20th Party Congress: The Next Chinese Premier

Oct 6, 2022

Last week, I provided a general overview of the upcoming 20th Party Congress, always China’s most widely watched political event.  I stressed that in this case, the focus will be less on ideology and policy (unlike the 19th Party Congress in 2017, which saw the roll-out of “Xi Jinping Thought”) and more on any shifts in the composition of senior leadership as Xi assembles his supporting cast for an unprecedented third five-year term as Party leader.

As such, special focus will be on the next Premier, as the incumbent, Li Keqiang, steps down after ten years. On paper, a Chinese premier is very important — usually thought of as #2 in the Party leadership hierarchy.  The premier is also head of the State Council, overseeing the Chinese government, its 21 ministries, and several ancillary organizations (including the central bank, ethnic affairs, health, etc.).  The premier is generally charged with stewardship of the Chinese economy and performs the important ceremonial function of delivering the annual Work Report to the National People’s Congress in March of each year that lays out the accomplishments, prognosis, and policy outlook.  Under Xi Jinping, the premier’s role has been marginalized to largely a ceremonial function.  Significantly, that was not the case under Mao Zedong, China’s last dominant leader,  when Zhou Enlai, as China’s first premier, played an extremely important leadership role. Under Xi, China’s leadership script has been completely re-written.

Who is likely to emerge as China’s next premier after the 20th Party Congress? To answer that question , I turned to Cheng Li, Director of the Thornton China Center at Brookings and America’s foremost expert on Chinese leadership.  While Li stressed there is considerable uncertainty over the upcoming choice, he threw out his list of four favorites:

  • Han Zeng (68 years old): currently China’s senior vice premier, Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member, and former mayor of Shanghai
  • Hu Chunhua (59): vice premier, politburo member, with long experience in Tibet and Party Secretary of Guangdong Province
  • Liu He (70): vice premier, politburo member, with responsibility for economics and US-China trade negotiations during the Trump era
  • Wang Yang (67): former vice premier, PSC member, Chairman CPPCC, experience in Chongqing and US-China Strategic & Economic Dialogues

Cheng Li stressed that China always chooses its next premier from a stable of vice premiers; his list reflects that bias. The only name on his list that surprised me was Liu He.  He is on the “old” side — past the 67-68 normal Chinese age cutoff — and was subjected to some criticism inside of China for striking the so-called Phase I trade deal with the US in January 2020.  But with Xi Jinping currently 69 years old and likely to serve at least one more five-year term, there is ample precedent to ignore age restrictions.  But one thing is certain: Irrespective of the choice for premier, a Xi-centric Chinese power consolidation is likely to be far more evident after the 20th Party Congress.

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