All the General Secretary’s Men: Xi Jinping’s Inner Circle Revealed

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 4

Xi Jinping Visits Beijing-based People's Armed Police Elements

Barely three months after assuming the posts of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary and Central Military Commission (CMC) chairman, Xi Jinping has done well in buttressing his authority within the party’s upper echelons. Xi’s remarkable consolidation comes in spite of the fact that he is not associated with any comparably powerful clique within the party apparatus—unlike predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who are heads of the Shanghai Faction and the Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction, respectively. Apart from being the premier arbiter of party affairs, Xi has secured control over foreign and national security policies by virtue of becoming the chair of the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group. Equally significant, the 59-year-old supremo has seized hold of the country’s “political-legal” (zhengfa) machinery, which oversees the police, state intelligence, the procuratorate and the courts. Moreover, since both Hu and Jiang have made at least rhetorical pledges that they would not interfere with the new leadership that was confirmed at the 18th Party Congress last November, Xi could go about running the country without fear of party elders breathing down his neck (Liberty Times [Taipei], February 3; Ming Pao [Hong Kong] January 31).

While Xi is sometimes called a leader of the “Princelings Faction”—a reference to the offspring of party elders—it is noteworthy that particularly for those born in the 1950s and after, most gaogan zidi (sons of top cadres) have gone into business rather than politics. The exception is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which boasts several dozen princeling officers with the rank of major general or above. It is not surprising, then, that the military has remained princeling Xi’s premier power base ( “Communist Youth League Clique Maintains Clout Despite Congress Setback,” China Brief, November 30, 2012). After graduation from Tsinghua University in 1979, Xi worked for three years as the personal secretary of then-Minister of Defense Geng Biao. He got this plum job through the recommendation of his father, liberal party elder Xi Zhongxun (1913–2002). The PLA being a bastion of gaoganzidi, Xi has maintained good ties with an elite corps of princeling generals through his long career as a senior cadre in Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces (China Review News [Hong Kong], February 2; South China Morning Post [Hong Kong], November 27, 2012).

At least three CMC members have revolutionary bloodlines. For example, Air Force Commander General Ma Xiaotian is the son of a former senior cadre in the PLA Political Academy, Senior Colonel Ma Zaiyao. Navy Commander Admiral Wu Shengli is the son of Wu Xian, a former vice governor of Zhejiang Province. Yet the princeling-general within the CMC that is closest to Xi is undoubtedly Director of the General Armaments Department General Zhang Youxia. Zhang is the son of former General Logistics Department (GLD) commander General Zhang Zongxun, who served with Xi Zhongxun in China’s northwestern region before 1949. It is not surprising that General Zhang was one of the first members of the top brass to profess allegiance to “Chairman Xi.” In his Chinese New Year message last week, General Zhang told staff in his department to “implement Chairman Xi’s important policy instruction” of “fulfilling the China dream and the dream of a strong army” (PLA Daily, February 7; People’s Daily, October 25, 2012).

Several princeling generals who failed to be promoted in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress also are considered advisers to Xi on foreign and military affairs. Foremost among them is GLD Political Commissar Liu Yuan, the son of China’s first state president Liu Shaoqi. General Liu is a much-published theoretician on geopolitical issues, including how to tackle Washington’s alleged “anti-China containment policy.” Other members of Xi’s informal network of military strategists include General Liu Yazhou, who is Political Commissar of the National Defense University, and Chen Zhiya, a senior researcher in a PLA think tank on international strategy. Liu and Chen are the son-in-law of state president Li Xiannian and the son of former Deputy Defense Minister General Chen Geng, respectively. Xi is also on good terms with generals who had spent time in the Nanjing Military Region (MR), which covers Zhejiang and Fujian. Foremost among this group is GLD Commander General Zhao Keshi, who worked in this strategically important MR from 1988 to 2012. In addition, General Zhao, who was Nanjing MR commander from 2007 to 2012, is close to senior members of the Shanghai Faction, such as former Vice President Zeng Qinghong, who remains one of Xi’s high-level mentors (Apple Daily [Hong Kong] February 5; Ming Pao, February 3;, February 13, 2012).

That Xi has taken over the political-legal apparatus was revealed indirectly during his high-profile inspection of a Beijing-based division of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) late last month. Xi indicated that the PAP must remain “an armed force that is under the absolute leadership of the party.” For the first time after he became general secretary, Xi raised the imperative of upholding political stability (weiwen). “The PAP must have a deep understanding of the complexity of the wei-wen situation—as well as the important role that the PAP plays in weiwen work,” he said, “The PAP must seize the initiative and remain on a high degree of alertness. It must be ready when called upon, be prepared to fight and to score victories.” Accompanying Xi on this pivotal trip were Politburo member and Secretary of the Central Political-Legal Commission (CPLC), Meng Jianzhu as well as the newly appointed Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun, who doubles as the First Political Commissar of the PAP (China News Service, January 29; People’s Daily, January 29). Under the Hu Jintao administration, when the PBSC consisted of nine members, the CPLC was headed by former PBSC members Luo Gan and later, Zhou Yongkang. Now that the PBSC has been reduced to seven cadres, CPLC Secretary Meng, who is an ordinary Politburo member, reports directly to Xi (Liberty Times, February 6; Ming Pao, January 30).

