Centralized Power Key to Realizing Xi’s “China Dream”

By Willy Lam

Immediately after Xi Jinping was elected state president at the just-ended First Session of the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC), he revisited his idea about fulfilling the “China dream.” Xi, who is also general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and commander-in-chief, cited three prerequisites for bringing about the “renaissance of the Chinese race:” following the “Chinese road,” “developing the China spirit” and “concentrating and crystallizing China’s strength” (Xinhua, March 17). The last imperative about the concentration of powers has been reflected by the fact that a number of key party and state organs have been strengthened considerably. As Xi has reiterated since the 18th Party Congress last November, a crucial challenge of the new leadership is that it must “ensure that [Beijing’s] policies and directives are smoothly followed” by the entire nation (CNTV.cn, February 6; China.com.cn, January 8).


Within the CCP’s higher echelons, more power has been given the party’s Secretariat, which is the “work organ” of the supreme seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) (People’s Daily, June 1, 2011). The Secretariat under Xi consists of seven members—one more than that of the previous Hu Jintao administration. For the first time in party history, the State Council secretary general has been inducted into the CCP Secretariat. This means that Yang Jing (age 59), who was appointed to this post at the NPC, has to report to both Premier Li Keqiang and Liu Yunshan, who is the PBSC member in charge of the Secretariat. Since the office of the State Council secretary general is considered the nerve center of the entire central government, both Liu and Xi—who exercises overall control over party affairs—can exert substantial influence on the operations of the government (Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong]; March 17; Sina.com [Beijing], March 17) . Moreover, the ranking and authority of individual Secretariat members have been elevated. For example, Li Zhanshu concurrently serves as director of the Central Committee’s General Office. Li, who is Xi’s premier troubleshooter, was inducted into the Politburo last November. By contrast, Li’s predecessors, who include Wen Jiabao, Zeng Qinghong, Wang Gang and Ling Jihua, were merely Central Committee members when they were occupying that post (Sina.com, March 24; Ta Kung Pao, November 15, 2012).


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Apart from Liu Yunshan, Li and Yang, other members of the Secretariat are in charge of hefty portfolios that embrace most of party and government procedures. Liu Qibao (age 60), a Politburo member who doubles as director of the party’s Propaganda Department, handles issues ranging from ideology to propaganda. Politburo member Zhao Leji (age 56), who is also director of the Organization Department, looks after personnel issues affecting not only party and government positions but also senior slots in state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Du Qinglin (age 66), who doubles as vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), runs the party and state’s united front apparatus. Finally, Zhao Hongzhu (age 65), who is executive vice secretary of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC), is in charge of China’s highest-level anti-corruption agency (Beijing News, March 17; People’s Daily, March 12). The fact that Li, Zhao Leji and Zhao Hongzhu are deemed Xi protégés testifies to the fact that compared to the initial phases of the tenures of predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi has been more successful in consolidating his power base ( “All the General Secretary’s Men: Xi Jinping’s Inner Circle Revealed,” China Brief, February 15).


In his first international press conference at the end of the NPC, Premier Li pointed out that his team will focus on “simplifying administrative [measures] and devolving powers to the regions.” He said “We must change the nature of the government’s function...Whatever can be done by society should be handled by society” (CCTV News, March 17; China News Service, March 17). The much-anticipated program of streamlining State Council departments, however, has proven to be a disappointment. Only two of the central government’s 27 commissions and ministries have been slashed. ( “National People’s Congress Marks Sharp Turn Toward Conservatism,” China Brief, March 16).


More significant is the fact that two major units of the State Council have assumed unprecedented clout. The first is the National Development and Reform Commission, which is often nicknamed the “Miniature State Council,” because it is entrusted with the task of “macro-level adjustment and control” (hongguan tiaokong) for most aspects of the economy. The post-NPC lineup of the NDRC leadership comprises four full Central Committee members: new NDRC Minister Xu Shaoshi (age  61), Executive Vice Minister Jie Zhenhua (age 63) and two newly-appointed vice ministers, Liu He (age 61) and Wu Xinxiong (age 63). By contrast, there is only one Central Committee member—usually the minister—in most ministerial-level units of the State Council. Under Premier Li, the NDRC has been given additional responsibilities, including overseeing the electricity-generation sector and engaging in long-time planning regarding population growth and urbanization (China Review News [Hong Kong] March 20; China News Service, March 13).


