Taiwan Work Leading Small Group under Xi Jinping

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 12

Yu Zhengsheng, One of the New Faces of Taiwan Affairs

For Beijing, the status of Taiwan represents the last unresolved issue from the Chinese Civil War that ended with victory for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949. Taiwan-policy has, unsurprisingly, long been a policy focus of the CCP since the establishment of Taipei as the capital of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Under the CCP-led power structure and  during the previous two administrations, the party’s general secretary chaired an inter-agency policy-setting process through a “leading small group” comprised of top-level party, state and military officials responsible for Taiwan-related work. Membership in this body varied from administration to administration, suggesting the composition may be seen as a power balance and/or revealing of the strategic focus of the administration’s policy toward Taiwan.

The small leading group called the “CCP Central Committee’s Taiwan Work Leading Small Group” (Zhongyang duitai gongzuo lingdao xiaozu) is directed by the CCP general secretary. The Chairman of the advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) serves as the deputy director, and ministers responsible for Taiwan-related work also are included in the group. The leading group is the supreme policymaking body in the China’s party-led system that designs and spearheads policies government wide. With the major re-shuffling of personnel in the handover of leadership from the Hu-Wen administration complete after the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC) in March, what do the personnel changes tell us about the orientation and direction of Xi Jinping’s new Taiwan-policy team? Ultimately, the changes suggest more continuity than change as Xi tries to push the economic discussions toward the political.

Taiwan Work Leading Small Group: Background

The Taiwan Work Leading Small Group (TWLSG) was established in 1979. The people in charge of Taiwan policy before the establishment of this group included mainly military officials, and cadres from the intelligence, secret service and United Front departments, such as Li Kenong, Luo Ruiqing, Liao Chengzhi and Xu Bingdeng. After the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), Taiwan-related work was folded up as the country descended into social and political turmoil. After the country restabilized, work resumed and the group was reactivated again in 1979 (Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], February 20).

While membership in this body varied between different administrations, there appears to be a nascent but gradual institutionalization of the group that began under Jiang Zemin. The leading small group has been chaired by the CCP general secretary since 1989, and the deputy director is the Chairman of the CPPCC, and the small group’s secretary-general is the State Councilor with portfolio over foreign affairs. Members of the group represent the organizations involved in the Taiwan-policy making and implementation process within the administration. After Jiang Zemin’s administration, there has been a notable increase in the number of organizational stakeholders in the Taiwan policy process—perhaps influenced by the fallout from the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait crises and the result of the 2000 presidential election in Taiwan.

In 2000, when Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate, Chen Shui-bian, won the presidential election, Jiang Zemin ordered then-head of the CCP Organization Department Zeng Qinghong to re-shuffle the leadership at TAO. In the aftermath, the Central Committee agreed to add an additional Politburo member to the TWLSG, Central Military Commission (CMC) member General Zhang Wannian (Renminbao, October 20, 2000).

Indeed, group members during Hu Jintao’s administration and ostensibly in the new Xi administration include the head of the CCP Central Propaganda Department; a CMC vice chairman; the Politburo member in charge cultural affairs; a CPPCC vice chairman dual-hatted as head of United Front Department; director of the Taiwan Affairs Office; President of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (better known by its acronym, (ARATS); minister of the Ministry of State Security; the deputy chief of the PLA general staff for foreign affairs and intelligence; the director of the party’s Central Secretariat; and, the most recent addition, the minister of the Ministry of Commerce.

Indeed, members of the TWLSG have the ability to influence the strategic focus of the CCP administration toward the Taiwan Strait. For instance, General Xiong Guangkai, who was chief of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intelligence and once the secretary-general of the TWLSG, was known to have lobbied for a greater role for the military and successfully pushed to have active-duty military officer Major General Wang Zaixi of the PLA’s Second Department serve as vice minister of State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) (Ta Kung Pao February 20). Additionally, former Central Military Commission (CMC) Secretary-General Yang Shangkun also served as the director of the TWLSG (1987–1989), representing the military at the helm of the Taiwan-work system. In their time, these appointments probably indicated the military’s prominence on Taiwan issues (China Leadership Monitor, No. 28, September 2, 2008).

