The proverb “mandarins can set big fires, but common folks can’t even light a candle” is often used to describe the often-outlandish privileges enjoyed by the authorities. After the recent Sixth Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee conferred upon Xi Jinping the lofty title of “leadership core,” the President has again warned about “careerists and conspirators” setting up cliques in the Party. Yet two top cadres are doing exactly this. Xi himself and his princeling ally Wang Qishan, a Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member who heads the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), have built their own factions to enhance their influence within the CCP. Xi has elevated dozens of his former underlings from Zhejiang and Fujian to senior slots in the Party and government (see China Brief, November 11). And Wang, who will likely secure a second five-year term at the PBSC at the 19th CCP Congress next year, has also rapidly expanded his bureaucratic empire.
Two promotions announced immediately after the Sixth Plenum demonstrated the clout of the embryonic Wang Qishan faction, which consists partly of cadres who have worked in Party and government units handling the anti-corruption portfolio. Chen Wenqing (陈文清), a former Vice Party Secretary at the CCDI, made Minister of State Security in November, which is dubbed “China’s KGB” by liberal intellectuals. Yet another of Wang’s underling at the CCDI, Huang Shuxian (黄树贤), was named Minister of Civil Affairs. Wang headed the Ministry of Supervision—which is a wing of the CCDI that deals with civil servants—for four years before his transfer to civil affairs (Phoenix TV, November 8; People’s Daily, November 7).
A number of top graft-busters assigned by Wang to oversee corruption investigation in the provinces have been rewarded with senior regional postings. The best example is perhaps Huang Xiaowei (黄晓薇), a member of the CCDI Standing Committee who was in 2014 “parachuted” to Shanxi Province as a member of the provincial Party committee responsible for clean governance. Shanxi Province has long been deemed a “disaster zone of graft.” It was also a base of “big tiger Ling Jihua”—former President Hu Jintao’s right-hand-man who was given a life sentence earlier this year for corruption and abuse of power. Huang was promoted Deputy Party Chief of Shanxi last September after having successfully prosecuted close to 30 cadres (Chinenews.com, November 23; Caixin.com, November 23; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], October 10, 2014).
Other members of the fast-growing Wang Qishan faction are up-and-coming cadres who worked with the charismatic princeling when he served in the finance sector. Wang was Vice-Premier in charge of Finance from 2008 to 2013; a top manager of the China Construction Bank and the People’s Bank of China from 1989–1997; and Vice-Governor of Guangdong in charge of finance from 1998–2000. Many of Wang’s underlings have become movers and shakers in the world of banking. For example, Tian Huiyu, who was Wang’s secretary when the latter headed the China Construction Bank, has been President of the China Merchants Bank since 2013 (Straits Times [Singapore], November 10; Xinhua, May 8, 2013). Wang has also played a role in placing several of his protégés in senior slots in regional administrations. A prime example of Wang’s finance-sector associates who have succeeded is Party Secretary of Hubei Province Jiang Chaoliang (蒋超良). A former senior executive of the Agricultural Bank of China and the Communications Bank, Jiang’s close working relationship with Wang started in the mid-1990s (New Evening Post [Beijing], October 30; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], October 29).
Yet another subset of the Wang Qishan faction consists of his cronies and subordinates while Wang was Beijing Mayor from 2003–2007. For example, Gansu Governor Lin Duo served as the Deputy Party Secretary and Party Secretary of the Xicheng District of Beijing when Wang was head of the Beijing municipal government. Before his promotion to Gansu earlier this year, Lin worked as a member of the Liaoning Provincial Party Committee in charge of party discipline. Wang was said to have recommended Lin’s promotion due to his having cracked several corruption cases in the northeastern province (DWnews.com [Beijing], April 21; United Daily News [Taipei], March 30).
