Ahead of the Chinese Communist Party's upcoming 20th National People's Congress, which will take place on October 16, 2022, MEMRI is publishing a series of reports about the individuals comprising the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the CCP's 19th Central Committee, which was elected in 2017 during the 19th National People's Congress. These individuals, the most powerful people in China, are Chinese President Xi Jinping's closest advisors.
This installment in the series is about Li Zhanshu, who has been Standing Committee chairman since 2018 and who is a prominent advisor to Xi Jinping. Although Li Zhanshu is technically lower in rank than State Council premiere Li Keqiang, he is more influential due to his close relationship with Xi Jinping, and is considered the third most powerful person in China.
Li Zhanshu is a vocal advocate for Xi Jinping's authority, and has been the leading voice among the CCP's highest echelons in shaping the image of Xi Jinping as China's grand leader rather than just a political figure.
For the previous installment in this series, about intellectual Wang Huning, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1653.
Li Zhanshu was born August 30, 1950 in Pingshan, in China's Hebei Province, into an ordinary family. He has been a member of the CCP since 1975. He is a graduate of the Shijiazhuang School of Finance and Trade in Hebei Province and of Hebei Normal University's Department of Political Education. He holds an on-the-job postgraduate degree in business economics from the Chinese Academy of Social Science's Department of Finance and Trade, as well as a senior MBA from the Harbin Institute of Technology's Senior Executive Business Administration program.
In the early 1980s, Li started his official career in his native Hebei Province. After graduating from the Shijiazhuang School of Finance and Trade, he served as the deputy secretary of the local Party Committee of Shijiazhuang, as the Party secretary of Wuji County, in the Commercial Bureau of of Shijiazhuang, and as the commissioner of a local administration. It was during Li's tenure in the Hebei province that he became friends with Xi Jinping.
He later held important leadership positions in Hebei Province's Communist Youth League and in the province's remote Chengde region.
In 1993, he became a member of the Hebei Provincial Committee's Standing Committee, and he also served as the secretary-general of Hebei's Provincial Party Committee. Five years later, in 1998, he was transferred to Shaanxi Province and became the deputy secretary of the Shaanxi Provincial Committee, a member of the committee's Standing Committee, and the secretary of the Xi'an Municipal Party Committee.
Li Zhanshu became deputy secretary of the Heilongjiang Provincial Party Committee in 2004, and in 2008, shortly after Xi Jinping became a member of the Politburo's Standing Committee, he took the post of governor of the Heilongjiang Provincial People's Government.
Li became the head of the Guizhou Provincial Party Committee in 2010, and in advance of the 2012 National People's Congress he was transferred to Beijing to eventually serve as the director of the CCP Central Committee's Working Committee. This was advantageous to Xi Jinping and effectively gave him control of the party organs controlled by the Central Committee, since Xi and Li were longtime close friends.
During the 18th National People's Congress in 2012, Li Zhanshu was elected a member of the Central Committee Politburo, officially entering the ranks of the CCP's senior national leadership. Five years later, at the 19th National People's Congress, he joined the Politburo's Standing Committee, becoming its chairman in 2018.
Li's Relationship With Xi Jinping
Li Zhanshu has been friends with Xi Jinping, who is three years his junior, for longer than any of the other current members of the Standing Committee, and he is considered to be Xi's most trusted confidant, his right-hand man, and his chief advocate.
In July 1983, when Li Zhanshu, then 33, was Party Secretary of Hebei Province's Wuji County, Xi Jinping had been Party Secretary in the neighboring Zhengding County. During this time, the two established a good working relationship and a close friendship, often drinking together.
In the years that followed, Li Zhanshu rose more quickly in the political ranks faster than Xi Jinping. However, his career plateaued, perhaps due to his modest family background, his nature as a generic bureaucrat, or his lack of political skill.
At the 17th National People's Congress in 2007, Xi Jinping became a member of the CCP Central Committee Politburo's Standing Committee. It was at this point that Li's career began to advance rapidly, beginning with his 2008 promotion to governor of Heilongjiang Provincial People's Government. He was then quickly promoted to other high-level administrative positions, as a part of Xi Jinping's strategy to provide individuals he wanted to promote with a wide resume, to defend himself from criticism from party insiders when he ultimately promotes them.
