Wang Qishan: Xi Jinping’s Man Friday

Bhim B. Subba, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

On 17th March 2018 Wang Qishan got elected as the Vice-President of PRC succeeding Li Yuanchao. This is major political news. Wang, 69 who resigned from the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) at the 19th National Party Congress in October 2017 polled 2969 votes in the total of 2980 deputies and making a comeback indicates a boost to Xi Jinping’s power. At the sidelines of the lianghui- ‘two meetings,’ the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – Xi emphasised that ‘human talent’ as  one of the ‘Three Firsts’ in Xi Jinping Thought (人才是第一资源 rencai shi di yi ziyuan). He was almost certainly referring to bringing Wang Qishan as state vice-president, a ‘special talent’ which Xi did not want to waste and which can help him maintain his grip on party’s anti-corruption campaign and control over the 1.39 billion strong party-state.

Although Wang’s continuation as a PBSC member was much debated in the run-up to the party congress in fall 2017, his non-selection as a Central Committee member was not surprising. The party adhering to the ‘7-up-8-down’ principle (七上八下 qi shang ba xia) led to retirement of all  PBSC members above 68 years. But with Xi’s continuing emphasis on party building ( 党建设dang jianshe) and anti-corruption campaign (反腐败运动 fan fubai yundong), a trusted lieutenant like Wang Qishan became indispensable for Xi Jinping. Hence, what better than Wang becoming a ‘deputy’ occupying the state vice-president’s post, a ceremonial position. With Wang, the position becomes a power centre to reckon with in the coming future. It is also speculated that Wang is attending closed-door PBSC deliberations even after his retirement. Thus, getting elected as a National People’s Congress (NPC) deputy from Hunan and a member of the 190-member NPC Presidium, Wang’s elevation as Xi’s deputy was on the cards. Wang’s seating position in the NPC presidium was a clear message of Wang’s comeback. Recently, he was also among the select few Chinese leaders who met with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when the latter had a secret visit to Beijing.

 From ‘Worker-Peasant-Soldier Student’ to Financial Honcho!

Wang Qishan, a Shanxi native, who joined the CPC in 1983 was also a ‘sent down youth’ during the Cultural Revolution. A student of modern history, he did everything but history when he joined the Rural Development Research Center after becoming a party member. He was one of the early beneficiaries of the reform period’s ‘successors training program’ where scores of young elites were recruited in the party-state echelons. Marrying Yao Mingshan (姚明珊),daughter of Yao Yilin, a conservative vice-premier under Zhao Ziyang, Wang’s political career rose steadily as pioneer of rural and agriculture reforms.

Later, Wang headed prominent national banks including as a governor of China Construction Bank (1994-97) and vice-governor of People’s Bank of China (1993-94). He was also instrumental in establishing China International Capital Corp (CICC) China’s first investment bank and served in Zhu Rongji’s cabinet. Even in the Hu-Wen era, Wang’s financial acumen was employed in negotiating the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue post-2008 financial crisis. Given that they are old US hands, President Xi can also delegate to the Wang Qishan and Liu He combine in engaging with the US especially after Trump’s call for trade war with China.

China’s Crisis Man to Anti-Corruption Czar

Wang’s new position as deputy to Xi also shows how these two individuals’ careers led them to working together in Beijing. Wang Qishan was appointed as the vice-mayor of Beijing post-2004 SARS outbreak, when he successfully helped the state machinery to check the deadly epidemic then referred to as ‘China’s Chernobyl.’ However, it was in mid-2000s when Xi was state vice president and Wang Qishan was Beijing City Mayor in-charge of preparations for Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics that their friendship flourished and they shared an amicable working relationship. As PBSC members in 2012, their partnership led to the party rectification through anti-corruption campaign. Since then, Wang  has become Xi’s ‘fire brigade chief’ (救火队长 jiuhuo duizhang)   or ‘samasya nivarak.’

With a trusted confidant like Wang, Xi has successfully sidelined many of his political detractors. Investigations against Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua and Sun Zhengcai were more dealt within the ambit of anti-party activities than in the form of political persecution. From 2012-17, from the party-centre to local levels, and in state agencies, SOEs and in financial institutions, the anti-graft campaigns have been successful in snaring many ‘tigers’ and flies. In 2017, alone 160,000 officials were investigated for graft and party indiscipline.

