s different political factions happy, Xi, who was reelected on Friday by a unanimous vote of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, has sidelined rival groupings such as the Youth League, associated with former President Hu Jintao, former Premier Li Keqiang and former Vice Premier Wang Yang.
In their place, Xi has inserted a crop of loyalists that were announced over the course of the National People’s Congress, which wrapped up on Monday.
“Greater Party control over the government apparatus means that Xi will be able to bring the state even more under his personal control and ensure maximum conformity with his ideology and policy aims,” Connor Swank, an analyst at the Center for Advanced China Research, told Al Jazeera.
Carston Holz, an expert on the Chinese economy and visiting professor at Princeton University, said that the top appointees, despite their prominence, will ultimately have “little authority to undertake significant reforms without Xi Jinping’s approval”.
“Xi Jinping’s predilections are well-known, from directing the economic development trajectory to securing the financial system under Party control,” Holz told Al Jazeera.
Some of the top officials supporting Xi include:
Premier Li Qiang
Replacing the former premier, Li may be best known to outsiders for instituting Shanghai’s controversial “zero COVID” lockdowns between March and June last year as Communist Party Secretary in the country’s largest metropolis. Since October, Li has served as the second highest-ranking member of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member committee consisting of the party’s top leadership.
Li, 63, is a well-known Xi loyalist and has been a member of Xi’s patronage network since he served under Xi when he was Communist Party Secretary of Zhejiang Province in the 2000s. Li’s power is seen to “come directly from Xi personally,” according to Adami Ni, editor of the China Neican website.
“This makes the current situation special if not unique. His distance from Xi is closer than what you may expect between a new premier and the Party head,” Ni told Al Jazeera.
“The reason for the difference and distance traditionally is that the first and second-ranked Party officials came into their position often through political compromise that takes into the interest of different networks and groups in the Party.”
Executive Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang
Ding, 60, is also the director of the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, a position he has held since 2017 and works closely with Xi as his de facto chief of staff. In October, Ding also joined the elite Politburo Standing Committee, cementing a top place in the Chinese leadership for at least the next five years.
Ding started his political career in Shanghai, where he first met Xi, and is widely considered a close confidant of the Chinese leader. Unlike other top officials, Ding has never served as Communist Party secretary of a province or big city, a typical path to power in the highly structured Chinese leadership.
Vice Premier He Lifeng
He, 68, will take on the economic portfolio in place of outgoing Harvard-educated economist Liu He. As the former head of the National Development and Reform Commission, He is seen as a longtime Xi loyalist but also a “highly capable technocrat,” according to the Brookings Institution, with a PhD in economics.
He will work closely with Yi Gang, the governor of the People’s Bank of China, who survived the latest shake-up despite nearing retirement age. The duo will face major challenges as China tries to get the economy back on track following the end of “zero COVID,” including a low birth rate, a long-running property crisis, and slowing growth, as reflected in Beijing’s modest gross domestic product (GDP) target of 5 percent for 2023.
Vice Premier Zhang Guoqing
Zhang brings corporate experience as the former chairperson of military contractor China North Industries Group Corporation (Norinco) and has served as the party secretary of Liaoning Province, mayor of Tianjin and mayor of Chongqing. He also has a PhD in economics and is regarded as another seasoned technocrat, according to analysts.
Foreign Minister and State Councilor Qin Gang
At 56, Qin is one of the younger members of the State Council. Qin was promoted to foreign minister in December but did not hold his first press conference until this month. After blasting the United States for its “reckless” behaviour towards China, the top diplomat is expected to continue the strident “wolf warrior” tone adopted by Beijing in foreign affairs in recent years. Qin is a career diplomat who has served in a number of high-profile positions, including Chinese ambassador to the US from 2021 to 2023.