While Xi appears to have succeeded in bolstering his authority over the military and police forces, his networking skills seem surprisingly weak within the party and government apparatuses. Having spent the better half of his career in Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces, the princeling does not seem to have built up a large coterie of associates and followers in the party-state hierarchy. This is evidenced by the fact that Xi’s trusted aides in the party’s inner sanctum of power are cadres whose guanxi or relationship with the general secretary cannot be said to be intimate. Take for example, Director of the General Office Li Zhanshu and Director of the Organization Department Zhao Leji, both of whom were inducted into the Politburo at the 18th Party Congress.

Xi first got to know the 62-year-old Li during the former’s stint as deputy party secretary and then party secretary of Zhengding County, Hebei Province, from 1982 to 1985. During much of this period, Li, who is a Hebei native, was party boss of neighboring Wuji County. After Xi left Hebei, however, the two have pursued careers in different professional and geographical settings. In fact, due to his having served as head of the Hebei branch of the CYL for four years in the late 1980s, Li sometimes is identified as an affiliate of the CYL Faction. Xi and Li were able to renew their old friendship when the latter served in Shaanxi from 1998 to 2003 in posts including party secretary of Xi’an, the provincial capital. Although Xi has never worked in his home province, he paid regular visits to Xi’an and other Shaanxi cities to keep up ties with his relatives (Oriental Daily News [Hong Kong] November 16, 2012; South China Morning Post, September 2, 2012). Much of Xi’s relationship with the 55-year-old Zhao is based on their being fellow natives of Shaanxi. Zhao, who spent the bulk of his career in the remote western Qinghai Province, was party boss of Shaanxi from 2007 to 2012. During these five years, Zhao apparently won Xi’s gratitude by taking very good care of members of the labyrinthine Xi Zhongxun clan (People’s Daily, November 21, 2012; Xinhua, July 1, 2011).

The relative paucity of Xi’s guanxi network also is evidenced by the fact that several of his policy advisers were introduced to him by trusted party elders such as Shanghai Faction stalwart Zeng Qinghong. Foremost among them are the two deputy directors of the Central Committee Policy Research Office, Shi Zhihong and He Yiting. Shi, whose specialty is drafting party documents, served as Zeng’s personal secretary when the latter was director of the Central Committee General Office from 1993 to 1999. Another key adviser and speechwriter is Li Shulei, who served as Xi’s deputy when the latter was president of the Central Party School from 2007 to 2012. Yet compared to his predecessors Jiang and Hu, Xi seems to lack close aides whose personal loyalty to the party boss has been anchored upon decades of service (China Review News [Hong Kong], February 3; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], November 11, 2012).

A sizeable proportion of the members of ex-president Jiang and President Hu’s inner circles were made up of their colleagues and underlings. By contrast, surprisingly few of Xi’s former associates in Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces had made it into the senior ranks of the party or state. Take, for example, long-time Tianjin cadre He Lifeng, who was just named the Chairman of the municipal Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). He served together with Xi when the latter was vice mayor of Xiamen in the mid-1980s. At the 18th Party Congress, however, Mr. He merely retained his slot as an alternate member of the Central Committee—a sign that the 57-year-old’s upward trajectory may be dented ( [Beijing], January 28; Ta Kung Pao, January 23). The newly-appointed Governor of Guizhou Chen Min’er, who headed Zhejiang’s Department of Propaganda when Xi was party boss there, may have more potential for promotion. Chen, age 58, was one of only nine Sixth Generation cadres to have been appointed full Central Committee members at the 18th Party Congress (China News Service, February 2; China Times [Taipei], December 19, 2011). Yet the chances are not high that Chen could snatch a Politburo-level post before Xi’s expected retirement at the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

Xi’s connections with academics, public intellectuals and other professionals who might help the supremo think outside the box also seem scant relative to his peers and predecessors. Former Vice President Zeng often sought the advice of scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences or editors from Beijing-based official newspapers. Former premier Zhu Rongji is known to have tapped the views of nationally-known economists such as Professor Wu Jinglian. Premier-in-waiting and CYL Faction stalwart Li Keqiang reportedly has put together a large personal think tank that consists of professors and former classmates from Peking University, his alma mater (China Review News, December 23, 2012;, May 5, 2011). A couple of months before the 18th CCP Party, Xi held a long session with the son of late party chief Hu Yaobang, Hu Deping, on ways and means to resuscitate economic and political reforms. A retired vice ministerial-level official, Hu is a public intellectual who is well-respected for his untiring advocacy of political reform. Apart from the 70-year-old Hu, whom he knew due to the closeness of their fathers, however, Xi does not seem to have an extensive circle of experts who are well-placed to offer him fresh or unorthodox ideas (Ming Pao, October 29, 2012; [Hong Kong], September 8, 2012).

It is probably too early to say in what ways the composition of Xi’s power base and support network may affect China’s policymaking. The preponderance of military figures within his inner circle, coupled with the country’s increasingly tense confrontation with Japan and the United States, could predispose the commander-in-chief toward pursuing more pugilistic foreign and military policies. The dearth of relatively liberal aides among his corps of advisers could affect the extent to which Xi might be pushing political liberalization. During his tour of Guangdong Province in December, Xi pointed out that he was looking for “high-caliber” cadres who “have confidence in the [socialist] road, as well as confidence in [the party’s] theories and systems” (People’s Daily, December 11, 2012; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong] December 11, 2012). The onus is on Xi to show Chinese as well as foreign observers that his team is capable of not only holding the fort of CCP supremacy but also hacking out new pathways for reform.