The amendment of the PRC constitution to remove term limits for the President and Vice-President at the 13th National People’s Congress recently, reinforced both Xi and Wang as the No 1 and 2 in the power hierarchy. Wang’s comeback as Xi’s ‘trouble-shooter’ must be closely watched especially after Xi’s becoming a so-called people’s leader’ (人民领袖renmin lingxiu). One needs to ponder who the ‘crisis man’ represents — Xi’s Man Friday or the party-state’s? The larger question however, is of how Xi will address this ‘revolving door’ appointment of a once retired party colleague and the ramifications to Chinese elite politics in coming years.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Wang Huning: China’s Amit Shah

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

If Shah’s job is to help Modi do the electoral math and draw up strategies to win elections, it is Wang’s job to help create the narrative that legitimizes Xi Jinping in power in an authoritarian system.

As the National People’s Congress in China cleared a constitutional amendment on Sunday allowing President Xi Jinping to remain president for life, here is a look at Xi’s closest confidante and politburo member Wang Huning, who is also known to be the brain behind President Xi.

Wang has been speechwriter and ideologue to three successive General Secretaries of the CPC –- Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and now Xi. Many key concepts for these three leaders have been fashioned and refined under Wang’s watch in the Party’s Central Policy Research Office since 2002 and later as a member of the Central Secretariat.

Indeed, one might wonder if China’s – and President Xi Jinping’s — slow turn towards a more assertive stance has not been influenced also by Wang’s personal ideological proclivities conveyed through the mouths of China’s leaders.

In practical terms, Wang Huning is to Xi Jinping what Amit Shah is to Narendra Modi. If Shah’s job is to help Modi do the electoral math and draw up strategies to win elections, it is Wang’s job to help create the narrative that legitimises Xi Jinping in power in an authoritarian system Continue reading “Wang Huning: China’s Amit Shah”

Unlimited Xi Presidency in China: Implications for India

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

What does the removal of term limits for the Xi Jinping presidency in China mean for the developing world and, in particular, for South Asia?

One possibility is there could be a demonstration effect. China’s decades-long rapid economic growth has been a source of envy and inspiration for many countries in the developing world. Some like Vietnam, for instance, have used China as a model in launching its own opening up and reforms process. Other countries, including many in South Asia, have seen Beijing as an alternative to the West for financial resources and capital.

With Xi’s latest move, an ambitious autocrat could try to sell the idea to his people or elites that matter that he – and he alone – holds the solutions to a country’s problems.

And often, as in the case of President Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives, who has imposed a state of emergency in the island nation, they will do so with considerably less finesse than Xi. Continue reading “Unlimited Xi Presidency in China: Implications for India”

Dalai Lama Snub & India-China ties

Prof. Alka Acharya, Honorary Fellow, ICS & Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

 The Note

A day before India’s new foreign secretary made his first standalone visit to Beijing from February 23-24, 2018, he sent out a note to the Cabinet secretary, requesting him to issue a ‘classified circular advisory advising all Ministries/Departments of the Government of India as well as State Governments not to accept any invitation or to participate in the events being organised by the ‘Dalai Lama set-up’ to commemorate the start of the sixty years of exile of the Dalai Lama in India.’ The Cabinet secretary in turn issued a Circular/Advisory to the ‘senior leaders’ and ‘government functionaries.’ Interestingly, this Circular, as reported in a Indian Express article (external link), said it was ‘not desirable’ to participate in the events of the ‘Tibetan leadership in India. (Emphasis added.)

The newspaper report does not quote the entire Cabinet Circular, but says It refers to the ‘events planned for March-end and early April’. The Note from the foreign secretary, however, refers to the ‘large public event titled “Thank You India” slated for 1st April,’ to which a large number of Indian dignitaries would be invited and these was ‘likely to be followed up by additional events in Delhi as well as other states of India.’ Continue reading “Dalai Lama Snub & India-China ties”

Term Limits Off for Xi: Some Reflections for India

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

When China’s National People’s Congress – the rough equivalent of India’s Lok Sabha, but toothless – meets in the coming week it has to deal with a proposal by the ruling Communist Party of China to amend the state constitution to remove term limits for the President of the state. Coming from where it does, this is pretty much a direct order to the NPC to remove the term limits.

Removing term limits for the President, imposed in 1982, is a roundabout way of saying that the norm of two terms for the CPC General Secretary – Xi’s more powerful avatar – too, is not set in stone. Continue reading “Term Limits Off for Xi: Some Reflections for India”

How must India deal with an all-powerful Xi Jinping?

Prof. Alka Acharya, Honorary Fellow, ICS & Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The question that had been the cause of much speculation and discussion since the 19th Communist Party Congress last October — ‘After Xi Jinping, Who?’ — has now seemingly been answered. Xi Jinping himself!

