Talk of Li Keqiang being sidelined is not backed by power shuffle

Deng Yuwen and Jonathan Sullivan say Xi's appointments have in fact beefed up the State Council

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 7:06pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 1:53am

The appointment of Premier Li Keqiang to the Communist Party's powerful new state security committee should serve to dampen speculation inside and outside China that President Xi Jinping is weakening the role of his No 2 in a bid to consolidate power.

Li has been named vice-chairman of the National Security Commission following his inclusion in the Central Leading Group for Overall Reform, which is tasked with implementing a bold set of economic reforms. The twin announcement surprised those who argued that Li had been pushed to the sidelines.

There were strong reasons for thinking that Xi was attempting to establish himself as China's most dominant leader since Deng Xiaoping. There was talk of an unsettling move towards "one party, one doctrine, one leader".

Analysts had pointed to Li's lack of involvement in drafting the party's central reform blueprint at the landmark third plenum meeting in November as evidence of his waning authority. Furthermore, since national security is usually the purview of the party's general secretary - currently Xi - some predicted Li would be the one to lose out in any restructuring of power, with the State Council, led by Li, appearing marginalised by the two new agencies.

By far the best way for the party to silence whispers of Xi's push for dominance would have been to appoint Xi as the leader of the National Security Commission and Li the leader of the "leading small group" for reform - a leading small group is a body set up to co-ordinate the delivery of the Politburo's policy decisions.

This approach would have reaped the best rewards. First, although "comprehensive reform" is a crucial goal for the party over the next 10 years, its major focus is restructuring the economy. As leader of the small group for reform, Li would have had the remit to implement the planned reforms quickly and efficiently.

Second, Li is already head of the leading small group for finance, which forms the foundations of the party's economic policymaking. With Li at the helm of both small groups, the possibility of conflicts and discrepancies between the two would have diminished.

If the party believed that, in order to drive forward reforms, Xi needed to take control of the two new organs himself, then its decision to appoint Li as second in command of both is the next best option.

Li's appointment to the National Security Commission sends a particularly strong message because, since Zhou Enlai - premier throughout the Mao era - the main responsibility of the State Council has been China's economic and social development. The premier has seldom had much to do with national security.

Li has not been marginalised in the recent power shuffle for two key reasons. Since he assumed power, Xi has consistently affirmed the importance of the rule of law. By edging out Li, Xi would have undermined his own rhetoric. While he can look to chip away at Li's own personal authority, Xi cannot diminish the decision-making powers of the State Council by excluding Li from the two new organs, which would have effectively rendered it a shell institution.

Secondly, Li enjoys close ties to former president Hu Jintao . Any move to sideline him so rapidly would not be in keeping with the political culture of the party. Appointing Li to both agencies marks a nod of respect to Hu.

Apart from dispelling the rumours about Li's uncertain position, his membership of these two important state bodies in fact signals a strengthening of the State Council. In addition to Li, the reform small group includes all four vice-premiers.

This proves Xi's reforms will not start from scratch, but will proceed within existing structures and personnel. Setting up another set of administrative organs and abolishing the State Council would have been impractical.

It also demonstrates that the extent of Xi's power is probably not as far reaching as many believed, with some commentators speculating that China was returning to the days of a Mao-type strongman.

Xi has certainly demonstrated his strength as a politician, but to deliver concrete reforms he cannot rely on raw power alone.

Within a year of becoming general secretary, Xi has set the party on a clear course towards reform and earned the respect of the Chinese people. But it will take longer for him to establish his authority among bureaucrats and officials; this can only be achieved through tangible results.

The composition of both new agencies portrays a good balance between party and government. Although Xi appears to have a more powerful institutional base than his predecessor, whether this amounts to a "strongman" position is too early to say.

Deng Yuwen is a Beijing-based political analyst and a Chevening Visiting Fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute. Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor and deputy director of the China Policy institute