Inside Xi Jinping’s inner circle
Unlike other leaders, Xi Jinping has eschewed factional allies in favour of colleagues and friends
Three different Chinese leaders, three separate paths to building their inner circle.
Unlike his two predecessors President Xi Jinping (習近平) has chosen to draw on a stable of close aides and former colleagues whom he first met while posted in various government jobs around the country before ascending to the top office.
Such associates, one could argue, afford a greater degree of trust than factional allies who could have expectations and political debts owed to others.
By contrast, Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Jiang Zemin (江澤民) relied on more established coteries of power. Hu drew on his links to the powerful Communist Youth League to govern, while Jiang was head of the “Shanghai Faction”.
Although Xi is also sometimes called a leader of the “Princelings Faction”– made up of the offspring of party elders – few of those connections serve him in any official capacity.
He worked briefly in Shanghai before being promoted to the central government, but most of his inner circle can be traced back to his time working in the relatively small provinces of Fujian (福建) and Zhejiang (浙江), far from the capital, according to Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan .
“He belongs to none of these factions and thus lacks such a power base, so he needed his own men to assist him,” Zhang said.
The lack of a ready-made pool of talent doesn’t appear to have hindered Xi. He was startling quick to consolidate power after becoming Communist Party general secretary in November 2012 and president in March 2013.
According to Zhang, Xi used promotions, demotions and a nationwide purge to build his core of political support. Just three years into his presidency, Xi has installed former associates from Zhejiang, Fujian, Shanghai and Tsinghua University to key positions in economic policy, propaganda, personnel and security.
Many of these appointments have been as heads of the seven central leading groups, or task forces, that Xi uses to run the party, the state, the economy and the military. The leading groups are more powerful than almost every party or government body.
“Any Chinese leader values political loyalty and will use men they trust,” said Chen Daoyin, an associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. “But Xi has a greater freedom to do it.”
Other aides and associates have been installed as deputies in various departments including propaganda , the organisation department and general offices of the key leading groups.
“These are all important agencies and committees, doing substantial work. They are not ‘flower pots’ or sinecures,” said Andrew Nathan, a political scientist at Columbia University in the United States.
“And the deputy director normally is extremely important, all the more so if that person is the personal representative within an organ of the top power holder [Xi].”
Analysts said that, from Xi’s point of view, what these appointees might lack in government experience they made up for in trust.
“They might not be very familiar with the way of working in the central organs,” Zhang said.
“But they can take up the positions and implement Xi’s will. By giving his associates rocket-like promotion, Xi wants to make sure he has enough men at the ministry level before the 19th party congress [in 2017].”
Added Nathan: “It is less of a collective leadership and therefore it is more decisive. It more closely reflects Xi’s personality and preferences, and hence it is more authoritarian and repressive than it would otherwise be.
“The regime is more able to make bold moves in both domestic reform and foreign policy, some of which may succeed and some of which may fail in costly ways, given that there is a lack of full, rounded debate over such decisions.”
THE CHOSEN FEW
Below is a look at the key players in Xi’s inner circle across three key areas:
Shu – Xi’s former aide in Zhejiang province – was promoted to deputy director of the general office of the Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs, chaired by Xi himself, in November 2014. He had no previous government experience outside of Zhejiang. Shu, 59, has shown a fondness for quoting Mao Zedong in articles he has published.
The leading group, which remained largely mysterious before Xi rose to power, now convenes quarterly meetings and is an important venue for Xi to deliver decisions on economic issues. Unlike the annual central economic work conference – an event inherited from the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao era, where both the president and premier delivered talks on economic affairs – Xi has been the only speaker at meetings of the leading group, according to state media.
Liu, 64, was promoted to the role of director of the financial group’s general office in 2013, months before the party issued a key document that outlines reforms for the next decade. A technocrat, once described by Xi as “very important to me”, Liu had repeatedly emphasised market-oriented reforms. He holds a master’s in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Liu’s official résumé suggests there is no overlap of work experience with Xi. Unlike some recent appointees, Liu had been in the decision-making circle that selects economic polices for more than two decades.
Li, 65, is arguably Xi’s most powerful ally after anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan. However, unlike Wang, who is now 67, Li is almost certain to remain in the Politburo when many of its 25 members will be replaced next year as they will have reached mandatory retirement age.
Li’s ties with Xi go back to the 1980s, when Xi governed Zhengding county in Hebei province and Li was in charge of neighbouring Wuji county. As director of the general office of the Central Committee, Li is tasked with assisting the president on a range of issues, including diplomacy, the economy and legal reforms.
He is one of the office’s most powerful directors of the past few decades. His predecessors did not have seats on the Politburo. He almost always accompanies the president on domestic and overseas trips. He met Russian president Vladimir Putin before Xi visited Russia last March, a sign of the deep trust he enjoys. This year, Li began to make official domestic trips, something extremely rare for a person in his position. He is also the director of the general office of the National Security Commission, a group founded and chaired by Xi.
