The current politburo standing committee members, all Xi loyalists, owe their rise to Xi and can bend to his tunes.
Packing the highest decision-making bodies of China with the “Yes men” has the advantage of ‘unified’ thinking and uninterrupted execution of decisions. Yet, such an exercise with unbridled powers with a few could land the country into many a pitfall.
At the just-concluded 20th Communist Party Congress of China(CCP), Xi Jinping rejigged the entire political and military leadership structure. Xi’s rebooting of the leadership structure is aimed at internal balancing to buttress external balancing measures in light of his ambitions to make China “a great socialist modern country” by 2049 but more precisely, to replace the United States from the high pedestal.
Xi’s ‘China-First’ Policy Needs Loyal Hands
Xi’s dogged determination is reflected in his ruthless pursuit of power, tactical utilisation of other factional leaders’ services, accommodating his factional leaders at crucial party-state-army hierarchies, resorting to ancient stratagems of “feint in the east, attack in the west”, diverting negative forces on to the adversaries but skilfully absorbing positive energy and others.
In a surprising move, Xi had opted for Li Qiang (63), serving currently as Shanghai party chief, as his second-in-command. Li served under Xi when the latter was the party chief of Zhejiang province. Both were also in touch when Li enrolled at the Central Party School in Beijing of which Xi was the President. Li implemented Xi’s harsh “dynamic zero covid” policy in the commercial capital of Shanghai, forcing its populace to its knees.
Although Li has no experience at the main level and has not visited abroad extensively, he participated in establishing the first mega project of the China International Import Expo in Shanghai in November 2018. He is also said to be instrumental in getting Tesla to Shanghai for making automobiles. His stint at Hong Kong Polytechnic University with executive business management subjects could provide an edge for him in addressing the emerging economic problems of the country.
Can the Xi-Li Equation Push China to Global Forefront?
However, what perhaps endeared Li to Xi is that he had, since the beginning of his career in Zhejiang province, focused on rural poverty, disaster relief, sociology, management, engineering, and other subjects. This mix of big business and rural poverty experience could come in handy for Li when he eventually takes over as the Premier next March. However, Li’s main drawback is his lack of strategic economic foresight to leapfrog China into the number one economy in the world.
If the 20th CCP message is to make China numero uno, then Li needs to alter the inherited economic structure. Much of the Chinese model is based on 20th-century heavy industry, housing sector, infrastructure, and growth in private sector.
However, despite efforts at “dual circulation”, domestic consumption, and the ‘Made in China 2025’ campaign, the futuristic knowledge economy is still in its infancy. Major thrust areas of Li will be in this direction although heavy party control, the scuttling of foreign tech companies, and “common prosperity” campaign imperatives will test this resolve.
Who All Make Xi’s Dream Team?
The third-in-command is Zhao Leji who was renominated for the politburo standing committee and is in charge of the discipline inspection commission that keeps a tab on party cadres. Zhao is likely to head the country’s parliament next March. Zhao is a Xi loyalist and kept Xi’s home province Shaanxi trouble-free. Also, Zhao headed an alternative bureaucratic decision-making body, the “comprehensively deepening reform” that Xi floated to overcome the traditional “central small leading groups”. Zhao also pushed Xi’s party “supervisory” roles across the state institutions – as a measure towards absolute control.
The fourth important member of Xi’s loyalists is 67-year-old Wang Huning. Wang surprised everyone with his endurance capacity serving Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and currently Xi as their scriptwriter, and ideologue and for prescribing “neo-authoritarianism” and party supremacy. Wang is also associated with “three represents”, “harmonious world” and currently “China Dream”, “China rejuvenation” and other trendy slogans that captivated the country’s political discourse.
As a workaholic, Wang is likely to further nudge Xi into taking the path of ideological confrontation with the west and democracies in general and by exporting the authoritarian “China model” onto the world stage. In tune with Xi, Wang advocates self-reliance, decoupling with the west, building China-specific soft power, and others. Wang also served in Xi’s “comprehensively deepening reform” committees notably on internet controls.
The fifth-ranking leader, Cai Qi (67) is also a close associate of Xi, going back to the latter’s stint as party chief of Fujian province in the 1990s and Zhejiang province in the 2000s. Like Xi, Cai was also affected by the Cultural Revolution when he was rusticated in the early 1970s, and hence both shares empathize. In 2012, Cai visited Taiwan as a member of a delegation from Zhejiang Province. With the current hard line on Taiwan, Cai’s advice must be invaluable to Xi. Cai served at the National Security Commission and as party chief of the country’s capital.
What the Rejig Suggests of Xi’s Factional Politics
On the closing day of the 20th CCP, global media attention was on how former leader Hu Jintao was unceremoniously jettisoned out of the venue of the congress. The person forcibly pushing out Hu was Kong Shaoxun, the trusted lieutenant of Ding Xuexiang (60) who is now the 6th ranking leader of China. Ding is in charge of the CCP’s Central Committee General Office, the centre of all liaison with the party-state-army apparatuses. Ding is associated throughout with the “Shanghai gang” where Xi also worked briefly.
The 7th ranking politburo standing committee member is Li Xi (66) who had served in Xi’s home province of Shaanxi and specifically at Yan’an, the revolutionary base of the CCP in the 1930s and 40s. No wonder, Xi took the entire top leadership to Yanan soon after the party congress. Li undertook several major provincial assignments including Shanghai, Guangdong, and the rust-belt Liaoning province.
All the above six are Xi loyalists, ruling out any policy dissonances. Unlike acute differences between Xi’s statist policies and Premier Li Keqiang’s “street hawker” economic approach, the current politburo standing committee members owe their rise to Xi and hence can bend to his tunes. While provides harmony to the policy evolution and implementation, the lack of Plan B will stare at Xi in the coming years, possibly putting the country’s interests at risk.
This article was first published in The Quint as Will Xi Jinping’s ‘Yes Men’ Fulfil His Vision of Making China a World Leader? on October 29, 2022.
Read more by Srikanth Kondapalli at IMPRI Insights