Given the top priority that the Xi-Li administration has given to preserving stability (weiwen), it is perhaps not surprising that the power of the Ministry of Public Security, or police, has been enhanced. The post-18th Party Congress MPS boasts three full members of the Central Committee. Apart from State Councilor and Minister Guo Shengkun (age 58), both Executive Vice Minister Yang Huanning (age 55) and Vice Minister Li Dongsheng (age 57) are Central Committee members. Like his predecessor Meng Jianzhu, who was last November promoted Politburo member and Secretary of the Central Political-Legal Commission (CPLC), Kuo is not a career policeman. A former head of SOEs in the metallurgical sector, Guo was party secretary of Guangxi Province when he was named the nation’s top cop last December. Li Dongsheng, who had an illustrious career in state television and the CCP Propaganda Department, was appointed MPS vice minister in 2009. By contrast, Yang, who holds a doctorate in criminal law from Peking University, is a veteran police officer who specializes in detective work (CNTV.cn, March 7; Sina.com, March 4).


That the police apparatus has gained more clout and responsibilities may have to do with the fact that President Xi is the PBSC member with direct oversight over the political-legal (zhengfa) hierarchy (Liberty Times [Taipei], February 3; Ming Pao [Hong Kong] January 31). Moreover, a number of cadres with experience in police and zhengfa work have been promoted in a post-NPC regional reshuffle that has affected up to 10 provinces. For example, CPLC Secretary General Zhou Benshun (age 60), a former police chief of Hunan Province, was appointed party secretary of Hebei Province. Wei Qiang (age 60), a former head of the political-legal department of the Beijing municipal party committee, was named party secretary of Jiangxi. In the same vein, Du Jiahao (age 57), a former zhengfa secretary of Heilongjiang Province, became deputy party secretary and governor-designate of Hunan Province. Finally, Hao Peng (age 58), the former political-legal boss and deputy party secretary of Tibet, became deputy party secretary and governor-designate of Qinghai Province (People’s Daily Online, March 21; China News Service, March 21; Xinhua, March 20).


Yet another significant phenomenon in the recent spate of personnel changes is the rise of the influence of the so-called Tibet Faction, a reference to cadres who have served in senior positions in the restive region. Two veterans of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Guo Jinlong (age 65) and Hu Chunhua (age 49) were inducted into the Politburo at the 18th Party Congress. A former Tibet party secretary, Guo was appointed Beijing party secretary last year. Hu, a former Tibet deputy party secretary, was named Guangdong party secretary last November. At the just-finished CPPCC plenary session held in March, Zhang Qingli (age 62), who was Tibet party boss from 2005 to 2011, was promoted to vice chairman and secretary-general of the CPPCC, a united-front organ. Yang Chuantang (age 58), another former Tibet party secretary, became minister of the expanded Ministry of Transport at this NPC. Moreover, former-TAR Vice Chairman Qin Yizhi (age 47) recently was named first secretary of the Communist Youth League. A key factor behind the fast-track promotion of these cadres seems to be that their Tibet experience has testified to their ability to implement Beijing’s directives under extremely tough conditions (China.com, March 19; People’s Daily, March 15; Ifeng.com [Beijing], March 13).


Structural changes in the party-state apparatus as well as personnel movements the past several months have demonstrated the premium that the Xi-Li leadership has put on concentration of powers as well as upholding socio-political stability. These developments also mark a departure from the dictums of late patriarch Deng Xiaoping about the devolution of powers and in particular, the separation of party and government, which was written into the Political Report to the 13th Party Congress of 1987. President Xi, however, obviously favors a different approach to governance. As Zhang Ping, the just-retired NDRC minister, put it during the NPC session, “China’s best advantage is that [the authorities] can concentrate the nation’s resources and efforts to do big things” (People’s Daily Online, March 6; Sohu.com [Beijing], March 6). For President Xi, it is apparent that the Leninist doctrine of “democratic centralism” is the best way of realizing the China dream.


China Brief