Xi Associates Fill Top Jobs Ahead of Party Congress

A number of sources have confirmed that He Lifeng, a close associate of President , has been appointed by China’s National People’s Congress to direct the National Development and Reform Commission, a powerful state agency in charge of planning the country’s economy. He’s appointment is seen as the latest move by President Xi to further bolster his standing in the Party and tighten his grip on power ahead of the upcoming leadership reshuffle at the , when a number of  members are due to step down. Cary Huang and Choi Chi-yuk at South China Morning Post report: 

The is known as the mini cabinet because of its extensive powers, from setting petrol prices to approving airport construction.

[…] “He Lifeng will take over from Xu Shaoshi in a couple of days,” a Beijing-based source close to the government told the South China Morning Post on Wednesday.

The source added that a spate of personnel changes might also involve leaders at the justice and commerce ministries.

Two other sources, who declined to be named, also independently confirmed He’s appointment. [Source]

The ministers were appointed on Friday as personnel in the highest echelons of government, the Communist Party and the military continue to be reshuffled ahead of the party’s five-yearly national congress late this year.

[…] Zhong Shan, a former deputy to Xi in Zhejiang province, was named minister of commerce. Zhong, 62, was Zhejiang’s deputy governor under Xi for four years more than a decade ago.

Zhang Jun, a deputy of the party’s anti-corruption watchdog, was appointed minister of justice. Zhang, 61, has worked under the party’s anti-graft chief Wang Qishan since 2012, and was a deputy director of the Supreme People’s Court before 2012.

Like Xi’s associates, Wang’s proteges have grown in influence in the government and the party. Zhang’s appointment brings to four the number of serving ministers who have worked under Wang, an official widely seen as a close ally of Xi. [Source]

Cai Qi, the current mayor of Beijing and a longtime ally of President Xi, has also been named to head a high-level military reform group. Cai’s appointment comes amid speculation that he will be promoted to a top politburo post in this year’s upcoming .

Jude Blanchette, associate director at the The Conference Board’s China Center for Economics and Business, writes that we must bear in mind the logic of authoritarian politics as we think about the 19th Party Congress and the issue of succession that revolves around it. Blanchette argues that although leadership transitions in Chinese politics have become increasingly regularized in the post-Mao era, there remains a large degree of unpredictability that makes power successions in the Chinese context much less institutionalized than many have come to believe.

“The very odd thing about the Chinese system in the last two decades,” writes Kerry Brown of King’s College, “has been how predictable, rather than unpredictable, it has proven. Hu [Jintao] and Xi [Jinping] were the clear favorites years before they were finally elevated. In this respect, China has a better record than any major democracy at delivering predictable top leadership outcomes.” A 2014 paper in the journal Contemporary Politics concludes “power succession in contemporary China has demonstrated a high degree of stability in the past two decades.” Wang Zhengxu and Anastas Vangeli write in The China Journal, “Xi Jinping…was anointed heir five years ahead of the anticipated succession, and in 2012 his succession took place as had been planned five years before, some political drama notwithstanding. That, to us, is sufficient evidence of institutionalization and the acceptance of particular rules by the political elite.”

After spending the better part of the past month reading through the contemporaneous reporting on China’s post-Mao era Party Congresses, I have a hard time agreeing with the above perspectives, which I call “retrospective institutionalism.” While patterns of leadership succession can be located after the fact, they seem much less clear as we watch the events unfold in real time. The selectivity with which China’s leaders have invoked “institutionalism” tells us something about the stickiness of these dictates. When it suits their political agenda, or more often when then need to lean on “rules” to outmaneuver political opponents, senior officials can wax eloquent on the need for clear and predictable rules, such as set retirement ages. Deng Xiaoping famously told the journalist Oriana Fallaci in August 1980 that he would soon retire form the post of Vice-Premier to make way for younger leaders. If we old comrades remain at our posts,” he told her, “newcomers will be inhibited in their work.”

When disadvantageous, however, these rules can quickly be forgotten or amended. As he approached his agreed-upon retirement from his positions of power, Jiang Zemin had a change of heart. At a July 9, 1999 luncheon with Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, Jiang noted that there is no retirement clause for the position of General Secretary in the Party Constitution. And of course we know that Deng spent the 1980s and beyond ruling China from behind the curtain rather than letting the “newcomers” get along with their work “uninhibited.” [Source]

Jun Mai at South China Morning Post further explores the question of whether China’s Communist Party follows succession rules, with a specific look at how unwritten conventions surrounding retirement could be “easily rewritten by the current leadership” to suit its political needs.

“People say ‘67 in and 68 out’ and some [Politburo] Standing Committee members retire before reaching 68,” Deng Maosheng, who helped draft the communique for the sixth plenum of the party’s 18th Central Committee, told Hong Kong journalists. “The party makes adjustments according to the circumstances. There is no specific standard age [for Politburo Standing Committee members to retire].”

Deng’s comment came as a shock to many China watchers, who saw it as possibly heralding changes to a system followed since 2002 with a view to institutionalising succession at the top and stabilising the one-party regime.

[…] Professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said the informal rules had never been strong enough to completely protect the fragile institutionalisation process from the influence of retired leaders.

“Retirement rules are supposed to remove uncertainties. People would all predict a new leader every 10 years,” Tsang said. “But uncertainties grow when people start to wonder if he wants to stay for 10 years or 15.” [Source]

Elsewhere, Nikkei Asian Review reports that former president Hu Jintao’s public appearance with Guangdong party secretary Hu Chunhua earlier this year has fuelled speculation that the elder Hu is preparing to wrestle with President Xi over the new leadership lineup.