At China’s ‘Two Sessions’, Xi Jinping Restructures Party-state to Further Consolidate Power

PRC President Xi Jinping swears an oath on the PRC Constitution at the Two Sessions in Beijing

One common theme has run through the “two sessions”—a reference to the just-ended plenary sessions of the National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)—which handled momentous issues ranging from revising the PRC constitution to streamlining the structure of the State Council: the Chinese Communist Party’s assertion of direct, and much tighter, control over the Legislature, the CPPCC, State Council ministries, and other sectors, including the newly set up National Supervisory Commission. And because President Xi has become to all intents and purposes “leader for life,” swearing allegiance to the CCP practically means professing fealty to the most powerful PRC leader since Chairman Mao Zedong. Some critics, however, have pointed out that the potential adverse consequences of one man rule—which were demonstrated very clearly during the Cultural Revolution—could affect the quality of Xi’s decision-making and his ability to handle both domestic and foreign-policy problems.

The major objective of the two sessions has been to make clear, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the Party runs all sectors of the polity. And even as both party members and ordinary citizens are asked to pledge allegiance to the party, even more emphasis is put on expressing personal loyalty to Xi. This could be seen from the statements made by the outgoing NPC Chairman Zhang Deqiang, and the new CPPCC Chairman Wang Yang. Zhang said in his last NPC report that “CCP leadership is the fundamental requirement and greatest superiority of the NPC system.” Yet Zhang’s emphasis is obedience to Xi. “The NPC must resolutely insist upon the concentrated and unified leadership of the party central authorities with comrade Xi Jinping as its core” (Xinhua, March 11). Similarly Wang Yang, who has a liberal reputation, said the CPPCC must “uphold the leadership of the CCP.” Specifically, Wang noted that party leadership manifested itself in “using Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era as the overriding principle that overrules all kinds of work” (CCTV, March 15).

A top item on the NPC agenda was a wholesale streamlining of the central government ministries under the State Council, as a result of which eight ministerial-level units and seven vice-ministerial-level units were slashed. According to Politburo member Liu He, who is considered Xi’s top economics advisor, the administrative restructuring highlighted the fact that “the core question [of governance] is to strengthen the party’s overall leadership.” Again, party leadership is equated with Xi’s personal orders and proclivities. Liu added that the bureaucratic streamlining was to satisfy “General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important demands”—and to demonstrate “the strong leadership of party central authorities with comrade Xi Jinping as its core” (People’s Daily, March 13).

In fact, the restructuring of the bureaucracy, including the mergers of individual departments, has made it even easier for Xi to exert personal influence over the State Council through means that include naming key protégés to senior positions. One example is the merger of the China Banking Regulatory Commission and the China Insurance Regulatory Commission, and the additional powers granted to the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) to formulate and enforce financial and banking regulations. Liu, who became Vice-Premier in charge of finance, is set to oversee the PBOC as well as the two merged regulatory commissions. This move has further marginalized Premier Li Keqiang (Securities Daily, March 14; Caixin.com, March 13). Despite the tradition that the premier has the final say over financial and economic policy, Li, who comes from the rival Communist Youth League Faction (CYLF), has been denied weighty portfolios since Xi became supreme leader in 2012. Other Xi protégés heading important ministries include the head of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) He Lifeng and the head of the Ministry of Commerce Zhong Shan. Both He and Zhong worked with Xi in the provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, and as such are bona fide members of the Xi Jinping Faction (HKO1.com, February 27; RFI Chinese Service, February 24).

Yet Xi’s boldest move to impose his personal policy preferences on the whole party-state system is his appointment of long-time political ally Wang Qishan as Vice-President. This is despite the fact that Wang, 69, had retired from the Central Committee and the Politburo at last October’s 19th Party Congress. Never since the late Rong Yiren, a “patriotic businessman” and symbol of Deng Xiaoping’s support for private entrepreneurship—who was vice-president from 1993 to 1998—has any person with no party ranking been appointed to this symbolically important post (BBC Chinese, March 17; Radio Free Asia, December 12, 2017). Xi has broken with CCP convention and tradition by ensuring that while Wang, while technically a mere “ordinary party member”, ranks No. 8 in the leadership pecking order, just behind the seven Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). It has been reported that Wang will be Xi’s point man in foreign affairs, especially negotiations with the U.S. However, this could set the stage for possible bureaucratic warfare between Wang and the newly elevated Politburo member Yang Jiechi, a former Foreign Minister who is slated for a top spot at the CCP’s Central Leading Group for Foreign Affairs or the Central National Security Commission (Ming Pao, March 20).