In reaction to the PLA’s apparent heavy intervention in the party’s Taiwan work, former President of the Association of Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Wang Daohan, who was the CCP’s lead negotiator with Taiwan, had appealed to the CCP Central Committee to exercise more caution in handling Taiwan affairs—meaning a de-emphasis of military influence and thinking. China’s reaction to the re-election of Chen Shui-bian in 2004 indicates that Wang’s appeal was heeded. China used soft power to appeal to Taiwan-compatriots and began to open up its market up to Taiwanese agricultural products like fruits. After President Ma Ying-jeou won Taiwan’s presidential election in March 2008, relations between the two sides began to thaw. In June 2008, the Central Committee decided to add the minister of commerce to the leading small group, which indicated that cross-Strait trade and economic exchanges had become a central tenet of the CPP’s Taiwan Work.

Taiwan Work Leading Small Group under Hu and Xi

Director Hu Jintao

(General Secretary/CMC Chairman)

Xi Jinping

(General Secretary/CMC Chairman)

Deputy Director Jia Qinglin

(CPPCC Chairman)

Yu Zhengsheng (CPPCC Chairman)
Secretary-General Dai Bingguo Yang Jiechi*
Members Wang Qishan Wang Yang*
Head of Central Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China Liu Yunshan Liu Qibao*
Vice Chair of the CMC Guo Boxiong Fan Chanlong/

Xu Qiliang*

Politburo Member and Vice Chair of CPPCC Wang Gang (CLM, September 2, 2008)  
Politburo Member Liu Yandong Yang Jing*
Vice Chair of CPPCC and Head of United Front Department Du Qinglin Ling Jihua*
Taiwan Affairs Office Wang Yi Zhang Zhijun
Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chen Yunlin Chen Deming
Ministry of State Security Geng Huichang Geng Huichang*

Deputy Chief of General Staff for Military Intelligence

Ma Xiaotian

Qi Jiangguo (Zhongshi Dianzibao, March 16)*

Central Committee Member and Central Secretariat Director

Ling Jihua

Li Zhansu*

Ministry of Commerce

Chen Deming

(Jinri Daobao, March 4)

Gao Hucheng*

* These appointments have not been confirmed but are based on a hypothetical account based on the billets in the group according to precedent.


Sources: Zhongshi Dianzibao, Ta Kung Pao.

If policy may be seen as an extension of the people in charge, the changes in personnel within China’s Taiwan-policy nexus suggests more continuity than change in the Xi administration. Indeed, at the first plenary session of the 12th NPC, it was announced formally that former director of the TAO in charge of implementing Chinese policy toward Taiwan, Wang Yi (born 1953), is the new Foreign Minister. Wang’s appointment is significant, because it may reflect the elevation of Taiwan policy in the overall nexus of foreign policy making process of the CCP (Zhongshi Dianzibao, March 17).

Consistent with the Hu Jintao administration, the new chairman of the CPPCC, Yu Zhengsheng, replaced Jia Qinglin as the deputy director of the leading small group (KMTUSA, March 2). In terms of hierarchy, Yu is second-in-command to General Secretary Xi.

The announcement at the 12th NPC in March that former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (born 1950) would become the next State Councilor with portfolio over foreign affairs signaled that the long anticipated major personnel shifts in the Chinese foreign policy bureaucracy was completed, including the Taiwan-related billets. The carefully orchestrated party-state leadership transitions that began last November with the 18th Party Congress underscore the party’s dominant role in the Chinese political system. Dai Bingguo (born 1941), who is a full member of the 17th CCP Central Committee and the highest ranking diplomat under the Hu Jintao administration and secretary-general of the Taiwan Work Leading Small Group, reached retirement age and was slated to retire as the new party leadership under Xi Jinping began. The 72-year old Dai’s expected retirement left open the top diplomatic post in the CCP foreign policy-making system, which cuts across many party as well as military and state agencies.

While Yang’s replacement of Dai as State Councilor did not come as much of a surprise—Yang’s name had been on a short list of names long speculated to replace Dai—but Yang’s departure from the highly coveted top Foreign Ministry post created a cascade of personnel changes in China’s foreign policy making bureaucracy. Given the role of patronage in a closed-political system, personnel changes are important indicators, because they reflect compromises between strategic decisions and the outcome of behind-the-door negotiations between influential power brokers. Overall, Yang’s appointment as the successor to Dai is symbolic of the overall handover of authority from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping as the latter forms a new cabinet under Premier Li Keqiang.

