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China wraps up a leadership reshuffle that's been years in the making

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

China has finally wrapped up a leadership reshuffle that's been years in the making. Its rubber-stamp parliament handed government jobs to a slate of top Communist Party officials. Not surprisingly, almost all are considered loyalists of China's top leader, Xi Jinping. NPR's John Ruwitch joins us now on the line from Beijing.

Hi, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

PFEIFFER: What are the big takeaways here?

RUWITCH: Yeah. So the reshuffle, of course - big takeaway - it was a big sweep for Xi Jinping, who got a third term as president himself. That was unanimous. We saw this coming, of course. In 2018, he abolished term limits. And he's amassed power, pushed his rivals aside, and he's been maneuvering allies around so that they can be promoted. At a party congress in the fall, he surrounded himself with trusted lieutenants, and now they've all been installed in key government posts. And what it all adds up to is more consolidation for Xi.

PFEIFFER: Yeah. And so if it's more consolidation for him, then what does that tell us about where China as a whole is headed?

RUWITCH: Well, broadly, I mean, it's smoother sailing towards Xi Jinping's goals for the country, right? He says China has stood up. China got rich over the past few decades. And now it's getting stronger. He talks about building China into a strong, modern socialist country. A few interesting points about the people in this reshuffle. The defense minister is someone who was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018 for buying weapons from Russia. There are almost no women. And the key new person, I guess, is going to be the new premier.

His name is Li Qiang. He's an ally of Xi for the past 20 years. He's untested at the national level, but at the provincial level, he ran some pretty big provinces and areas where the economy was dependent on private business and entrepreneurship. He'll be running the economy, which is hurting. And at a press conference, he sent some clear signals to private businesses, many of which have been struggling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LI QIANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: So he's saying that the new government is going to foster a market-based environment for businesses to protect the rights of entrepreneurs, to create a level playing field and to be supportive of private enterprises. In a message that was clearly aimed at foreign businesses, many of which have also been feeling nervous about investing in China, Li reiterated pledges that China is going to become more and more open to the outside.

PFEIFFER: John, that sounds like a change of tone, because Xi Jinping has been a big champion of the state sector in a tightening party grip, not loosening it.

RUWITCH: Yeah, it does a little. Xi also delivered remarks on Monday at the end of parliament, and he had a bit of a different emphasis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: You know, he says, "security is the basis for development. Stability is a precondition for strength and wealth." So this shows once again where Xi's top priorities are. And so going forward, there is going to be that tension, right? He's got a new premier who's pro-business and has a track record of it and is saying the right things. But this premier's loyal to Xi Jinping. Li Qiang is loyal to him and owes his career to Xi. And for Xi, security is paramount.

PFEIFFER: John, I assume you've been talking with people in Beijing. How do they feel about all this?

RUWITCH: Well, the economy is top of mind these days. They're still trying to dig their way out of a hole from the "zero-COVID" policies of last year. People mentioned health care costs, too. We talked with one man who stands out. His name is Zhang, and he's 61 years old. Here he is.

ZHANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: So he was telling us that he follows the news. He's looked at the resumes of these new guys in office, and he thinks they're relatively young and qualified and could be good, but he's kind of a living, breathing example of the challenges they face. You know, he's from a rural area of the country, about 600, 700 miles away. He should be retiring. But he's moved to Beijing just a week ago because economic conditions were so bad there. So there's a lot of work for the new guys.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing. Thank you.

RUWITCH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF RRAREBEAR'S "BACKPACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.