National People’s Congress Consecrates Xi’s Power, Installs Key Allies, Introduces New Agencies

Xi Jinping’s unanimous re-election to a third term as President, a formality after he retained his spot as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party last October, was the headline event of the annual meeting of China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress. Equally important were the installation of key Xi allies in important posts and the surprising retention of a number of experienced bureaucrats in posts that analysts widely expected they would vacate. At the Wall Street Journal, Chun Han Wong and Keith Zhai reported on Xi Jinping’s re-election to an unprecedented third term as China’s head of state

[…] Before Mr. Xi took a third presidential term, no one had held office as China’s titular head of state for longer than 10 years since Mao Zedong proclaimed the dawn of the People’s Republic more than seven decades ago. This was in part due to constitutional term limits imposed in 1982, as China sought to install safeguards against one-man rule and recover from policy disasters it suffered during Mao’s mercurial dictatorship.

[…] From Mr. Xi’s perspective, the presidency “could provide a political platform for another official to raise their profile, influence policy-making, and implicitly present themselves as a potential alternative to Xi,” said Neil Thomas, a researcher who will soon start as a fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis. “A separate president challenging Xi’s authority would be unlikely, but not impossible, so why take the risk?

[…] With Mr. Xi reasserting the party’s dominance over state and society, “the real risk is that as China steadily slides back towards a one-man political system with Maoist overtones, features that characterized Chinese politics in the 1950s and 1960s—such as elite political instability and policy disasters—will also begin to rise,” said Carl Minzner, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. [Source]

Li Qiang was installed as the Premier, taking over from Li Keqiang. Li Qiang is seen as Xi’s right-hand man, having worked with him closely since the latter’s time as Zhejiang’s Party boss. Li Qiang presided over Shanghai’s painful lockdown in April 2022 during which he unswervingly adhered to Xi’s zero-COVID policy. Yet he also appears to have a maverick streak. He invited academic criticism while serving as Zhejiang’s governor, directing a professor to set up a non-governmental group of experts to criticize his work that would “act like the children in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’” Reuters reported that upon his appointment to the Politburo Standing Committee last October, Li Qiang ushered in the end of China’s zero-COVID policy despite Xi’s desire to maintain it. In the same article, Reuters quoted a Beijing official who said the end of the controversial policy was less a product of high-level debate and more a reflection of reality: “From my perspective, it’s not that we set out to relax the zero-COVID policy, it’s more that we at the local level were simply not able to enforce the zero-COVID policy anymore.” In Beijing, Li will likely be charged with resuscitating China’s lockdown-impacted economy. At The Washington Post, Christian Shepherd and Lyric Li profiled China’s new Premier, a Xi acolyte tasked with running the massive centralized administrations of the Chinese state

Being close to Xi does not mean that an official “will bring important data to his attention or urge him to change policies to the benefit of the country,” said Victor Shih, who studies Chinese elite politics at University of California at San Diego.

[…] As head of the Chinese government, he will be implementer-in-chief for some of Xi’s main — and most difficult — policy initiatives: Campaigns to tackle inequality and bring “common prosperity” to the masses while also delivering so-called Sputnik breakthrough moments in critical technology areas like artificial intelligence, renewable energy and microchip manufacturing.

[…] Li has professed fascination with emerging technologies that could revolutionize the economy and society. He told state media in 2008 that he had been an early adopter of email and frequented online discussion forums regularly in the 1990s. At various points, he has publicly recommended the book “Homo Deus” where historian Yuval Noah Harari explores how technology will revolutionize the future of civilization and the 1999 film “Bicentennial Man” about a robot who wants to be human.

[…] The biggest unknown is that Li, unlike his predecessors when they took on the job, has never been in charge of any central-level administrations or had to coordinate between various agencies, said Yu Jie, senior research fellow on China at Chatham House, a British think tank. The role will test his capacity to be a deal broker, she said. [Source]

Zhao Leji, a key Xi ally who was formerly the head of the country’s top anti-corruption agency, was appointed chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the body that wields real power over legislative affairs. At The South China Morning Post, Vanessa Cai reported on Zhao Leji’s role as the head of the NPC Standing Committee

Analysts expect that Zhao – seen as a trusted ally of President Xi Jinping with years of experience in key party organs – will prioritise Xi’s vision in the country’s legislative work, including on issues related to the United States and those concerning foreign entities and “foreign forces”.

[…] Delivering his work report at the legislature’s annual meeting, Li said the NPC’s diplomatic tasks would include “stepping up to the front lines of any legal, political or diplomatic struggle whenever the country requires, without the slightest hesitation, to carry out our political responsibilities as the national legislature and defend China’s sovereignty, security and development interests”.

[…] Changhao Wei, a fellow with the Paul Tsai China Centre at Yale Law School, said although the top legislative body exercised collective leadership, the chairman held sway over decision making because of his political status as the third-highest ranking official in the party.

“He is therefore the most privy to the party’s priorities and Xi Jinping’s personal thinking, so other legislative officials will defer to – if not outright obey – what he says,” Wei said. [Source]

Other members of Xi’s all-male Politburo also earned prominent positions in the state government. In a surprise move, Xi retained Yi Gang as the head of China’s central bank, as well as the ministers of commerce and finance, a sign of stability. Just how long that stability lasts remains a question. “State Council ministers can be reshuffled at any time,” the head of a Beijing-based research firm told The Financial Times. The process behind personnel selections remains opaque, although state-media outlet Xinhua published a lengthy piece detailing the requirements for top government officials, including a (flexible) age limit of 68 and a desired five years of experience in provincial- or ministerial-level positions. The creation of a new government agency to centralize data management was another move that took analysts by surprise. Although details about the new National Data Administration remain sparse, it is expected to assume some of the powers currently wielded by the Cyberspace Administration of China. The creation of the Central Commission on Science and Technology was also announced last week. It will assume some of the powers of the Ministry of Science and Technology. 

For its part, Chinese state media hailed the Two Sessions as a smashing success. Upon the conclusion of the National People’s Congress, Zhao Leji visited central media and propaganda organizations, including People’s Daily, Xinhua, and the China Media Group, to commend them for telling “stories of China’s whole-process people’s democracy well.” State-media tabloid Global Times comprehensive review of the Congress stressed that the main takeaway was the continued centralized leadership of the Communist Party of China:

In his speech on Monday, Xi stressed upholding the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the centralized, unified leadership of the CPC Central Committee. “It is important to stay alert and determined to tackle the special challenges that a large party like the CPC faces,” Xi said.

[…] ​​Yang Xuedong, a professor of political science at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times on Monday that “some special challenges for a large political party like the CPC are tough and must be dealt with. For instance, many of a large ruling party’s members are also working in key positions with power to control and distribute resources, so within a large party, some members will become forces with vested interests and become corrupted in the process of rapid economic development. They will become the obstacle blocking the reform of the country.”

The Communist Party of the former Soviet Union (CPSU) was a large party that failed to realize effective reform or deal with the special challenges that a large party faces, Yang said. “Therefore, the CPC will and must avoid repeating the mistake made by the CPSU, and the key is to have courage and determination to keep pushing self-reform or self-revolution,” Yang noted. [Source]

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