A colleague of Xi’s from their time in Fujian and Zhejiang province, Huang, 59, is the second-most powerful man in the propaganda department. He was made deputy director in late 2013, two months after Xi delivered a hardline speech about propaganda and ideology. Before moving to Beijing, Huang was party chief of Zhejiang’s capital Hangzhou for three years.
He was appointed provincial propaganda chief in 2007, the final year Xi was in charge of the Zhejiang. He remained mostly out of the spotlight until his promotion in 2014. In an article published in People’s Daily last year, Huang said. the “international environment is getting more complicated, as hostile Western forces intensify [efforts] to divide and Westernise us”. Cadres must be “armed with the spirit [expressed] in Xi’s speeches“.
Ding, 53, was promoted as deputy director of the general office of the Central Committee in 2013. His relationship with the president dates to March 2007, when Xi was named to succeed the disgraced Chen Liangyu as Shanghai party secretary. Ding spent seven months working with Xi on the municipal party committee, before Xi left for Beijing. But it appears that was enough time to win the future president’s confidence. Ding was promoted to the post of secretary general within a couple of months.
Chen, 63, was promoted in 2013 to first deputy of the Central Organisation Department, which oversees cadres at the ministry and provincial level. His posting came less then a year after Xi rose to the top of the party. Chen and Xi were college roommates at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, and Chen spent almost 30 years at Tsinghua after his graduation.
He then served as a deputy party chief at Liaoning province and as vice-chairman of the mainland top science association. Several months after Chen’s promotion to the central organisation department, it issued a landmark document on how cadres were selected for promotion. It effectively overrode the previous mechanism, introduced by Hu Jintao, whereby cadres were chosen based on internal voting.
Xi’s former aide during his tenure as Zhejiang party boss, Chen, 56, was promoted in December as deputy director of the General Office of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensive Deepening Reform, a group founded and chaired by Xi.
As former party boss of Wenzhou (温州), Chen is considered to have played a central role in helping it to recover from its worst debt crisis in decades.
Cai, 60, was reportedly promoted to the newly founded and mysterious National Security Commission in 2014. Cai was Xi’s colleague in Zhejiang and Fujian. Until recently, he was among the very few cadres who used social media. Cai described himself as a Bolshevik online, and before his promotion to Beijing, he repeatedly quoted Xi’s remarks on his Weibo account, referring to him as General Secretary Xi, Xi Dada (father) or Boss Xi.
However, Cai stopped updating his account after his promotion. His social media account on the Tencent microblogging platform had more than 10 million followers. He worked in Zhejiang for nearly 15 years, climbing the career ladder after becoming mayor of the city of Quzhou in 1999. Before that he worked in Fujian, where he was born.
He was appointed executive deputy governor of Zhejiang in 2013. In an unusual move, Cai replied to a complaint made by the mother of a civil servant. After she wrote on Cai’s social media page that her son needed to drink a lot of alcohol at official dinners, Cai, then head of Zhejiang’s organisation department, replied: “Tell me which department your son works in and he won’t have to drink again”.
Fu, 61, is the most notable rising figure within the security apparatus. Previously Beijing’s political chief, Fu was promoted to vice-minister of public security in 2013 – less then a year after Xi rose to the top in the party. Despite his junior position in the ministry, he climbed swiftly and is now ranked first among the seven vice-ministers, after those above him were either removed from the ministry or he bypassed them.
Fu, who has long been known for his high-profile style, made a name for himself after only 74 days as Beijing’s police chief when he closed Heaven on Earth, a luxury nightclub suspected of providing sex. Months after taking up his new job at the Public Security Ministry, he started leading armed patrols by Beijing police forces, but he has been less noticeable in public in the past year.
Fu has not worked directly under Xi, but is known to have played a leading role in bringing to justice former security tsar Zhou Yongkang on corruption and abuse of power, among other charges, in 2013.
Meng, 58, was Xi’s deputy police chief when Xi ruled Zhejiang. He was promoted to vice-minister of public security last year. Meng made his new position well known one month after his appointment by publicly leading a team at the China Securities Regulatory Commission searching for evidence of alleged market manipulation, and declaring that the authorities would go after those responsible for the stock market slump.
Wang, 57, was promoted to the post of police chief of China’s capital city, Beijing, last March. He began his career in Fujian province, where he remained until August 2013. Wang was Xi’s subordinate during the president’s entire stint in Fujian.
During this time, Wang held various positions such as director of the Minhou county public security bureau and director of the Fuzhou public security bureau. He later became the police chief of the city of Xiamen before moving on to Henan province.