Through a Glass Darkly: Who’s Really in Charge in China?


Image by Leslin_Liu from Pixabay

If you have any interest in China, the next week is likely to produce a crescendo of articles speculating darkly on the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress. Keep in mind that no one knows what is going to happen, as usual with Chinese politics.

Reporters in China, Scholars of China, academics who spend their lives developing sources, studying documents, consulting each other — all will tell you that information about Chinese intentions and policies is revealed after the fact. The Chinese Communist Party may not be leak proof, but it is a closed political party that doesn’t leak.

Being a Party member gives you no inside information beyond what your superiors have determined is your “need to know.” It is remarkable how little Party members with apparently significant titles know. Information is power in China and it is rationed parsimoniously.

What may happen at the 20th Party Congress? It is generally assumed that Xi Jinping will be given a third five-year term to lead the country and head the party. A third five-year term will break the precedent of two five-year terms for the Party leader that has been in effect since 1949 when the modern Chinese Communist Party was born.

Xi Jinping has 12 titles and counting, many of them created after he took office in 2012. Some of his titles are opaque, but taken together they are evidence of a man who has accumulated power. Most importantly, Xi is currently General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. In short, the boss of bosses. Let’s examine some of these titles and the way Xi has added power to his office.

General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. This is the traditional title for modern China’s head of government. The title gives Xi effective oversight of the government at all levels.
Chairman of the Central Military Commission. This gives Xi the top rank in the military hierarchy where orders flow from the top. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao had to wait 2 years into his first term before he became Chairman of the Central Military Commission. His predecessor Jiang Zemin held onto the title after he gave up the top Party post. Control of the military is more than a symbol. In Xi’s first term he reorganized and transformed the Chinese military more than all his predecessors combined, including purging many Generals he felt had corrupted the defense establishment.
Leader of the Central Leading Group for Foreign Affairs.  This first of a series of “groups” in which Xi made himself the “leader,” taking authority out of what had been departments and agencies of the Party, and placed them into the Party Chairman’s office.Xi started reorganizing the government apparatus shortly after he came to power in 2012. The many titles he acquired substituted groups and commissions under his control for what had been departments and agencies within the government. This gave Xi the power to implement his administration’s goals without going through the more traditional Party bureaucracies. 

Despite the many titles and powers that Xi has given himself, he has nominal and real bosses. The least of them is the National People’s Congress the 2000-plus delegates often called a “rubber stamp” legislature. These are the delegates who will cheer Xi into his new term or terms of office, and usually  vote unanimously to accept new legislation developed by the party.

All of the policies and decisions at the 20th Party Congress have already been decided. There will be no debate. Those who “need to know” know what those decisions and policies are and there may be as few as a dozen men “in the know.” Xi knows.

So is there oversight? That depends on when you ask the question. The Politburo and the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party sit atop the Party hierarchy, nominally below the General Secretary. The Politburo is generally composed of 25 party members while the Standing Committee chosen from the Politburo, has varied between 7 and 9. The new number will be closely watched. Who chooses? Your guess is as a good as mine.  Who sits on which committee is an opaque process that has varied over time from voting by secret paper ballots, to back room wheeling and dealing akin to the ward politics that dominated many American cities in the past.

We know the composition of the current Politburo and Standing Committee, but what counts won’t be revealed until after October 16. The newly chosen Standing Committee will receive the red carpet treatment, literally. A red carpet will be unfurled before the 2000+ members of the Party Congress,  and the new Standing Committee members will walk onto the stage. They will all be men in dark suits. There has never been a woman on the Standing Committee and that is not expected to change this time. (Women remain absent from the Party leadership at all but the lower levels.)

The frustrated analysts outside China will parse what the  new and old members will mean for Xi’s tenure and the implications for the directions of Xi’s future policies.

In previous administrati0ns the Standing Committee of the Party has played the boss of the boss role. But here too the opaque nature of Chinese administration and politics at the top reveals little.

Once every ten years the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party emerges from Zhongnanhai, home to the top leadership of the Party. The former imperial gardens of the Imperial City is a walled enclave, about a mile long a quarter mile wide containing two small lakes. It is home to China’s most powerful leaders and their families as well as former Party leaders. They live and are said to work from homes. Does Xi and his family live there? No one knows.

Xi will emerge on October 16 as the man who is arguably the most powerful political leader in the world. He is 69 years old, young by the standards of the most recent US Presidents.            
Peter Herford
Peter Herford
The Seattle-based author has many years of experience in national broadcast news, including years teaching journalism in mainland China.


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