China’s Premier Li Keqiang dropped in leadership shuffle

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the nation’s No. 2 official and a chief proponent of economic reforms, is among four of the seven members of the nation’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee who will not be reappointed in a leadership shuffle Sunday.

His coming departure, which was revealed during the conclusion of a major party meeting Saturday, will be seen as further affirmation of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tight hold on power in the world’s second-largest economy.

Li and three others were missing from the ruling Communist Party’s new 205-member Central Committee that was approved at the closing session of a weeklong party congress, which set the leadership and agenda for the next five years. Only Central Committee members can serve on the Standing Committee.

The party congress also approved an amendment of the party constitution Saturday that could further enhance Xi Jinping’s stature as China’s leader.

The text of the amendment was not immediately released, but before its approval an announcer read out the reasoning behind it, repeatedly mentioning Xi and his accomplishments in strengthening the military and the economy and reinforcing the party’s authority.

Xi, in brief closing remarks, said the revision “sets out clear requirements for upholding and strengthening the party’s overall leadership.”

At the previous congress in 2017, the party elevated Xi’s status by enshrining his ideas — known as “Xi Jinping Thought” — in its charter.

The three other Standing Committee members who were dropped were Shanghai party chief Han Zheng, party advisory body head Wang Yang, and Li Zhanshu, a longtime Xi ally and the head of the largely ceremonial National People’s Congress.

Xi is expected to retain the top spot when the new Standing Committee is unveiled Sunday.

Li Keqiang will remain as premier for about six more months until a new slate of government ministers is named.

If he had remained on the Standing Committee, it would have indicated some possible pushback within the leadership against Xi’s moves to expand state control over the economy, which analysts say is a drag on China’s growth.

Li had already been largely sidelined, though, as Xi has taken control of most aspects of government, and his departure was not a major surprise.

The roughly 2,000 delegates to the party congress — wearing blue surgical masks under China’s strict “zero-COVID” policy — met in the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing.

Most media, including all the foreign journalists, were not allowed into the first part of the meeting when the voting was taking place.

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor as party leader, was helped off the stage a little more than two hours into the 3.5-hour meeting, sparking speculation about his health.

Hu, 79, spoke briefly with Xi, whom he had been sitting next to in the front row, before walking off with an assistant holding him by the arm. There was no official comment. Jiang Zemin, 96, who was president before Hu, did not appear at this congress.

Only 11 women were among the 205 people named to the Central Committee, or about 5% of the total. Members of minority groups made up 4%. Those percentages were roughly the same as in the last Central Committee.

Police were stationed along major roads, with bright-red-clad neighborhood watch workers at regular intervals in between, to keep an eye out for any potential disruptions.

An individual caught authorities by surprise last week by unfurling banners from an overpass in Beijing that called for Xi’s removal and attacked his government’s tough pandemic restrictions.

A report read by Xi at the opening session of the congress a week ago showed a determination to stay on the current path in the face of domestic and international challenges.

Xi has emerged during his first decade in power as one of China’s most powerful leaders in modern times, rivaling Mao Zedong, who founded the communist state in 1949 and led the country for a quarter-century.

An expected third five-year term as party leader would break an unofficial two-term limit that was instituted to try to prevent the excesses of Mao’s one-person rule, notably the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, under which Xi suffered as a youth.

Xi has put loyalists in key positions and taken personal charge of policy working groups. In contrast, factions within the party discussed ideas internally under his two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, said Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University.

“Right now, you don’t really see a lot of internal party debates about these different policies and there is only one voice there,” he said.

Xi has emphasized the central role of the Communist Party in China’s development and future, expanding state control over society as well as the economy. In his remarks, he said the party, which marked its 100th anniversary last year, is still in its prime.

“The Communist Party of China is once again embarking on a new journey on which it will face new tests,” he said.

The congress concluded by playing the communist anthem, “The Internationale.”

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Associated Press writer Kanis Leung in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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