Another reason for Xi’s keeping Wang is that the latter has a strong power base in the party. During his five years as the PBSC member in charge of China’s top anti-graft unit, the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), Wang has become a master at using its anti-graft weapons to attack or marginalize Xi’s enemies, including members of the Shanghai Faction once led by former president Jiang Zemin and the CYLF that used to be led by former president Hu Jintao. Wang, who like Xi, is a princeling, is also in a position to help Xi deal with fellow princelings who oppose Xi’s Maoist restoration. The fact that Xi has broken with party convention by elevating Wang to the vice-presidential slot again illustrates his putting his personal concerns and goals ahead of party laws and traditions (New York Times Chinese Edition, March 19).

Xi’s apparent hijacking of the party and state seems to have met with little opposition. He was unanimously re-elected as State President; during the vote to confirm Xi’s 21 proposed constitutional revisions (China Brief, March 12), there were only two votes in opposition and three abstentions. The official media went into overdrive, glorifying what some liberal critics call China’s “emperor for life.” For example, the People’s Daily called Xi “a great helmsman who is a leader of the people.” Other official media cited numerous NPC or CPPCC deputies as heaping hagiographic praises on Xi. (People’s Daily, March 21; Economic Daily, March 10).

Political analysts in Beijing said going forward, Xi could face substantial difficulties in policy-making, let along introducing reforms. The first issue is that due to his much-elevated position as supreme leader for life, he alone is responsibility for decisions on both domestic and foreign issues—not even his trusted advisers dare to contradict him. The possibility of Xi making Mao-like blunders has risen. Mao’s rule from 1949 to 1976 demonstrates the tendency for one-man rule to give rise to misjudgments and political infighting (China Brief, Mar 5). It is unlikely that Xi can get away with an “imperial restoration” without introducing far-reaching instability to the PRC’s undemocratic and non-transparent political system (Tw.appledaily.com [Taipei], March 17; China Digital Times, March 11).

Moreover, several of Xi’s newly implemented “reforms demonstrate that he is much more interested in control—the party’s control over other organs of power as well as the party’s overall control over ordinary citizens—than in actual reform. Take for instance the establishment of the National Supervisory Commission (NSC), which was billed as having the same bureaucratic status as the State Council. The ostensible goal of the NSC is to extend the powers of the CCDI—which at least in theory is authorized to only investigate party members—to cover government and public sector officials and employees, including the management of enterprises, universities, hospitals, media, as well as cultural and sports organizations (VOA Chinese, March 18). However, the person chosen to run the NSC was Yang Xiaodu, an ordinary Politburo member and deputy party secretary of the CCDI. He will have to defer to CCDI secretary and PBSC member Zhao Leji. This is despite the fact that Yang, who worked closely with Xi when the latter was Party Secretary of Shanghai in 2017, is supposedly a member of the Xi Faction.

Moreover, there were hopes before the NSC’s establishment that the Commission would abide by the rule of law in investigating graft. Yet the NSC had made known that it will utilize some of the same extralegal procedures as the CCDI, such as locking up suspects for up to six months without judicial processes. Similar to the CCDI, the NSC also has the right to deny suspects legal aid. Moreover, the NSC’s ability to search and wiretap suspects in addition to freezing their bank assets renders it an even more draconian graft-buster than the CCDI (South China Morning Post, March 19; BBC Chinese, March 18). The NSC is thus another manifestation of the party’s augmented control over the anti-corruption campaign—as well as the CCP’s goal of rendering this new anti-graft unit a part of the CCP’s labyrinthine police-state apparatus (China Brief, July 21, 2017).

The day after the NPC closed on March 20, party authorities announced a further series of administrative restructuring geared toward subsuming State Council departments or functions under party organs. One notable example is the party’s United Front Work Department, which absorbed three State Council units—the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, the State Administration of Religious Affairs, and the Overseas Chinese Work Department. The abolition of the three State Council departments testifies to President Xi’s instructions about “the party running state organs.” This also portends more vigorous oversight over China’s ethnic minorities, Christians (including worshippers in house churches) and the activities of ethnic Chinese domiciled abroad. The head of the expanded UFWD is You Quan, another Xi protégé with connections to Fujian Province (Bjnews.com, March 21;Sina.com, March 21). And looming above the much-changed landscape of Chinese governance is Xi, the hands-on supreme leader who is determined to run this huge nation as if it were his personal fiefdom.

In his maiden speech as the newly installed head of China’s top legislature, Li Zhanshu, a close confidant of Xi’s, heaped five titles on the leader for life: “core of the party, military commander, the people’s leader, the helmsman for a new era in socialism with Chinese characteristics, and the people’s lingluren (“guide”).” In CCP history, only Mao has been accorded the encomiums “helmsman” and “lingluren” (People’s Daily, March 20). The history of both the Soviet and the Chinese Communist Party is replete with demigod-like figures such as Mao Zedong and Stalin who have not only modified the party in their own images but also subsumed much of the resources and powers of the party-state apparatus to their own overarching ambitions. Like those figures, criticism from both domestic and foreign opinion-makers is unlikely to make the slightest dent on Xi Jinping’s determination to remain China’s supreme helmsman.

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (Routledge 2015).”