China’s 20th Party Congress
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Illustration: Brian Wang

China’s party congress promotions to emphasise political security

  • Appointments are expected to sharpen focus on potential threats to the state and draw a line under the corruption scandals of recent years
  • The front runners for the key political and legal roles have all served under the Chinese leader from the beginning of his rise to power
President Xi Jinping is expected to consolidate his reshaping of China’s national security apparatus at the 20th party congress in the autumn, to rebuild the battered reputation of a sector that has been plagued with corruption scandals.

Under Xi’s leadership, Beijing has significantly sharpened and reshaped the country’s zhengfa departments, the political and legal organs that form its security mechanisms.

Observers and insiders expect the process to continue, with appointments that will reinforce Xi’s all-encompassing security vision covering everything from politics, through technology and the Covid-19 response, to food supply.

Gu Su, a political scientist with Nanjing University, said the power of Xi’s allies had been growing for years and is mostly related to national security.

“They have placed a stronger emphasis on political security and become more sensitive as to what constitutes a threat to state security,” he said.


SCMP Explains: How does the Chinese Communist Party operate?

SCMP Explains: How does the Chinese Communist Party operate?

In 2014, two years after taking office, Xi founded and chaired the party’s first National Security Commission, rolling out his vision of “holistic national security”, covering almost all policy areas. A year later, China enacted its first national security law.

Since then, Beijing has repeatedly cited national security concerns when targeting human rights lawyers, the stock market crash and internet companies seeking overseas listings.

The police have also explicitly been charged with maintaining political security. In 2020, Xi conferred the country’s first official police flag on the force, calling for it to be loyal to the Communist Party, serve the people and uphold social order.

The flag was received by Zhao Kezhi, China’s police chief, who pledged on the same day to firmly support Xi to “take the helm” in a country where “law and order” means whatever it takes to provide the security needed by Beijing.

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At the same time the force received its new flag, police chiefs were citing a higher risk of “colour revolution” and political infiltration by Western countries, while China’s top judge declared war against the Western notion of judicial independence.

And the state security agency emerged from the shadows to appeal for the public’s help in spotting spies, while Beijing’s security policies were bulldozed into peripheries like Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

The police force has also taken a leading role in enforcing China’s zero-Covid policy, amid mounting public anger. During Shanghai’s months-long lockdown, it was the police who made sure people reluctant to be relocated to makeshift hospitals followed the government’s orders.

These developments have been underpinned by a deep conviction among the Chinese leadership, including Xi, that competition with the US has created a threat to the party’s grip on power.

In 2014, Xi told a group of top law enforcers from around the country that the US was “leading the West’s efforts” to westernise and split China as a result of the balance of power shifting in Beijing’s favour.

But his definition of threats to political and national security has not convinced everyone.

“This depends on how to interpret political security,” said Bo Zhiyue, a former political-science professor with Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. “There is no apparent threat to the leadership of the CCP as a whole.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping confers the police flag on China’s police force during a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in August 2020. Photo: Xinhua


The reshuffle of the party’s leadership at this year’s congress – including the security chiefs – will take place after a massive purge that has greatly reshaped the top leaders since it began in 2021.

Top officials in the police, prosecutors’ office and courts were sacked in the nationwide purge amid accusations of corruption and political disloyalty. It was rolled out immediately after a campaign to crack down on organised crime that Beijing said had uprooted thousands of gangs around the country.

During the purge – dubbed the education and rectification campaign for political and legal departments – nearly 180,000 cadres in various security positions were handed some kind of penalty, ranging from conviction to disciplinary punishment.

While most were at county level, a parallel anti-corruption campaign among the security apparatus claimed the scalps of some of the country’s most prominent police chiefs.

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They included Sun Lijun and Fu Zhenghua, two former deputy public security ministers, who were sacked amid accusations of political disloyalty and corruption.

They were accused of leading a “political gang” that challenged Beijing, with members including the security chief in Jiangsu province, and the police chiefs in Shanghai, Shanxi, and Chongqing, who have all been arrested on corruption charges.

A retired official formerly in the security area noted that some of the purged big shots had played central roles in some of the country’s most politically controversial cases, including the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based book publishers and the 2015 crackdown on legal activists.

“Sun was known to orchestrate the Causeway Bay bookseller saga, while Fu Zhenghua directed the 709 crackdown on legal activists in 2015,” said the official, who is based in the southern province of Guangdong.

The Hong Kong-based book publishers who disappeared were linked to a local company known for politically sensitive books. All five eventually turned up in the custody of mainland Chinese authorities.


China sentences Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai to 10 years in jail

China sentences Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai to 10 years in jail
Gui Minhai, one of the book sellers, was handed a 10-year sentence by a Chinese court in 2020 for “illegally providing intelligence for overseas entities”.

In the 709 crackdown, more than 200 human rights defenders and lawyers were rounded up and questioned, with some charged with offences ranging from inciting subversion to disrupting public order.

The retired official said the anti-corruption purges had left officials confused, with some he knew considering applying for early retirement.

“Now the first priority goal is to maintain political security and stability, not rule of law or respect for the law,” the official said.

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Rising stars

As the dust of the purges settles, a handful of officials have emerged as front runners to take over the helm of China’s political and legal organs.

Among them is Wang Xiaohong, 64, currently vice-minister of public security, who looks set to become the country’s top police chief. His links with Xi go back to at least the late 1990s in Fujian province.

Wang served under Xi as a police chief from that period through to the 2000s. He was deputy police chief for Fuzhou when Xi was the city’s mayor, and later became deputy police chief for the province when Xi was promoted to governor.

According to a Beijing-based source, Wang had also taken care of Xi’s personal security in those days.


China's 709 crackdown lawyer Wang Yu condemns authorities for the torment of her son

China's 709 crackdown lawyer Wang Yu condemns authorities for the torment of her son
Three years after Xi ascended to the party leadership, Wang was named police chief of the national capital Beijing. A year later, he was assigned as deputy minister of public security.

In November, Wang took over as the ministry’s party chief and is expected to fill the vacancy left by current minister Zhao Kezhi, who is expected to retire in March.

“Past ministers of public security have all been provincial party secretaries before being appointed in the post. If appointed, Wang would be an exception,” said Bo, who now heads the Wellington-based think tank Bo Zhiyue China Institute.

Another rising star is Chen Yixin, the main enforcer of the security apparatus clean-up of the past two years and another Xi protégé.

Chen, 62, served under Xi in the 2000s when the future leader was governor of Zhejiang province in eastern China. He was secretary general of the provincial party committee led by Xi.

In 2015, Chen was moved from Zhejiang to Beijing, to help with the secretariat of the Central Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Leadership Group, founded and chaired by Xi after his rise to the top.

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In 2018, Chen was given his current job as secretary general of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, to help whip the party organ that oversees the entire security apparatus, including police, courts, prosecutors and spies.

Tang Yijun, another protégé of Xi’s from Zhejiang days, is considered a front runner to head either the Supreme People’s Court or the Supreme People’s Procuratorate after the autumn reshuffle.

Tang, 61, was secretary general of the provincial disciplinary committee when Xi governed Zhejiang. In 2016, Tang was made acting mayor and party boss of Chongqing, before moving northeast to Liaoning province as governor the following year. He has been justice minister since 2020.

“They have all been trusted by Xi for a long time,” one Beijing-based source said. “They will almost certainly be promoted and are major leaders in the security sector.”