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World With no heir-apparent, China opens way to long-term reign for Xi

Chinese President Xi Jinping

Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Five new faces now occupy China's seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the elite club at the pinnacle of the country's political system.

But not one looks like the next leader of China, an indication that President Xi Jinping may want to shatter recent convention and remain for years to come at the helm of the world's second-largest economy, a position he has used to expand the influence of the Communist Party at home and the leadership of China abroad.

Mr. Xi on Wednesday strode out at the head of the new Standing Committee roster, an unveiling of the next generation of leadership that is normally a dramatic event in the country's secretive decision-making process.

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This time, the reveal merely underscored the hold Mr. Xi has asserted over the country's political system.

Breaking a quarter-century of tradition, the new Politburo Standing Committee includes no members young enough under current party rules to serve as Mr. Xi's successor, suggesting he has chosen not to anoint an heir. Chinese presidents are limited to 10 years in office, but the more powerful roles of party general secretary and head of the military, which Mr. Xi also holds, carry no such limits.

The prospect for a long reign for Mr. Xi went unmentioned by Chinese state media, which celebrated the new "dream team" he set in place.

"It is my conviction that the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will become a reality in the course of reform and opening up," Mr. Xi said.

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But critics see the possibility of an extended tenure for Mr. Xi as a worrisome sign.

"Mao Zedong was like an emperor for life, he was the demi-god, the helmsman who served until his death in 1976," said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Center for China Studies.

Chinese media did little to dispel this notion, with the official Xinhua state news agency, in a tweet, calling the new Standing Committee members "helmsmen."

"We are seeing a revival of this disturbing trend of Maoism, with a huge personality cult being built around Xi Jinping – and we have returned to this one-man rule situation where everything depends on the approval of Xi," Prof. Lam said.

Mr. Xi kept at his side Li Keqiang, the reform-minded premier once touted as president, but sidelined over the past five years.

New members include Li Zhanshu, a career politician and ally of Mr. Xi; Wang Yang, an engineer who has held leadership roles in Chongqing and Guangdong; Wang Huning, a political scientist and leading thinker who has advocated "neo-authoritarianism"; Zhao Leji, who built his political career in western China and will now head up the country's graft-busting efforts; and Han Zheng, a former mayor of Shanghai who oversaw some of that city's experiments with free-trade zones.

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"We will act on the new vision for development and strive for sustained and healthy economic growth that benefits people in China and around the world," Mr. Xi said.

The Politburo Standing Committee has, since the ugliness of the Mao era, been the primary instrument of China's system of collective leadership, a small cohort of powerful voices with the ability to introduce and argue their own ideas and agendas.

The newest lineup suggests that era has been dispatched by Mr. Xi and party elders eager for a strong leader who can rule without the constraints or competing interests of others who might vote against him.

The new Standing Committee faces are drawn from a more diverse background than expected, including from other factions inside the Communist Party.

Still, none is seen as possessing the ability to challenge Mr. Xi, who has augmented his personal stature by being named the party "core" and, this week, adding himself to the party's constitution as originator of a theoretical concept: "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era."

"This is as close as you get now in China to presidential leadership," said Dali Yang, an expert in Chinese elite politics at the University of Chicago. "Xi is the executive chairman of this system."

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That suggests a continuity in the direction set for China by Mr. Xi, whose first term was marked by a more assertive foreign policy, a co-ordinated effort to expand Communist Party influence in Chinese society, wars on poverty and pollution – and a series of clampdowns on dissent.

Mr. Xi's second term began to fresh indications that the latter, at least, will continue.

Officials barred at least five major global news organizations – including the BBC, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist and the Financial Times – from attending the unveiling of the new Standing Committee, an event at which Mr. Xi fielded no questions.

"It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these media organizations have been singled out to send a message," the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said in a statement.

Mr. Xi spoke directly to those journalists allowed into the room with him: "We do not need lavish praise from others, however, we do welcome objective reporting and constructive suggestions."

Chinese academics, too, have fallen under heavy pressure. Ten scholars refused requests to speak with The Globe and Mail about the new Standing Committee. One said it was a dangerous time for such discussions, adding that Beijing has put academics under the toughest control ever and their universities have instructed them to stay silent.

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Sun Hao, a political scientist at China University of Political Science and Law, agreed to speak – and lashed out at speculation that the lack of an apparent successor indicated anything about Mr. Xi's intentions.

Such talk "has missed the point," he said. The broader Xi administration, he said, is "very young. Most of them are in their early 60s, which is always considered the best age for Chinese politicians.

"They are healthy and strong, so it's not necessary for Xi to select a successor so early."

Prof. Sun also denied that Mr. Xi intended to subvert collective leadership.

"Mao, even at the peak of his rule, didn't try to achieve centralization of power. So how could Xi do this sort of thing, given that his historical achievement still pales next to Mao?" he said.

It was a rejection of Mao's cult of personality that originally led the party to stress collective leadership.

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