Will Wang Qishan’s new job become a problem for the Communist Party?
Xi Jinping is expected to install his trusted ally as vice-president, but the question is how he will exercise real power without a senior party position
When China unveils the line-up of its top state leadership on Saturday, one man will probably receive more attention than President Xi Jinping – his trusted ally Wang Qishan.
With Xi’s status a certainty, all eyes will be on whether Wang, who retired from the Communist Party’s top echelon in October, will become the vice-president as expected. If that happens, it will mark a formal return of the 69-year-old to the centre stage of Chinese politics. He will become Xi’s wingman and transform a largely ceremonial position into a real seat of power.
Wang’s comeback has been a focal point of the highly choreographed meetings of the National People’s Congress. Weeks before the legislative sessions, various sources told the South China Morning Post that Wang would be named vice-president. It was all but confirmed by carefully arranged close-ups of Wang appearing on state broadcaster CCTV immediately after Xi and other members of the Politburo Standing Committee – China’s de facto power centre.
“Judging by how [CCTV] showed the top leaders, Mr Wang is essentially presented as No 8 among the top leaders,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist with the University of Chicago.
Most observers agree that Wang will play a prominent role in Chinese politics for the next five years and possibly beyond, but the key question is how he will do it.
The vice-president position has been a largely symbolic role in past decades, but that will not satisfy Wang, who is widely respected for his decisiveness and efficiency.
“He will not simply be playing a ceremonial role as some of his predecessors did, and will thus be able to play an important role on issues Mr Xi decides to involve him in,” Yang said.
Mary Gallagher, director of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, agreed that the role would change with Wang in the job.
“If Wang is indeed appointed vice-president, then I think it is a major change [to the position],” Gallagher said. “It’s possible that Wang will take on a major foreign policy role, especially with the United States, which is not exactly a paragon of stability these days.”
But how will Wang exercise real power without holding a senior position in the party?
In China’s unique political system, it is the party – not the state or the parliament – that holds real power. Most important decisions that shape the trajectory of the rising superpower are made not by government ministers but by those sitting in a dozen “party leading groups”.
Xi uses his president title for diplomatic events, but exercises his power as the party’s general secretary and the head of various leading groups he personally supervises.
The constitution states that the vice-president can “assist” the president in his work and act on his behalf to carry out presidential duties. But most of these duties are nominal, such as signing laws and ratifying treaties. The president can also appoint and remove the premier, vice-premiers and state councillors with approval from the National People’s Congress. Likewise, he can declare war or a state of emergency as well as issuing mobilisation orders if the NPC approves it.
As vice-president, Wang would assume the presidency in an emergency, if Xi was unable to remain in the job. But given Xi’s real power rests with his two other titles – party secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission – this does not make Wang next in line for power succession.
So even as vice-president, Wang is essentially still an ordinary party member, and the question is how he will exert influence and take part in key decision-making – particularly under Xi, who has spared no effort to strengthen the party’s control over the state and society.
Under Xi, the cabinet has been increasingly eclipsed on policymaking by the party’s central leading groups, whose members are mostly senior party leaders. They are usually headed by one of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members with their deputies from the Politburo.
The vice-president can usually sit on the central leading groups for foreign affairs as its deputy head, under the president. But previous vice-presidents – including Zeng Qinghong, Hu Jintao and Xi – were all Politburo Standing Committee members at the time. Li Yuanchao, the current vice-president, was a Politburo member.
If Wang does succeed Li, he will be the first ordinary party member serving as vice-president since Rong Yiren. Rong, head of a powerful business family and whose identity as a party member was not publicised in his lifetime, was given the job after the 1989 crackdown as a gesture of reconciliation. He played no important role under then president Jiang Zemin.
A source with knowledge of the leadership’s thinking said it was unlikely Wang would play any role in the central leading groups. “Wang would not hold any position within the party,” he said, stressing that a seat on the central leading groups was tantamount to a position in the party.
Gallagher from the University of Michigan said Wang could take an “informal” role in the decision-making process. During the early decades under Deng Xiaoping, some party elders were able to participate in policy discussion as “advisers”.
She said Xi may see this as a preferable arrangement as Wang’s authority would not challenge the president’s. With no designated successor in the party, Xi could avoid another power centre from challenging or sharing his absolute authority.
Sources have told the Post that Wang had been given the rare privilege of attending Standing Committee meetings as a non-voting member. Observers said although he was unlikely to cast a vote, he would be able to speak as an elder or adviser.
Wang Zhengxu, a political scientist at Fudan University, said there was enough flexibility within the party system to allow Wang to play a role.
“Sitting in party meetings as a non-voting member is a long-established practice. People get invited based on need and there is a lot of wiggle room in that,” he said.
Such meetings are referred to as “enlarged meetings” in party speak, where outsiders are invited because they are in a field that is relevant to the discussion. The Politburo is most known for holding these.
Deng Yuwen, former editor of a party newspaper, said the practice also existed for Standing Committee meetings.
“Generally speaking, those sitting in the meetings can speak, but they’re not allowed to vote or make formal suggestions,” he said. “However, this totally depends on the leader who presides at the meeting – he has the final say on what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.”
Deng even believed Wang could be appointed deputy head of a central leading group.
“There is no rule in the party prohibiting an ordinary party member from heading central leading groups. All there is are just some precedents where these groups are headed by high-ranking party figures, but precedents are merely precedents,” he said. “All they need to do is convene a Standing Committee meeting and appoint Wang as the deputy head – it’s as easy as that.”
Likewise, while only party leaders of a certain ranking can access classified documents, there is enough flexibility for Xi to give Wang clearance.
Xi has shown that he will not be bound by precedents and traditions. His sweeping anti-corruption campaign, for instance, broke an unspoken rule of not targeting former Standing Committee members. He also failed to follow convention in not signalling a successor by the end of his first term. Now, he has successfully removed the presidential term limit from the constitution, making it possible for him to stay in power beyond 2023.
Nevertheless, the huge gap between Wang’s status as an ordinary party member and high-ranking state office goes against Xi’s broader policy direction, especially his push to blur the line between party and state.
“Having Wang, as vice-president without a senior party position, functioning as No 8 in the leadership and in charge of a major portfolio is problematic for a Leninist system, as the centrepiece of a Leninist system is the party,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute.
“An ordinary party member outranking Politburo members will cause huge concern and discomfort among Politburo members, as well as the wider party establishment.”
But if Wang was asked by Xi to take on a particular portfolio, Tsang said it would be hard to see how the party’s top leadership could block the move.
“The ‘fear factor’ will ensure that Xi will have his way and Wang will be grudgingly accepted for whatever role or roles Xi may assign to him,” he said.
Spearheaded by Wang, Xi’s war on graft and disloyalty has punished more than 1.5 million cadres, instilling discipline and fear into the party ranks and the mass bureaucracy.
“But this is unlikely to be forgotten within the party establishment. It may come back to bite Xi at a later stage in the event that he should make a major policy mistake and the rest of the establishment should sense a serious weakness on his part,” Tsang said.
“Much as Wang is genuinely one of the most able among China’s top-level leaders, assigning him a senior portfolio against party rules and constitutional convention carries such a high implicit political price that it is very doubtful if this would be worth his while,” he said. “If Xi indeed ignores this, it shows how he is already putting himself in a Leninist strongman mode in how he exercises his leadership from this point onwards.”