Li is very loyal to Xi. Between 2012 and 2017, when Li Zhanshu served as the Director of the General Office of the CCP's Central Committee, he was responsible for Xi Jinping's schedule, document processing, and security, and he would often travel with him. Li also personally led the Central Guard Bureau special task force that arrested Xi Jinping's political enemy Zhou Yongkang (周永康).
Advocacy For Xi Jinping
Since Xi Jinping pulled Li Zhanshu into the highest levels of the CCP, Li has been Xi's most vocal political advocate.
In November 2016, Li published a 6,000-word article in the CCP's People's Daily newspaper titled "Resolutely Safeguard the Authority of the Central Committee of the CCP." In it, he stressed the importance of the role played by Xi Jinping and said that the authority of the CCP can only be preserved if the authority of Xi Jinping and the Central Committee were preserved. He also wrote that the Soviet Union had collapsed because "democratic centralism was abandoned, political disciplines were loose, the authority of the Central Committee of the party was gone, and anyone could say and do whatever they wanted," adding: "In such a big country and a big Party like ours, we can only put together the wisdom of the whole Party when all the comrades in the Party are closely united around the Central Committee of the Party with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core; there must be a strong and powerful Political Bureau of the Central Committee and its Standing Committee, and there must be a most prestigious, most influential, and most experienced General Secretary as the core."
Also in the article, he stated that in order to safeguard the Central Committee's authority, the people must strengthen their "Four Awarenesses": political awareness, big-picture awareness, awareness of the actions of Party leaders, and awareness of one's alignment with the Party. These "Four Awarenesses" have since become part of the vocabulary employed by Xi Jinping's supporters and by official CCP propaganda.
At the National People's Congress in 2018, Li Zhanshu, newly elected Chairman of the Politburo's Standing Committee, delivered a speech in which he said: "Comrade Xi Jinping is the core of the Party, the commander-in-chief of the army, and the people's leader with the support of the whole Party, love of the people, and righteousness, and he is helm of the socialist country with Chinese characteristics in the new era and the people's leader."
Li's statements were the greatest words of praise of Xi Jinping yet uttered in the CCP's highest echelons. A few months later, he said that Xi Jinping should be China's "only authority", a historical Chinese term used to refer to the sole legitimate emperor of China.
In 2018, Li publicly proclaimed again: "We should strengthen political construction, strictly abide by political disciplines and political rules, and ensure the authority of the Central Committee of the Party, with Comrade Xi Jinping as its core, to be as the only and final authority."
Li's term "core" for Xi gained traction among members of the CCP's Central Committee, and later among other CCP organs. This cemented Xi's position as the core leader of the Committee.
The Future Of Li Zhanshu's Career
Some analysts believe that despite his loyalty to Xi Jinping, Li Zhanshu's days at the top of the CCP's power hierarchy are numbered, for several reasons.
While he is a vocal advocate for Xi, Li is a mediocre administrator and lacks the sensitivity to political and diplomatic nuance that is sometimes demanded of CCP leaders. In a recent example, in September 2022, Li visited Russia and said in a speech to Russian parliamentary dignitaries that China is willing to help Russia "coordinate" its actions regarding the war in Ukraine. Li's speech was made public by official Russian media, giving the appearance of official Chinese support for Russia's war in Ukraine, contradicting the neutral attitude maintained by the CCP's official media outlets.
Li and Russian President Vladimir Putin
In addition, Li Zhanshu is now 72 years old, making him the oldest member of the Politburo's Standing Committee, and recent domestic media leaks about his daughter embezzling state funds have led to speculation about corruption. Some have alleged that the corruption of Li Zhanshu and his family amounts to tens of billions of dollars.
Hence, as Xi Jinping's absolute leadership of the CCP is becoming widely accepted, it is possible that Li Zhanshu's usefulness to Xi Jinping has run out, and he may fade into the background in coming years. This, however, depends on the outcome of the upcoming 20th National People's Congress.
*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project. King was an active participant in the student protests in China in 1989.
 Li also stated in the article that the people must adhere to the "Four Obediences": individual Party members should obey the Party as a whole, the minority should obey the majority, lower-level organs should obey higher-level organs, and all Party organs and members should obey the National Congress and the Central Committee.