How a trip to Seoul by special envoy Yang Jiechi shows party’s diplomatic ambitions

Yang Jiechi went to South Korea in a government capacity but also as a Politburo member, as the Communist Party seeks to expand its influence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 6:07pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 10:08pm

High-ranking Chinese politician Yang Jiechi’s two-day trip to South Korea is a sign that the Communist Party aims to take a bigger role in diplomacy, observers say – and the clue was in his three titles.

It came after a major shake-up of China’s government and party agencies was unveiled, along with a personnel reshuffle and constitutional revisions that aim to blur the line between party and state.

Yang went to Seoul on Thursday to share information about this week’s meeting between President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-un says he is ‘committed to Korean denuclearisation’ in Beijing talks

He was sent in a government capacity as Xi’s special envoy – but he was also there as head of the party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission general office, and as a Politburo member.

Until the reshuffle earlier this month, Yang was a state councillor of China’s cabinet when he travelled overseas. While he no longer has that job, he now holds a higher rank within the party after he was promoted to the decision-making Politburo in October.

But the nuances may have been lost on Yang’s hosts – South Korea’s foreign ministry and presidential office said they did not pay much attention to the titles he used for the trip. To them, he was Xi’s special envoy, and his South Korean counterpart was National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong.

Observers said it was appropriate for Yang to travel as Xi’s special envoy, and to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in and other government officials in that capacity. But the fact he was also using the other titles for the trip could indicate the party was trying to expand its influence in Chinese diplomacy.

“Promoting Yang within the Communist Party and sending him to South Korea as Xi’s special envoy may be a sign that the party will take a stronger leading role in diplomatic matters in the future,” said Seok Yong-youn, president of the Korean-Chinese Relations Institute at Wonkwang University.

“As Yang is an expert in diplomacy, I think he will take a lead in the decision-making process and so will ultimately play a role to centralise the diplomatic leadership to the Communist Party ... This is totally natural since Chinese government departments are only the bodies executing party decisions,” he said.

“I think Yang and the Communist Party’s influence in Chinese diplomacy will only grow.”

China unveils bold overhaul to tighten Communist Party control

The government and the party announced plans to restructure their agencies and departments at the annual legislative session earlier this month – a move which will allow the party to consolidate its control across many aspects of Chinese society.

Among the changes, four of the party’s “leading groups” – on financial and economic affairs, cybersecurity, reforms and foreign affairs – have been upgraded as commissions, while several government agencies will be merged with party organs to strengthen the party’s leadership on major affairs, according to a party document.

Pang Zhongying, a senior fellow at Ocean University of China in Qingdao, said there was more focus on the division between party and state in past decades, but the restructuring plan was aimed at blurring that line.

“The party will have an overriding influence and the party and state will be more integrated [after the overhaul],” he said.