In fact, Xi’s continuation in power beyond two terms was widely anticipated when, as had been the practice since the political and administrative reforms had been introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, no successor was announced at the end of the 19th Chinese Communist Party congress.

Xi now proposes to overturn the practice, which had limited the top leader to two consecutive terms in office — and this will now be enshrined in the state constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Continue reading “How must India deal with an all-powerful Xi Jinping?”

Xi Jinping Has Feet of Clay

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China has suggested removing term limits for the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China. The immediate implication is that President Xi Jinping could conceivably continue for a third term or more in office.

However, the more important one is that this sets a precedent for doing away with the norm of a two-term limit developed over the past couple of decades for the CPC General Secretary – the most powerful position Xi holds.

This development then appears to confirm long-standing speculation that Xi was aiming to carry on in power at the next CPC National Congress in 2022.

Other amendments to the PRC constitution being mooted by the CPC also confirm the possibility. One such is the addition of ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ in the PRC Constitution. In this case, this is a foregone conclusion since Xi Jinping Thought was already included in the CPC constitution at the 19th Party National Congress last October.

To understand what exactly has happened and how, Indians need only remember how their own bureaucrats bend the rules or create new ones at will, if necessary – to push their own aggrandizement while in office or to comfortable post-retirement sinecures.

Like the Indian babu – and CPC cadre are essentially bureaucrat-politicians – Xi and the CPC justify these moves in the name of ‘efficiency’, ‘expertise’, ‘capability’, even ‘merit’ and ‘respect for the Constitution’.

Note, for instance, that the state-run Xinhua News Agency had quoted Xi – only a few hours before news of the proposed changes to the PRC Constitution was announced – as saying that ‘No organization or individual has the power to overstep the Constitution or the law’.

Driving home this point even more sharply is a Global Times editorial that declares brazenly, ‘We are living in a changing and sophisticated era where individuals have limited horizon and capability’. Somehow the point about one individual being empowered at the expense of 1.3 billion others has been missed.

In fact, there is a clear provision in one of the proposed amendments that the director of the national supervisory commission – a new state organ that is coming into being in the PRC – shall serve no more than two consecutive terms. Why are there term limits for one state official and not the Chinese President and Vice-President?

This blindness to irony or hypocrisy and fundamentally paternalist and non-democratic attitude is unsurprising in societies and polities, which are essentially feudal in nature and/or are used to strong-man/centralised rule such as China or India.

Weakness not Strength

Where once, the CPC thought it could learn from the outside world and control the consequences at the same time or at least that the consequences would not threaten fundamentally threaten its own existence, today the measures undertaken by Xi suggest that such confidence no longer exists.

From the heavy-handed anti-corruption campaign to the ever increasing number of directives and instructions to universities, the media and Party cadre about ideological red lines and the constant drumbeat of state-driven propaganda and adulation of Xi to the extreme surveillance measures used against its own citizens, the Party looks less like the ruling party that it is and more like it is trying to stave off some imminent crisis.

Despite the restrictions on their freedom of expression meanwhile, Chinese citizens have found ways and means to work around censorship using technology as well as their own sarcasm and wit and the extraordinary malleability of the Chinese language itself to make their point.

For instance one image that has gone viral on Chinese social media is of Winnie the Pooh hugging a huge pot of honey and saying in Chinese, ‘Find the thing you love and stick with it’. References to Winnie the Pooh were banned on Chinese social media in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress because it was used to refer to Xi obliquely and the implication of the latest image too is clear.

The very fact that the CPC under Xi finds it necessary to declare the infallibility of the Party and to enshrine it in the PRC constitution – another proposed amendment is the inclusion of the statement ‘the leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – suggests a lack of confidence within the Party about both its role and capability in holding both itself and the country together.

This is not to say that China is falling apart as many Indian strategic analysts appear to hope for but that China’s internal political dynamics deserve greater attention in India for more objective assessments of China’s foreign policy goals and intentions.

The proposed amendments to the PRC constitution and the apparent centralization of power in Xi’s hands point to a fundamental weakness of institutions in China. No rising power can afford to hollow out its own institutions and hand over power to one single individual howsoever brilliant or capable.

The more China sees a centralization of power in an individual or even a coterie of individuals, the less likely it will have the required flexibility to deal with either its internal problems or its external challenges.This, by the way, is as true of democracies as it is of authoritarian states. Indeed, India’s own experiences since Independence should be instructive.

 

This article was originally published as ‘The “Emperor” Has Feet of Clay: Decoding the Xi Jinping Era’, News18, 27 February 2018.