After the first NPC plenary session, Wang Yi announced that Zhang Zhijun (born 1953)— the vice minister of Foreign Affairs who doubled as the deputy director of the CCP International Liaison Department (with close to 30 years experience in that organization)—will serve as the new head of TAO (China Post, March 18). A relative newcomer to the Taiwan policymaking community, it appears that the front line of Taiwan-policy will be headed by the Foreign Ministry under Wang who will have more of an authority to bring Ministry resources to bear to move on Taiwan-related issues. The emphasis that Wang had made when he left his post about his regret of not visiting Taiwan while he served as head of TAO, was quickly toed by Zhang’s remarks that he wishes to visit Taiwan as soon as possible. Zhang’s statement seems to suggest that the pressure is on and the foci of the negotiations may be shifting from ARATS (a non-governmental organization) to TAO. The head of TAO also serves as the leading small group’s office director.

In late April, Chen Deming (born 1949) was elected as the new president of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) (Xinhua, April 26; South China Morning Post, April 27). ARATS remain the non-governmental arm through which negotiations of ECFA are being handled on the two sides. TAO’s equivalent in Taiwan is the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), and ARATS’s equivalent is the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF). Chen’s position as former minister for commerce highlights the importance that the administration places on economic issues as a key pillar of cross-strait policy. Chen, however, has noted that he wants political talks to move forward. The choice of Chen to head the lead negotiating agent seems to reflect the importance that the top leadership attached to commerce. Indeed, the position in the top policy making apparatus in the party-state structure only was added for the Minister of Commerce in 2008.


The thaw in cross-Strait relations over the past five years under Hu Jintao and Ma Ying-jeou has been remarkable. Yet questions remain whether the cross-Strait environment has had a tangible effect on China’s Taiwan policy. In spite of the extensive change of personnel that may be forthcoming in the TWLSG, which may reflect a broader change in the approach of the administration toward Taiwan, China’s military buildup across the Taiwan Strait has continued to grow unabated. This suggests the traditional heavy influence of the military in Taiwan policy remain in spite of the calming down of political tension. This dynamic underscores the instrumental role that the CCP sees that the military plays in both an operational standpoint and as a means of coercive power over Taiwan.

Upon taking his post as TAO director, Zhang Zhijun’s remark about wanting to visit Taiwan seems to indicate that the white gloves may be coming off as TAO steps up pressure for direct political talks with their counterparts in Taiwan. For its part, ARATS is in lead right now negotiating the establishment of representative offices in Taiwan and vice-versa for Taiwan’s SEF in China. However, “Chen [Deming] said he appreciates Taiwanese authorities’ stance that cross-Strait ties are not ties between two countries, thus the representative offices of the SEF and the ARATS to be established on each side are not diplomatic missions” (Xinhua, April 26; United Daily News, April 27).

Chen Deming (like Xi Jinping) is deemed to be a part of the “know Taiwan faction” (zhi tai pai), as the mayor of Suzhou city he began to closely interact with Taiwan and became familiar with the island’s economic situation. As minister of commerce, Chen was a full participant in the cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) negotiations, which after 18 agreements are moving into its advanced stages. This is reflective that economic and trade cooperation and exchanges becomes a key pillar of cross-Strait relations. With his background, it is believed that Chen’s economic and trade experience will be applied to his leadership of ARATS and deepen exchanges with Taiwan in all fields (Oriental Daily, February 22).

State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi are undoubtedly core members of Xi’s foreign policy team. Yet given Wang’s new post as head of the Foreign Ministry, it remains to be seen whether Wang will have a place in TWLSG. Wang has been a pivotal player executing the Hu administration’s policy over the past five years. Whether Wang will remain a central component in Xi’s overall policy-making mechanism toward Taiwan also remains to be seen.  Xi may want to establish his own direction for Taiwan policy and decide to add or remove billets from the leading small group (China Times, March 17). With both Yang, who is an adept U.S. hand, and Wang, who is a Taiwan (and Asia) hand, by Xi’s sides it is clear that Taiwan will play a central role in the Xi Jinping administration. With experienced counsels, Xi is equipped with capable hands to move forward with a full court press on political talks with Taipei through various channels in Taiwan and the United States. There appears to be more stakeholders in the Taiwan-policy making and implementation process since 2008, which may have the effect of limiting the military’s influence in Taiwan policy planning. However, Xi’s close ties with the military and his ability (or desire) to constrain the hawkish elements within may determine whether peace and stability will be maintained in the future.