Given that fighting corruption is arguably President Xi’s most popular policy, it is perhaps not surprising that the “leadership core” allowed Wang to turn the anti-graft apparatus into a formidable bureaucratic fiefdom. The CCDI’s staff establishment has more than tripled in the past four years. The CCDI has received special treatment in several ways. The Party’s Central Organization Department, led by Politburo member Zhao Leji, is empowered to handle personnel matters for the entire Party-state apparatus. Similarly, the Party’s Central Propaganda Department, led by Politburo member Liu Qibao, is supposed to look after publicity-related work for all Party and government units. Despite these rules, the CCDI was uniquely given permission by the PBSC to establish its own organization and propaganda units (CCDI website, December 27, 2014; Sohu.com, March 28, 2014). Furthermore, according to Chinese sources accessed by this author, the CCDI has received authorization from President Xi to set up a disciplinary police unit. While the CCDI has always had a limited number of investigators, it lacks a police force to do battle with “big tigers” at both the national and local levels. Before the establishment of its own police force, the top anti-corruption body had to rely on law-enforcement officers from the Ministry of Public Security and the Procuratorate to carry out large-scale graft-busting missions. 
After the Sixth Plenum, whose theme is promoting discipline and moral behavior among Party cadres and civil servants, the CCDI won permission from the Party Central Committee to further boost its power. A Central Leading Group for Deepened Reform on the Supervision System, led by Wang, has been established with the task of setting up Supervision Committees in all state units. Xinhua cited a directive from the CCP General Office that said the aim of the new Supervision System was “to build a national anti-graft organ under the leadership of the Party… [whereby] authorities will mobilize more anti-corruption resources and build a system that ensures that officials dare not, will not and cannot be corrupt.” Supervision Committees are expected to assume the powers and functions of the Supervision Ministry as well as those of Anti-Corruption Bureaus within the national procuratorate system. Already, pilot Supervision Committees have been established in the Beijing municipality and the provinces of Shanxi and Zhejiang. While the exact frame of reference of Supervision Committees has yet to be disclosed, there is little doubt that they will further augment the authority of the CCDI—and Wang (Ta Kung Pao, November 27; China.org.cn, November 26; Xinhua, November 7).
At a press conference held the day after the Sixth Plenum, Deng Maosheng, a senior official at the CCP General Office pointed out that there were no stringent regulations within the Party regarding the retirement ages for top-level cadres. Deng asserted that the convention qishang baxia (七上八下, cadres aged 68 can no longer be considered for the PBSC) was only “hearsay” (VOA Chinese, November 1; RTHK [Hong Kong], October 30). Owing to the fact that Wang will be 69 at the time of the 19th Party Congress, Deng’s statement amounted to a handy excuse for Wang to serve one more five-year term at the PBSC. Moreover, since 2014, the Central Organization Department has reiterated that age or the GDP growth rates within their jurisdiction should not be given excessive weight when assessing the promotion of promising cadres (Nikkei Asian Review, November 11; Xinhua, September 2, 2014).
There are many reasons why Xi should want Wang to serve in the PBSC at least until the 20th Party Congress in 2022. While the “leadership core” has been quite successful in putting together a Xi Jinping faction in the past four years, it cannot yet compare with the Shanghai faction (led by former president Jiang Zemin) or the Communist Youth League faction (headed by former president Hu Jintao) in terms of numbers, influence and geographical coverage. The pooling of the resources of the Xi and Wang Factions means that Xi will be better placed to elevate members of these two “loyalist” cliques to the Central Committee and Politburo that will be endorsed at the 19th Party Congress.
In the final analysis, the “Wang Qishan phenomenon” does not bode well for the advancement of “rule of law with Chinese characteristics.” The CCDI has become one the Party’s most powerful fiefdoms. Its anti-graft activities, while applauded by average citizens, are conducted outside the country’s legal framework. Nor is the Commission subject to the scrutiny of either the National People’s Congress or the Supreme People’s Court (Hong Kong Economic Journal, October 10; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], June 30, 2014). The likelihood that Wang could defy well-established norms such as retirement ages is yet another frontal blow to the institutional reforms undertaken by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s.
Liberal cadres and intellectuals alike are concerned Xi will continue to rely on the anti-corruption weapon wielded by Wang’s super-powerful CCDI to intimidate and take out opponents to the “leadership core’s” relentless self-aggrandizement. But such a tactic undermines his push for rule of law. The anti-corruption campaign has bolstered Xi’s popularity and the strategic alliance between Xi and Wang’s power groups appears stable. For now, both groups need each other. But Wang’s growing power may eventually make him a threat.
- Author’s interviews with two Beijing-based officials close to the Supervision Ministry and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection; November 25 and 30.